VOYAGES — Hurricane Season Delays Removal Of Massive Shipwreck

An engineering marvel at the Port of Fernandina, the VB 10,000 is the answer to removing Georgia’s massive shipwreck.

Georgia’s “Golden Isles” have had a not-so-golden situation for over a year now. A massive car carrier, ironically named the “Golden” Ray, became the biggest shipwreck in America. Twelve months later, it’s still in the St. Simons Sound located between two Georgia sea islands. (See aerial video of the Golden Ray shipwreck further below).

Fernandina Beach became tethered to this shipwreck of epic size ever since the golden arches of the VB 10,000 appeared on the horizon in the Atlantic Ocean off Amelia Island’s shoreline.

Largest Lift Vessel In The USA

Here in Fernandina Beach, many have seen the answer to removing southeast Georgia’s shipwreck. It towers above everything around it. The VB 10,000 is a twin-gantry, twin-barge catamaran, the “largest lift vessel ever built in the United States,” according to Versabar. At 25 stories, it’s more than three times taller than any building on Amelia Island, and can lift 7,500 tons.

This engineering marvel arrived at the Port of Fernandina the first week of July 2020. Now in late September 2020, it remains in waiting mode for a green light to navigate north to the St. Simons Sound. Shipwreck removal operations were put on hold until peak hurricane season passes.

Golden Ray Car Carrier

A 25,000-ton ship, the Golden Ray, a 656-foot long car carrier, rolled over in the St. Simons Sound a year ago on September 8, 2019 with over 4,200 vehicles on board.

When you have a gigantic shipwreck, you need something supersized to handle it. The VB 10,000 lift vessel’s more common job is working on offshore oil platforms — installing them, decommissioning them, and sometimes recovering them when a hurricane has toppled one.

Capsized Cargo Ship

The Golden Ray will be cut into eight sections utilizing the VB 10,000. An anchor chain will rip through the hull, with each section to be hauled away by barge. Each cut is anticipated to take 24 hours, and be an incredibly loud process. Estimated time to move each section is one week, so it’s projected to be an 8-week operation.

“Way Above Media” YOUTUBE Video, Golden Ray shipwreck

Also see another video, the “St. Simons Sound Wreck Removal Animation,” toward end of this article showing how the VB 10,000 will handle this enormous job.

Unified Command Operation

The U.S. Coastguard, the Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources, and contractor, Gallagher Marine Systems make up the “Unified Command” handling this challenging shipwreck operation.

Waiting Out Peak Hurricane Season

The VB 10,000 has been on an extended stay here in Fernandina Beach, waiting to remedy the capsized car carrier. Already in Fernandina almost three months, it’s anticipated to head north to the shipwreck around early October. (This video shows when the VB 10,000 first moored in Fernandina).

An extremely complex operation to begin with, additional delays had set in with the emergence of the pandemic. Some workers on the job had tested positive for COVID-19 and quarantines set back the operation’s schedule.

Delays in Salvage Operation

The goal had been to start cutting the wreck in June with the ship anticipated to be gone before the height of hurricane season. Unfortunately, it’s become a waiting game with fingers crossed that no hurricane approaches the area for the remainder of the 2020 season.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic basin is experiencing an extremely active hurricane season. In fact, five tropical storms were in the basin at the same time on September 14, 2020. That hasn’t happened in nearly 50 years, dating back to September 1971. There have been so many tropical storms this hurricane season, the list of names was exhausted. Now the Greek alphabet is being use (Alpha and Beta named storms as of Sept. 18th).

How Does The Heavy Lift Crane Work?

Local residents may have wondered how the massive structure at the Port of Fernandina actually will work to cut up the Golden Ray.

It’s interesting to see how this familiar sight downtown will be utilized.

Senator Perdue: “Imminent Environmental Threat”

Some environmental groups have been concerned about potential hazards at the shipwreck site in the St. Simons Sound. A Georgia Senator is also worried about the “what ifs” in the event that a major storm approaches the coast. Expressing “disappointment” with the decision to delay the removal operation by two months to wait out peak hurricane season, was U.S. Senator David Perdue (Georgia).

