Shipwreck cutting expected to resume this week

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Jun. 22—The VB 10,000 crane vessel moved back into position Tuesday morning over the remains of the shipwrecked Golden Ray in the St. Simons Sound, more than a week after cutting operations stopped for maintenance, said U.S. Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, spokesman for Unified Command.

Weather permitting, cutting should resume this week, Himes said.

Salvors spent the downtime changing out worn pulleys that attach the cutting chain to the VB 10,000's winches, which power the chain's progress up through the shipwreck. Salvors are putting in a set of fresh standby pulleys that have been stored in the arching rafters of the 255-foot-tall crane vessel, Himes said.

The worn pulleys were trucked to a facility in Houston, Texas, for repair and maintenance, Himes said.

Salvors are seven weeks into efforts to cut through the shipwreck's foremost section, known as Section 3.

"The plan for today, weather permitting, is to shift the VB back over to the cutline and then start the rigging process," Himes said Monday. "Then we can start getting the (pulleys) connected to the chain and do some final inspections and start the chain cycling again. We expect to resume cutting operations as soon as the next couple of days."

Salvors began the fifth cut into the half-submerged shipwreck on May 6. The efforts to cut through Section 3 have been slowed by massive steel brackets up to 2-feet-thick in areas where the Golden Ray's 12 interior decks are secured to its vertical steel girders, Himes said.

This cut also was stymied by a massive fire on May 14, which was sparked by a welder's torch and fueled by hundreds of vehicles in the cargo hold.

The cutting chain has been paused several times during the cut, allowing rope access technicians (RATs) to make precise alterations in the Section 3 cutting path. They have used the 6-foot-long welding torches to make alterations to avoid the thick steel brackets. A welder was conducting just such work when his torch sparked a fire, which spread quickly to other vehicles in the cargo hold above the water line.

Pulleys connect the chain to the elaborate system of wiring that winds through the VB 10,000's powerful winches. The chain cuts by force of tension, the winches pulling it up one side and down another in a slow, tedious cycle. When wire connecting at one end of the chain is spooling out, wire is spooling in on the other end of the chain, creating a sawing motion.

Stress of these cycles inevitably creates wear on the pulleys, Himes said.

Salvors refer to the pulleys as blocks, even though they look pretty much like a gigantic version of a pulley one might purchase at a hardware store. But salvors also refer to the VB 10,000's lifting blocks as blocks. The lifting blocks are employed when severed sections of the shipwreck are hoisted from the water and placed on barges.

The lifting blocks look pretty much like a gigantic version of a rectangular-shaped child's block.

"The cutting operation and the tension used has put quite a bit of force on those blocks," Himes said, referring to the pulleys that were sent to Houston for maintenance and repair. "Naturally, in the process of this job, certain parts are going to wear down and need to be replaced."

The interior mechanisms of the pulleys consist of several discs, which salvors refer to as "sheaths," Himes said. These are the primary worn parts that are being addressed, he said.

Salvors also used the pause in cutting to perform repairs on the shipwreck's lifting lugs, which were damaged by intense heat during the fire, Himes said. The giant lifting lugs were affixed to the starboard hull in advance of cutting operations.

The VB 10,000's lifting blocks attach to the shipwreck's lifting lugs during removal.

Workers have removed and repaired heat-deformed side plates on Sections 4, 5 and 6, Himes said.

The cut to separate Section 3 is about three-fourths complete, Himes said.

The 656-foot-long Golden Ray overturned between Jekyll and St. Simons islands on Sept. 8, 2019, while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.

The four sections already removed were transported via barge to a recycling facility in Gibson, La. About 300 feet of the shipwreck remains in the sound.

Himes said salvors are more concerned with safety and environmental protection objectives than with the time consumed by each cut.

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