Tracking the long, strange trip of the Golden Ray

A boat carrying 4,200 cars capsized in St. Simons Sound in September 2019—and it’s still there.

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People began to gather on the pier at daybreak—in ones and twos at first, dog walkers and early birds and retirees, but the crowd grew as the sky lightened and the sun pierced the horizon over the ocean.

Actually, the sun was not the only thing piercing the horizon. Some improbable object, too, chugged steadily forward across the water. From the pier, it looked like St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, but yellow and sort of steampunk—less like a boat than a piece of heavy construction equipment. Which, essentially, it was: The VB 10,000, as the machine is called, is a heavy-lift vessel, the biggest of its kind built in the United States, and it had sailed from Florida. Its destination was the Golden Ray, a 656-foot freighter that capsized in St. Simons Sound with some 4,200 cars on board, the largest cargo shipwreck in United States coastal waters since the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989. The ruined vessel had lain there for more than a year. And the VB 10,000, which could lift 7,500 tons—built by the company Versabar to install oil platforms, or salvage those wrecked by hurricanes, in the Gulf of Mexico—was here to clean up the mess.

The VB 10,000 sailed up a shipping lane that runs, straight as an airport runway, from the open ocean through the straits between Jekyll and St. Simons Islands. Crews approaching at dawn see Georgia’s coastal islands—with Cumberland way over to the left, Sea Island on the right—lit up by the rising sun. Eventually, the scene narrows to reveal the condo-lined beaches of St. Simons at starboard and the forested shores of Jekyll on the port side. The Sidney Lanier Bridge rises in the background of this tableau, with the colonial-era city of Brunswick just beyond.

The Port of Brunswick is one of the busiest on the East Coast for a specific kind of traffic: the enormous, car-carrying vessels known as ro/ros, for “roll on, roll off.” They’re basically floating parking garages, with thousands of vehicles in their holds that can be loaded or unloaded via a ramp that lowers off the ship. Brunswick is a conduit for imports and exports of 12 major auto brands, including BMW and Mercedes-Benz USA. The Golden Ray had just picked up a load of Kia Tellurides and other vehicles when it tilted over.

Now, the ship rested on its side on a sandbar, its big maroon keel pointing southwest, visible from Highway 17 and the surrounding islands. Doug Haymans, the director of the Coastal Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, could see it from the window of his office beneath the Sidney Lanier Bridge. “You sort of get the sense of a dead, helpless animal laid out there,” Haymans said. “You see other ships sail past it each day, and you have to wonder, if ships were animate objects, what the ship thinks about its brother laying on its side.”

The Golden Ray had been there so long that it had become a fixture of the landscape and of the local imagination. Placards on the pier directed onlookers to a website for more information. A gift shop on Mallery Street sold T-shirts with an illustration of the Golden Ray and a little witticism: SHIP HAPPENS. Patrons at Barrier Island Brewing, near the King and Prince resort, could order a beer called Golden Ray IPA.

The VB 10,000 consists of two barges joined in catamaran formation, with two 240-foot lift gantries arching between them. By the time the vessel showed up at St. Simons, the Golden Ray had been encircled in a one-mile environmental-protection barrier, a system of netting and pilings meant to catch debris while the ship was dismantled in situ. On the morning of October 27, 2020, the barrier was opened, and the VB 10,000 maneuvered inside. Straddling the wreck, the lift vessel would attach to a heavy chain that crews had looped beneath the Golden Ray, then pull the chain upward and back and forth, moving it in superslow motion—seven feet per minute—to cut through the hull. Eight cuts would be made, the body divided into seven pieces, and, by this means, finally—finally—the ship would, at long last, be rescued from its ignominy.

Golden Ray shipwreck what happened
Responders freed four crew members who had been trapped in the capsized ship for more than a day.

Photograph by Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Some historians find it useful to talk about, for instance, the “long 19th century”—the idea being that historical periods are defined less by arbitrary stop and start dates than they are by earth-moving events and, really, feelings: According to this schema, the 19th century didn’t begin at midnight on January 1, 1801, but rather with the French Revolution in 1789, and it didn’t end until the onset of World War I in 1914. Future scholars may find it similarly useful to refer to the long year 2020, for reasons I don’t need to fill you in on. In late 2019, a cluster of pneumonia cases were reported in China that would bloom into a global pandemic, bringing the world to a standstill that has not yet ended. Over roughly the same time period, the dismal carcass of the Golden Ray has loomed over St. Simons Sound, emanating its own surreal inertia while simultaneously—perhaps?—reflecting our own.

