A knuckle boom excavator picks up 1-to-3-inch rock-aggregate from a container barge in St. Simons Sound, Georgia, Oct. 29, 2019. The excavator guided by sonar and GPS, strategically places the rock next to the hull of the Golden Ray to slow erosion.
Photo: St Simons Response Unified Command
Photo: St Simons Response Unified Command

Shipwreck could be in St. Simons Sound until late 2020

It will take at least until the end of next year to remove the massive shipwreck from the St. Simons Sound, said local officials this week. The Golden Ray, a 656-foot ship carrying more than 4,000 vehicles as cargo, ran aground in early September after leaving the Port of Brunswick. All crew members were rescued, and a group of agencies began the long process of racing to protect the environment while also making plans to move the ship out of the water. 

Removal plans have not yet been released, but officials have said the target date for removal is the end of 2020, said Petty Officer Michael Himes, a spokesperson for the Unified Command team which includes the U.S. Coast Guard, state officials, Gallagher Marine Systems and other partners.

“Due to the complexity of the engineering that goes into moving something like this, the Unified Command agreed to allow more time for contractors to submit a plan,” Himes said. 

Similar wreck removals have taken two to three years to complete. The Tricolor, a cargo ship which sank in 2002 in the English Channel with 2,800 cars on board, took two years to cut and remove. It took three years to cut and completely remove the Baltic Ace and its cargo of 1,400 cars from the waters off the Dutch coast where it sank in 2012. 

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In the meantime, workers in St. Simons Sound continue to recover fuel from the vessel. Only in the past two weeks or so has the vessel been stable enough to allow divers to enter the engineering and steering rooms to remove additional fuel. About 317,000 gallons of fuel have been removed so far, officials said. 

Response crews repel into the hull of Golden Ray and clear a path for oil spill equipment to safely remove oil from the steering gear room, St. Simons Sound, Georgia, Nov. 5, 2019. The complex pollution recovery and mitigation operations in a ship of this magnitude demand methodical planning and meticulous execution. 
Photo: St Simons Sound Response Unified Command

Last month, response crews placed 1 to 3 inches of rocks next to the hull of the vessel to prevent erosion. The rocks have helped stabilize the ship, which is sitting firm on the bottom of the sound with a list that has fluctuated between 90 and 99 degrees, officials said. The ship is currently registering slight millimeter shifts, but even tiny movements can have a huge impact on the removal process. 

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Salvage crews announced previously that they would cut the ship in pieces to remove it from the water. Even small changes in the data or positioning of the ship can impact those plans, said Himes. Factors such as the kind of equipment that will be needed and where the equipment will come from may change as conditions change -- all of which can take time to figure out. “Our No. 1 objective is the safety of responders and the public and ... environmental safety,” said Himes. “Unified Command is holding this removal plan to the safest possible option for the environment.” 

Though the removal will take time, the port seems to have returned to normal.

Salvaging cargo ships often is a painstaking process that involves millions of dollars. The 656-foot Golden Ray overturned near the Port of Brunswick in early September.

On  Nov. 14, Unified Command and  Georgia Ports Authority expanded commercial vessel traffic operations to 24 hours in the Port of Brunswick, the second-largest hub in the U.S. for the import and export of vehicles. “Reopening the Port of Brunswick to around-the-clock transit means greater flexibility for the shipping lines that call on Brunswick, and more timely service for auto manufacturers and other cargo owners,” said GPA Executive Director Griff Lynch in a statement.

Inbound and outbound commercial vessels will be allowed to pass one at a time for the safety of response crews who continue working to remove the Golden Ray from the water. 

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