Senator Perdue, in a July 28, 2020 letter to Admiral Jones (District Commander, US. Coast Guard), said the following:

“In a March court ruling in Brunswick, Judge Lisa Godbey Wood (SDGA) clearly laid out the risks in delayed action, saying, “As long as [the ship] remains in the St. Simons Sound, this community’s waterways, coastline, and various important forms of marine life face an imminent environmental threat. Time compounds that threat.” With your most recent decision, Georgians now face the sobering fact that at best, the wreckage will likely remain in the St. Simons Sound into late 2020; and at worst, a major storm will upend all efforts and create an environmental catastrophe.”

Fires, Falling Cars & More?

What’s expected to occur at the shipwreck site when the operation begins to cut up the car carrier? There will be extraordinary noise during the cutting and also anticipated are fires, falling cars, and oil release. An environmental protection barrier and oil booms placed at the site are described below.

Golden Ray Shipwreck Environmental Protection Barrier, Unified Command
SOURCE: Unified Command
Cost Estimates — Hundreds of Millions

So who’s paying for this enormous marine operation? The South Korean car carrier, the Golden Ray, is owned by Hyundai Glovis. The responsibility for cleanup and removal of the shipwreck falls on the ship owner and insurer. Early reported estimates of the potential cost were over 400 million dollars. The Unified Command makes sure the job is performed per the rules of OPA (Oil Pollution Act of 1990).

Everything considered, the situation could have been worse, since some of the ship’s crew were initially trapped inside. A daring rescue mission a few days after the ship capsized successfully freed the men with no loss of life, as America and the world watched. Finding the men alive and getting them out was a global story that attracted the attention of worldwide media.

The Golden Ray sits on the edge of the shipping channel, so not actually blocking daily marine traffic in and out of the Brunswick port. Apparently, the harbor pilot on board successfully ran the ship aground on the south side of the channel.

While some oil and fuel initially reportedly leaked from the ship (that was contained), it appears a worse case environmental calamity was avoided to date. Hurricane season continues through November 30th.

What Caused The Shipwreck?

What went wrong to cause the ship to roll over? Apparently it had to do with unstable loading of the huge car carrier. A Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board hearing to investigate this matter just shed some light this past week. A naval architect with Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Center testified Sept. 22, 2020, the last day of the hearing. “The cause of the vessel capsizing was lack of righting energy due to the way the vessel was loaded,” said Coast Guard Lt. Ian Oviatt.

What could have changed the fate of the Golden Ray? Reportedly, rearranging the vehicles on the deck or the addition of 1,500 gallons of water in the ship’s ballast tanks may have made the difference to avoid capsizing.

Sea Islands — St. Simons & Jekyll

The Golden Ray can be seen from the south shore of St. Simons Island, Georgia. It also can be seen from the north shore of nearby Jekyll Island. Some have found the enormous over turned ship and the activity around it this past year a novelty to see. It’s certainly not something many people ever see during their lifetime, in person.

However, it’s not really the type of desirable waterfront view that any upscale island tourist destination wants off their shoreline. Plus, far more serious would be any potential environmental impact.

Fingers are crossed that by year end 2020, the bulk of the shipwreck removal is successfully completed, and the incident will become one for the history books.

According to a St. Simons Sound incident report, on September 23, 2020, an “anchor-hauling tug was brought in to set the array of anchor moorings for the VB 10,000 heavy lift crane,” and the moorings were tested. With the shipwreck site being readied, the golden arches that have become a familiar fixture at the Fernandina riverfront will be departing in the near future.

The massive VB 10,000 will be remembered here in Fernandina for a long time. It’s likely that many thousands of photos of the huge heavy lift vessel at the Port are on the cell phones of local residents and visitors, and up in the cloud.


By The Editor

Observations of island life, news & opinion by Wendy Lawson. With background that began at a newspaper, she later spent 14 years in the financial services and real estate industries (managing editor at an equity research publishing firm). She's enjoyed the laid-back Amelia Island lifestyle since 1993.