As the most recent year dawned, a columnist from the Brunswick News issued a series of humorous predictions. “I would give a definite date for when the Golden Ray will be fully removed from St. Simons Sound, but these are my 2021 predictions,” he wrote. “I’ll save that one for 2022.” Nobody died; some levity is permitted.

From the perspective of the Golden Ray, the long year 2020 commenced shortly after midnight on September 8, 2019. Arriving the day prior from Jacksonville, the ship had offloaded some subcompacts and taken on the SUVs, then left port under the control of Jonathan Tennant, an experienced harbor pilot. (When certain large commercial ships enter U.S. ports, they’re required by law to be put under the control of local harbor pilots, such as Tennant—experts on the ins and outs of area waterways. Pilots board incoming ships in the open ocean; on the outbound transit, once they’ve guided the vessels from port, they disembark onto small boats that bring them back to shore, like a taxi.) Transiting past Jekyll Island, Tennant initiated a starboard turn out to sea that he’d made thousands of times. As he would put it in a 2020 hearing, part of a Coast Guard investigation into the accident: “Everything was just as normal as could be until it capsized.” The results of the investigation have yet to be released, but testimony has suggested the Golden Ray may have been unstable due to the way the vehicles were loaded and the fact that, on an earlier leg of its voyage, the ship had let off water ballast. In short: It may have been top-heavy, rendering a routine turn treacherous. As the ship settled onto its side, Tennant realized the situation had become “a lifesaving event, not a piloting event” and saw “fear in the faces of the people around me”—members of the Golden Ray’s 23-person crew, mostly from South Korea and the Philippines. He tried to assure the captain, he testified: “We’re going to be okay, we’re on a sandbar and the calvary is coming, the Coast Guard is on the way.”

As rescue boats arrived on the scene, most of the crew were able to evacuate via a fire hose lowered down the side of the ailing ship. In his own testimony, Coast Guard captain John Reed said that, when he reached the shipwreck just prior to daybreak, having driven overnight from Charleston, he saw smoke, smelled fire, and heard “large crashes inside the hull every few minutes,” from what he presumed to be vehicles breaking free of their tethers. Four crew members were still unaccounted for at that point. Initially, Reed testified, “there was a great deal of doubt concerning any remaining survivors.”

The following morning, more than 24 hours after the capsizing, the missing men were located, alive, in the engine room. Rescuers drilled holes to share food and water and used leaf blowers to force fresh air into the sweltering space while they devised a plan to extract the stranded men. Reed feared, he said later, that cutting into the hull might create sparks that could cause an explosion. But he also feared the remaining crew members wouldn’t survive until they could retrieve the proper salvage equipment. Finally, responders drilled a series of overlapping holes through the almost inch-thick steel hull of the ship, gaining access to three of the four seamen, with the last trapped behind explosion-proof glass that had to be scored, then broken with an ax. About 40 hours after the ship went down, all of its crew were safe. The Golden Ray—partly owing to Tennant’s decisive actions as the vessel overturned—had come to rest in relatively shallow water on a sandbar, likely saving lives and allowing the port to reopen partially in a couple days and fully after a couple months.

The worst was averted, but the ordeal was just beginning. The Golden Ray held nearly 400,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil, which began to leak into St. Simons Sound as responders worked to stabilize the wreck. Though they were able to pump most of it out, it’s unknown exactly how much fuel oil remains on board—and how much ended up on the shorelines and in the marshes of St. Simons Sound. The Altamaha Riverkeeper, which spent the autumn of 2019 working with local charter fishermen to monitor pollution in the area, estimates that some 30 miles of shoreline experienced oiling to some degree, out of the roughly 120 miles that make up the estuary. The contamination was compounded by Georgia’s exceptionally high tides, which lifted the oil into the salt marsh in places and left it there, in horizontal lines across the marsh grass, as the waters receded. Fletcher Sams, the Riverkeeper’s executive director, showed me pictures on his phone of some of the scenes: “It looks like somebody got a can of black spray paint and just drew lines through the marsh,” he said.

