The shipwrecked Golden Ray’s presence on the St. Simons Sound shrunk by about 104 feet and 3,100 metric tons Saturday morning, its recently separated bow hoisted from the water by the towering VB 10,000 crane vessel at around dawn.
The gargantuan chunk of the previously 656-foot-long shipwreck hung suspended in the arch of the crane vessel for several hours Saturday, prompting a steady stream of curious onlookers who braved constant rains from gray skies just to get a look at the three-ring spectacle from the St. Simons Island Pier. As the barge Julie B began patiently sliding between the VB 10,000’s twin hulls, a huge splash burst out of the water around 10:30 a.m.
It was only an SUV plunging from the exposed crosscut of the ship’s decks, just one of some 4,200 vehicles that were on board the Golden Ray when it capsized on its port side while heading out to sea on Sept. 8, 2019.
“I can tell you, it was probably a car,” Chris Graff, of Unified Command’s Gallagher Marine Systems, shared with spectators on the pier.
But that is why the 1-mile perimeter mesh-net barrier was constructed around the shipwreck months in advance of this nuts-and-bolts phase of the salvage operation.
“That’s what the EPB is for,” said Coast Guard Lt. Command Dan Donovan, another Unified Command member who provided knowledgeable commentary to onlookers at the pier. “The EPB’s doing its job.”
Salvors awaited early Saturday afternoon’s slack low tide, the optimum time for dropping the gargantuan chunk of steel from the nation’s largest crane vessel onto the largest barge in the United States. After the VB 10,000 gently placed the hulking ship’s chunk into a cradled space specially designed for it, salvage crews went aboard and welded further steel frame support to the ship beginning late Saturday afternoon.
Around 8 a.m. Sunday, the Julie B backed out of the environmental protection barrier’s east gate with its colossal cargo. The barge then made a head-turning journey up the Brunswick River. The barge arrived at its temporary berth at the salvager’s dry docks site on the East River at the Port of Brunswick, backed by Bay Street in the city, around 11:15 a.m.
Documentarian Josh Gilligan followed the barge’s journey Sunday morning with his camera, marveling at the site of the bow section squeaking beneath the bridge and rising above structures on Brunswick’s horizon along the East River.
“It was cool to see it coming in, towering over buildings,” said Gilligan, part of crew making a documentary about the Golden Ray shipwreck saga. “The size and scope of it is just unreal.”
So, three weeks after it began on Nov. 6, this crucial first cut into the Golden Ray was officially completed at 2:01 a.m. Saturday. That is when a massive anchor chain completed its path through the ship from the bottom up, powered by shearing tension and the VB 10,000’s muscular system of winches and pulleys — all combining in what is surely the world’s largest chain saw.
The bow section was estimated at 104 feet long, 136 feet across and 113 feet high, said Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command. The section weighed about 3,100 metric tons, cargo included. Pickup trucks, SUVs and other vehicles were precariously visible in the 13-deck crosscut of the bow section as it hung in the air, suspended from the arch of the VB 10,000 by cables and sturdy Dyneema rope that connected to the section’s two massive lifting lugs.
Including accumulated sediment and water trapped inside, contractors T&T Salvage estimated the total lift at a mindbogglingly hefty 6,000 metric tons, Himes said. The VB 10,000’s lifting capacity is 7,500 tons.
The plan is to cut the shipwreck into eight sections, hauling each away by barge.
Longtime St. Simons Islander Tom Lines was stirred to come down to the pier about 6 a.m. by the distant sounds emitting from the machinations of that lifting. He lives two miles away on Wood Avenue near Coast Guard Beach.
“I’ve seen a lot going on on St. Simons over the years,” Lines said around 8 a.m., when only a handful had yet ventured onto the pier. “But nothing like this. This just needs to be over with. Let’s get back to St. Simons the beautiful.”
Navy veterans Laurence Toews and Jerry Lipson were just glad they did not miss this momentous occasion. The two have been following the Golden Ray shipwreck from the start, and they drove up on motorcycles from central Florida to be here.
“Seeing a ship like this, man, it’s just crazy,” said Toews, 66, of Orlando. “I never thought I would live to see something like this. It’s just crazy. In my entire life, I’ve never seen anything like this.”
In addition to the central drama focused on the VB 10,000 and the Golden Ray, roughly two dozen smallish vessels were staked out around the salvage site. “Everybody’s out here today,” Donovan said.
The vessels were crewed by debris containment teams, as well as oil skimmer boats. The boats remained in a loose formation but shifted from the east to west sides of the environmental protection barrier, aligning with the incoming and outgoing tides. A spotter in a helicopter overhead coordinated with the crews on the water.
Fuel sheens have already been detected in waters immediately surrounding the shipwreck, and plastic debris has turned up on local shores. Cleanup teams also are patrolling shorelines.
Anyone who spots suspected shipwreck debris along local shorelines is asked to call 912-944-5620. Anyone who spots suspected oil sheens is asked to call 800-424-8802.
Oil containment boom also lines the surface of the environmental protection barrier. Additionally, large V-shaped oil-skimming craft known as current busters are lined up on either side of the barrier.
The barrier’s mesh netting underneath is intended to catch vehicles that shake loose during the salvaging process. The tumbling SUV that splashed into the water at midmorning Saturday was not the first. The helicopter spotter saw a loose vehicle in the water earlier Saturday, shortly after the bow’s lifting, Graff said. There will surely be more, which is why the strong mesh netting is in place.
“At least one vehicle slipped out in between the pieces when they separated,” Graff said. “But the EPB is doing what it’s expected to do.”
Late Saturday evening, the bow section rested on the deck of the Julie B but remained tethered securely to the VB 10,000 overhead. Crews could be seen welding a large triangular bracket into place to steady and hold the section in place, said newly elected incoming Glynn County Commissioner Cap Fendig. The Fendig Tours captain took a boatload of sightseers out to the salvage site Saturday afternoon, being sure to stay outside the 200-yard safety zone bordering the site.
“It looks like an A-frame on a house, to stabilize the bow on the barge,” Fendig reported via cellphone.
The Julie B will eventually return to the salvage site when salvors separate the stern, the next step in the cutting process. The two pieces will be taken to a recycling facility in Gibson, La. The Julie B will then return to continue its task.
The four outer sections of the shipwreck all will go directly to the Louisiana recycling facility. The four interior sections will be hauled to dry-docking site to T&T’s dry docks on the East River. The vehicles that did not fall out during the salvaging process will be retrieved and crushed at the dry docks. The empty interior ship’s sections then will be shipped to the recycling facility. Assisting the Julie B is the barge 455-A.
The VB 10,000 slid back over the half-submerged Golden Ray later Sunday, going this time to the stern on the far end. About 15 to 20 feet of space on either side separates the shipwreck from the VB 10,000’s twin hulls when it straddles the shipwreck. Soon it will begin cutting again, whittling away at what is now a 552-foot-long shipwreck.
And now there are only six more cuts to go and seven more pieces to haul away. Before the actual work began, salvors estimated each cut would take up to 24 hours to complete. While that timeframe now seems overly optimistic, officials are confident the lessons learned in this vexing first cut will help streamline the process on those to come.
Islander Bev Latvala looked out across the water from the pier Saturday and wished the salvors well.
“There have just been so many naysayers,” Latvala said. “And I just said, ‘Don’t you want this to be a success?’ I sure do. I want this to be the most successful salvage operation ever.”