Final showdown: Last lifting looms in shipwreck salvage

·5 min read

Sep. 26—And then there was one.

Guided by tugboats, a dry dock barge carrying the next-to-last section of ship wreckage of the vessel Golden Ray glided out of the St. Simons Sound before sunrise Sunday.

Departing for the East River in Brunswick, the barge and its colossal cargo left behind the last vestige of the 656-foot-long car carrier that overturned in the water between St. Simons and Jekyll islands more than two years ago. At 80-feet-long and 4,909 metric tons, Section 4 of the shipwreck now appears small compared to the nearby VB 10,000 crane vessel that will soon dispatch with it.

The sun rose Sunday to a view of the VB 10,000 and the half-submerged Section 4 poised a short distance apart from each other inside the 1-mile-perimeter environmental protection barrier (EPB) that surrounds the salvage site. The VB 10,000 "will undergo a period of routine maintenance," said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command. At it has done seven times previously, the twin-hulled crane vessel will soon straddle Section 4, hoist it from the water and load it onto a barge deck for transport out of the sound.

And that will be the last of the massive shipwreck's blemish on the seascape between the two resort islands on the Georgia coast.

Meanwhile, with its 3,300-metric-ton cargo stretching to more than 130 feet above the deck, the barge carrying Section 5 arrived at a temporary berth at Mayor's Point Terminal on the East River in Brunswick a couple of hours later Sunday. The barge and cargo are docked beside the city's Mary Ross Waterfront Park. Like the three other middle sections of the shipwreck, Section 5 is destined for further dismantling at a site nearby at 615 Bay St. on the East River.

The smaller chunks of wreckage will then be transported to the Modern American Recycling Services (MARS) facility in Gibson, La. Because they suffered less damage during the capsizing, the four outer sections of the shipwreck all were transported whole directly to MARS.

Two weeks of behind-the-scenes work ended with a flurry of activity on the water over the weekend. After completing a two-week project to construct a sturdier cradle on its deck, the barge received Section 5 at around noon Saturday.

Guided by the tugboats Kurt Crosby, Crosby Star and the Caitlin, the barge slid beneath the hulls of the VB 10,000, which had held the 3,300-metric-ton Section 5 suspended in its towering arches for three weeks.

The mighty crane vessel then eased this midship section of wreckage onto the deck and into its specially designed cradle shortly before 1 p.m.

"They are lowering the section," Himes said at the time. "They are carefully lining it up with the cradle system."

The section's damaged port side rested on the barge deck with the starboard hull side climbing to 135 feet overhead. Section 5 is 74 feet long. Like all eight sections of the shipwreck, its beam is 135 feet and it is 113 feet from keel to deck.

All seven sections have been lifted and transported as they lie in the sound — port side down, starboard side up.

Workers then boarded the barge and secured the massive section to the barge deck by welding it into the cradle. The newly built cradle consists of large steel beams protruding from both sides of the deck.

The Golden Ray overturned on its port side into a sandbar beside the shipping channel on Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,161 vehicles.

Salvors commenced in November 2020 on the operation to employ the VB 10,000 to cut the half-submerged shipwreck into eight pieces for removal from the sound.

Powered by the VB 10,000's systems of powerful winches, pulleys and wire rigging, the VB 10,000 pulled a massive cutting chain through the seventh and final cut into the half-submerged ship wreckage on Sept. 4.

Engineers and salvage masters confirmed their concerns nearly a week later that Section 5 suffered more damage than could be foreseen. That is when the VB 10,000 lifted the section completely out of the water to give the experts their first glimpse of the damage to the wreckage's port side hull. Much of the entire port side outer hull is missing from this section of the shipwreck. Himes said earlier this week that the missing hull portion is likely resting on the seabed floor where the Golden Ray smacked into the sandbar.

Section 5 and Section 4 comprised the Golden Ray's midship, which suffered the brunt of impact when the vessel capsized. Salvors anticipated significant damage to Section 5, but it could not be confirmed because the midsections of the shipwreck were imbedded in the sandy bottom all this time.

Once the severity of the damage was confirmed, salvage experts had to design and construct "a more robust" cradle on the barge deck to safely secure the shipwreck section for transport, Himes explained.

Each transport barge previously had a specially designed cradle on its deck, consisting mainly of several large steel posts onto which the shipwreck section was welded securely by its keel. Because of the additional damage to Section 5, engineers added several more of these steel structures to secure the section on the opposite side as well.

Design and construction of the reinforced cradle system began about two weeks ago.

It remains to be seen whether damage to Section 4 is extensive enough to warrant similar modifications to the salvage effort's final lifting and transport operation.

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