Andrew LawrenceCar and Driver
- After more than a year and a half of salvage operations, half of the Golden Ray ship still sits in the Saint Simons Sound off the coast of Georgia, and months of work still remain to complete the removal operation.
- The cargo ship capsized in September 2019 with a full load of about 4200 cars, trucks, and SUVs inside, and more than 1000 of the ruined vehicles have been pulled out of the wreck in the months since.
- Modern American Recycling in Alabama is collecting the vehicles, or what’s left of them, after they’re removed from the Golden Ray salvage site.
Off the coast of Brunswick, Georgia, reporters were invited to get up close to see the situation now that more than 1000 destroyed cars have been excised from inside the wrecked Golden Ray cargo carrier, more than a year and a half into salvage operations. The Golden Ray is the ship that capsized in the Saint Simons Sound in September 2019 with more than 4000 vehicles inside. After all these months, the ship itself is only half gone.
The St. Simons Incident Unified Command is the multi-agency response team in charge of a salvage effort that has persisted for some 600 days. On Monday they not only provided reporters with an update on that work but also an up-close view of the now half-beached ship. These pictures don’t quite do the size and complexity of this engineering operation justice.
The morning conditions were postcard perfect: 70 degrees, no clouds, and relatively calm waters. On the way out to the Golden Ray, our tour boat passed a couple of barges used for staging operations. Overhead, a helicopter scanned for oil pollution; it contributes to a geological survey that updates the carrier’s sea-floor stability for the crew. All told, 7500 people have contributed to the salvage, logging more than a million hours. Meanwhile, support ships have marshaled from all over the country.
The wreck site looks something out of a comic book—vestiges of an intergalactic war, maybe. As we inched closer to the wreck site’s environmental protection perimeter, immediately we were struck by the sight of the fourth slice of the Golden Ray dangling from the mighty VB 10,000 twin-gantry catamaran that does both the cutting and the lifting of this ship.
This fourth cut—Section 7, technically—was the toughest, as it was the segment that comprised the engine room. The heavily reinforced walls around the powerplant was one challenge the salvage team had to grapple with; less obvious, though, is the effect of the “pluff mud,” or thick sea-floor silt, that collects in the sections over the days and weeks at this particularly active confluence of strong currents and shifting tides, making slices heavier by nearly 40 percent. Hence why as we circled around to the back of Section 7, we saw a boat in the gap between it and the rest of the ship blasting water into its once-submerged port side. Every water cannon blast lightens the load a little. Vehicle removals help, too.
The estimated 1000-car count of vehicles already removed from the wreck includes Chevys and Kias from Sections 1, 7, and 8 as well as the odd jetsam that may have tumbled into the sound and still need fishing out. The cars inside the long-gone Section 2, meanwhile, have yet to be all counted, a task that will be done by T&T Salvage. Ultimately, an Alabama-based company called Modern American Recycling is collecting the salt-water-logged jalopies.
On our way back to shore, we passed the barge on which Section 7 will ride down to a Louisiana recycling facility for scrapping. As the salvage effort creeps forward, learned lessons evolve techniques and tools. The VB 10,000 now uses lower-profile chain links, each of which has a much higher tensile strength of around 700 tons—connections that make it easier for this skyscraper-sized “crane saw” to perform simultaneous cuts above and below the water line.
Still, T&T Salvage president Mauricio Garrido expects the Golden Ray operation to continue for “several more months.” What’s more, “It’d be unrealistic to say the next three cuts will go flawlessly,” he said. “I expect we’ll have new challenges.” None loom larger than the imminent hurricane season, which is expected to be even more intense than the one that slowed operations last year. But before you go thinking a potential storm could spray more Golden Ray bits flying across the Georgia shoreline, Coast Guard commander Efren Lopez says that his team and the wreck site are braced for the bad weather—which would only pause operations at the most.
Beyond the hurricane threat, it’ll be interesting to see how the ship’s last two segments are cut without more ship weight as a counterbalance. In the meantime the drama continues on the sound, and I’m not just talking about the Golden Ray salvage. A day before we circled past on our tour, another car carrier steamed past the wreck on its way out to sea called the Helios Ray—the ship that just last month was at the center of an explosive dispute between Israel and Iran in the Persian Gulf.
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