Jul. 24—As the cutting chain churns its way up the path to separate the sixth section from the shipwrecked Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound, folks might reasonably expect salvors to wrap up this latest operation by month's end.
Or by the third week of the Georgia Bulldogs' college football season.
If experience from the five previous efforts to hack away gargantuan chunks of hulking steel from the shipwreck has proved anything, there is no telling what lies ahead for salvors on this recent quest.
Operations have progressed smoothly since cutting began before dawn Thursday to separate Section 6 from the west end of the shipwreck, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.
But few endeavors more clearly exemplify that old saying: It's not over till it's over.
Since work began in earnest last November, each cutting operation has taken anywhere from eight days to eight weeks.
And that comes with an asterisk for the daunting task of removing the engine section (Section 7), which technically dragged on from mid-winter deep into spring. Salvors beat a strategic retreat midway through that effort in late February. They returned to complete the task in April but only after taking a month off to tackle the less-formidable job of cutting away Section 3 from the front end.
Salvors go into this new cut with the herculean challenge of cutting away Section 3 still fresh in their minds. That work began in early May and was not completed until July 1, thwarted by repeated setbacks posed by dense steel support brackets in the cutting path as well as a massive internal fire sparked by a cutting torch.
"To assume we know exactly how long this is going to take would be disingenuous at best," Himes said. "The transparent answer is, we don't know how long it's going to take. The only way to measure progress is by how much is left. We started in November and there were seven cuts. Now we're on the second-to-last cut. This cut is benefitting from the five previous cutting operations, yet each one of those cutting operations bore different results. For us to be able to measure with any uniformity a single cutting operation, that's a lot to expect."
The behemoth shipwreck has commanded a glaring presence in the sound since Sept. 8, 2019 when the 656-foot-long Golden Ray overturned while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles. Nearly two years later, only about 227 feet of the shipwreck remains half submerged in the sound between Jekyll and St. Simons islands.
Unified Command and the salvors realize patience is running thin with many in the Golden Isles, Hime said, and legion are those who want the remaining three sections removed sooner rather than later.
Salvors have encountered setbacks from the get-go, when repeated chain breaks stretched out the cut to remove the bow section (Section 1) for three weeks in November. From then on they began replacing the original grade 3 steel cutting chain with stronger lengths of grade 4 and grade 5 chain.
The cut to remove the stern (Section 7) began Christmas Day and was completed eight days later on Jan. 2. Likewise, the effort to cut away Section 2 was completed in just eight days, March 7 to March 15.
Salvors are working to ensure similar quick results.
In preparation for cutting through Section 6, they have worked in a custom-ordered section of high-strength grade 5 steel cutting chain, Himes said. The section of grade 5 chain is 316 continuous feet with no connecting links, further increasing its strength, he said. Chain typically is distributed in 90-foot lengths known as "shots," which require connecting links to create something longer.
Himes said the long, customized grade 5 chain will be in the thick of it throughout the cut. The chain's journey up through the exterior steel and the 12 interior decks is powered by the twin-hulled VB 10,000's system of pulleys, wire rigging and winches.
Each cut starts with 400 feet of cutting chain. Much of this is worked out of commission as the chain progresses and slack is taken up to maintain the force of tension needed to tear chain through steel. Each link on the cutting chain is 18 inches high, 3 inches around and weighs 80 pounds.
"Not all of the cutting chain goes through the entire ship," Himes said. "But they've got that grade five chain in the area where it can do the most work."
No one would be happier than the crew at T&T Salvage to see Section 6 dispatched within eight days instead of eight weeks.
"They are proceeding as planned," Himes said. "No word about heavily reinforced steel in the path, but they have contingency plans in place if that happens. They're confident this cut will progress steadily from start to finish without interruption."
Crane crews were busy this week in the days leading up to the start of cutting on Section 6. A crane atop a barge plucked 55 vehicles from the water inside the 1-mile perimeter environmental protection barrier (EPB) that surrounds the shipwreck, Himes said. Another crane barge pulled five sections of loose interior decking from the water, Himes said.
Untold dozens, perhaps hundreds, of vehicles have spilled from the shipwreck's cargo hold during separation and removal of each section, Himes said. Numerous sections of interior decking also have come loose, he said. More than 120 vehicles have been removed from inside the EPB since April, Himes said.
It is not known how many loose vehicles are inside the EPB, Himes said. Although numerous vehicles have splashed into the water after separated sections were lifted above it by the VB 10,000, most have fallen out below the surface. The majority of these stray vehicles appear to be gathering in deep "scouring bowls," formed by swift tidal currents in the sound's sandy bed where the Golden Ray's bow and stern once rested, Himes said.
These loose vehicles and deck pieces are located with hydrographic technology. Giant grappling claws lowered on cables by the cranes hoist the vehicles and decking from the water and load them onto barges for removal, he said.
Himes said surveys indicate that no vehicles or decking have escaped the confines of the EPB. The EPB will remain in place until all vehicles and debris within it are fished from the water, he said.
"The barrier is there to prevent that debris from tumbling into the sound," he said. "It's clearly worked because look how much we've removed from within it. And based on surveys we've conducted so far we are confident that no vehicles have gone beyond the barrier."
Unified Command crews conduct regular testing of the local waters. Himes said testing shows no lasting pollution in the waters, despite numerous oil leaks from the shipwreck and the presence of gas and automotive fluids in the vehicles. Unified Command has responded to each of the oil leaks with a flotilla of cleanup crews as well as teams that police the shorelines to pick up debris and oil globules.
"We have conducted water quality samplings before, during and after a cut and have performed routine sampling on a monthly basis," he said. "So far, the analysis is that the water quality has been ensured."
Cleanup crews patrolled 125 miles of shoreline this week, picking up shipwreck debris and some oil globules in the surrounding marsh and beaches, Himes said. Crews on the water detected and addressed light oil sheens near the shipwreck this week as well, he said.
Unified Command consists of the Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems. It is responsible for ensuring that the ship's insurer and owner abide by environmental protection guidelines established by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
Anyone who spots shipwreck debris on the shoreline is asked to call the Debris Reporting Hotline at 912-944-5620. Anyone who spots suspected oil on the shoreline or water is asked to call the Coast Guard's National Response Center at 800-424-8802.