Curiosity drove a steady stream of traffic Friday to the south end parking lot of Brunswick’s Mary Ross Waterfront Park, where folks hoped to bid farewell to the hulking stern section of the shipwrecked Golden Ray.
Next door to the park, at the Mayor’s Point docks, preparations continued throughout the day to ready barge 455-A and its 6,250-metric-ton cargo for the journey to MARS, an acronym for the Modern American Recycling Facility in Gibson, La. It’s where the monstrous chunk of steel was heading when the barge finally shoved off around 4:30 p.m.
In addition to the locals who stopped by, vehicles bearing license plates from Illinois, South Carolina and various other states helped fill the parking spaces at that end of the city park.
An Illinois resident visiting friends and family on St. Simons Island, Pete Poletti, nearly missed the stern, which blended with the graying afternoon rain clouds on the downtown horizon.
The stern is fastened to the barge deck, its wide beam climbing 135 feet high.
“I drove over here (from St. Simons Island) and I’m thinking, ‘Where’s it at, where’s it at?’ Then it was like, ‘Oh!’” Poletti said, slowly craning his neck skyward for emphasis. “’There it is.’”
Poletti has made several trips down since the 656-foot-long Golden Ray capsized on Sept. 8, 2019, with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. But seeing this one section up close put the overall scope of the salvage operation in better perspective.
The 255-foot-tall, twin-hulled VB 10,000 crane vessel, which serves as the muscle for the cutting and lifting at the wreck site, grew in comparative stature for Poletti.
“I’ve been following this since it turned over,” Poletti said. “But you don’t grasp how big the Vesabar (VB 10,000) is until you see this piece standing alone. And you think, ‘The Vesebar lifted this up out of the water?’”
The stern’s departure marked the second section of the Golden Ray to leave local waters since the salvage operation began in earnest on Nov. 6. That is when the VB 10,000 began powering an anchor chain up through the bow section of the half-submerged Golden Ray. After many setbacks and adjustments and tropical weather delays, the chain completed its cut of the bow section three weeks later on Nov. 28.
The bow section departed from Mayor’s Point on Dec. 22 aboard the barge Julie B and arrived at the 47-acre MARS recycling facility on Dec. 30.
The crane vessel is now preparing to cut off the shipwreck’s next rearmost section, which includes the ship’s engine and engine room.
It will mark the third of seven planned cuts into the shipwreck, with the intention of separating it into eight pieces for removal from the sound.
Although the salvage operation is going much slower than officials had originally projected last summer, there is evidence of growing momentum, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.
Consider, he said, that 49 days elapsed between the start of the first cut on Nov. 6 and the start of the second cut on Dec. 25. If work on separating the engine room section begins as planned next week, that would mark three weeks or less between the start of the second cut and the start of the third cut, he said.
“If we can start cutting next week, the elapsed time between the start of the second cut and the start of the third cut will be half the amount of time between the starts of cuts one and cuts two,” Himes said. “So we have measurable signs of progress.”
The ship’s engine is the receptor of numerous fuel pipes, which likely contain thousands of gallons of oil. It is oil that could not be reached during operations in late 2019, during which some 320,000 gallons of oil were pumped from the shipwreck’s tanks.
The salvaging company has taken numerous steps to contain any spillage. Thirty patrol boats with oil removal gear are the failsafe.
Brunswick resident Aniko Borbach hopes the crews remain diligent. She works on Jekyll Island and has seen fuel sheens on water’s surface nearshore.
“I see the oil out on the edge,” said Borbach, a native of Hungary. “This is not good for the fish, for the birds. It’s very sad, but I am glad it is moving along.”
Anyone who finds suspected shipwreck debris along the shorelines is asked to call 912-944-5620. Anyone who detects suspected oil leaks from the shipwreck is asked to call 800-424-8802.