As salvors close in on completion of the crucial first cut into the shipwrecked Golden Ray, the last thing workers need is public distractions.

But such disturbances are occurring with vexing frequency inside the safety zone of the salvage operation on the St. Simons Sound, officials say. And it’s not as if Unified Command has not warned these very same people over and over — recreational boaters and drone pilot hobbyists.

So, here it is again: Recreational boaters or otherwise unauthorized vessels are to keep a 200-yard distance from the environmental protection barrier that surrounds the shipwreck. Drones are forbidden from flying over the salvage site. Period.

Despite repeated notices, such intrusions from both water and air are a continuing problem, said Unified Command, which includes law enforcement from both the federal and state levels.

“Our crews are working under very challenging conditions,” said Unified Command incident commander Tom Wiker, of Gallagher Marine Systems. “Recreational boats impeding the safety zone and drone activity in the area where our teams are actively working can be a distraction that leads to a mishap or injury. We ask that people please respect the safety zones as they are in place for the safety of the public and responders.”

Meanwhile, the formidable chain that has been shearing the bow off of the shipwreck has gnawed its way through the thick structural steel of the keel and advanced to the top of the hull. On the opposite side, the chain has cleared the ship’s deck, which faces St. Simons Island. The 656-foot-long Golden Ray has sat half-submerged on its port side since Sept. 8, 2019, when it overturned in the sound while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.

T&T Salvage, the contractor hired by the ship’s owner and insurer, plans to cut the ship into eight pieces. The 2,700- to 4,100-ton pieces will be hoisted from the water by the colossal VB 10,000 crane vessel, which also is powering the chains that are cutting up the shipwreck.

The specially designed barge that will take the bow section when it is separated from the ship remains on standby at the Port of Brunswick, Unified Command said. The ship has a cradle designed to accept the ship sections and barrier walls border the decks to prevent oil or other pollutants from spilling over the sides in the process.

This first cut began Nov. 6 and has been hampered by breaks in the chain, a tropical storm threat and other challenges. Crews have replaced the links in the chain with links forged of a stronger steel. They also have adjusted the angle of the chain to increase tension on the cuts. Salvors originally estimated each cut would take approximately 24 hours.

Salvors are optimistic that lessons learned during this demanding first cut can be applied to shorten the process on future cuts, Unified Command said.

As the cut has driven deeper into the interior of the ship, debris has begun washing up on shore and oil sheens have been detected on the immediate waters surrounding the Golden Ray, Unified Command said. Debris ranging from bits of plastic to what appeared to be a car bumper have washed ashore near the shipwreck, some it oiled, according to Unified Command.

Trained cleanup crews attached to the operation regularly patrol the shores and pick up debris. If beachgoers spot what they believe to be shipwreck debris, they are asked to call the Debris Reporting Hotline at 912-944-5620. Unified Command asks that folks do not touch suspected debris.

“Responders evaluate each report, survey the vicinity and recover any shipwreck debris in addition to their daily surveys of the water and shoreline,” a Unified Command statement said.

The 1-mile perimeter environmental protection barrier that encloses the shipwreck includes sturdy mesh netting to contain loose cars and other large debris and an oil retention boom lining its surface. Boat crews patrol the water to address oil leaks and floating debris beyond that.

Unified Command consists of the U.S. Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems. It is responsible for ensuring that the salvage operation adheres to environmental protection standards established the by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

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