Sams tracked the spots where oil was located on maps that he shared with members of Unified Command, the ad hoc body charged with responding to oil spills. It consists of a representative of the federal government (in this instance, the U.S. Coast Guard), the state government (Georgia DNR), and the “responsible party” (typically, the vessel owner, which, in the case of the Golden Ray, is the South Korean company Hyundai Glovis).

Doug Helton, whose office is in Seattle, visited the scene as a representative of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Emergency Response Division. Helton told me that he “missed” the Exxon Valdez on account of being in graduate school but that he’s been involved in every major oil spill since, including the Deepwater Horizon, which discharged roughly 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. “In terms of the amount of oil that was on the ship and the amount that was spilled, it was relatively small compared to an incident like the Deepwater Horizon,” Helton said of the Golden Ray. But in the immediate aftermath of the wreck, locals feared the worst, and some in the tourism industry—charter fishermen, for instance—reported slower-than-usual bookings due to concerns over pollution.

In October, it was determined that the Golden Ray was too structurally unstable to be refloated and hauled away. It would have to be demolished in place—hopefully before the arrival of hurricane season 2020. By the following spring, though, as demolition efforts ramped up, responders found themselves contending unexpectedly with a global pandemic that was disrupting supply chains, sparking lockdowns, and impeding what was already shaping up to be a fiendishly complicated salvage operation. Salvors began welding custom-made lifting lugs onto the hull of the Golden Ray: 16 pieces, ranging in weight from 35 to 85 tons, that attached to the top of the wreck like plates on the back of a stegosaurus and that the VB 10,000 would use to pick up each piece of the dismantled ship. But hurricane season arrived before the cutting could get underway. Next, 10 responders tested positive for Covid-19. The Coast Guard announced two delays, pushing the operation to late October. Observers started to get itchy: Then Senator David Perdue and Buddy Carter, who represents the coast in the U.S. House, sent a letter to the Coast Guard complaining of the postponements.

Others took it in stride. Local boat and trolley tour operator Cap Fendig—an amiable St. Simons lifer who serves on the Glynn County Commission—started offering a Golden Ray tour, which I joined one day along with about a half dozen others, including some visitors from Tennessee. Setting sail from Morningstar Marinas aboard a small craft called the Puddle Shuttle, we approached the wreck from the north. “You are now in the position of where the ship was coming out,” Fendig said as we floated in the sound, a few hundred yards off from where the actual wreck lay. He told of its capsizing, then described how a chain would cut through the ship’s hull to take it apart: “It’s like a necklace, ladies,” he said. “When you pick it up out of your jewelry box and bring it up to your neck and you clasp it? But they take that chain and start seesawing with it.” That’s what the VB 10,000 was for. Chain finally in place, cutting began just a few days after Election Day.

Golden Ray shipwreck what happened
Salvors are using a massive chain to slice through the car carrier, dividing it into seven pieces.

Photograph by Paul Hennessy/getty images

On a chilly morning in early January, I drove east across Jekyll Island causeway, toward rays of sunlight just beginning to appear over the low scrubby island trees. I met Sams, of the Altamaha Riverkeeper, in the parking lot of the Jekyll Island Pier, where we stood talking as a barge passed carrying the massive severed stern of the Golden Ray. It glowed in the light of dawn—blue and white up top, covered in algae and assorted marine gunk on the bottom, where it had sat in the water for the past 16 months. The stern was the second section to come off; the bow came first, as salvors work their way toward the ship’s interior. The first two sections were structurally stable enough to be lifted onto barges, which would transport each around the Florida peninsula to a recycling facility in Louisiana. The salvage becomes more delicate as it progresses, and it’s expected that the interior pieces of the ship won’t be as strong. They’ll be disturbed as little as possible, transferred to floating dry docks and then removed to Brunswick for further dismantling. At least, that’s the plan.

Sams was looking for oil released from the wreck as it was being dismantled. The ocean was receding and, as the day warmed, we walked the high-tide line, where, he explained, the water would have deposited new pollution among the usual seaweed and marsh wrack. Various other objects, too, washed up with the tide, among them cut flowers and pieces of broccoli—the sea harbors many mysteries. There were also tiny splotches of oil, which looked like mud until you smelled them. The night before, Sams had texted me photos he’d taken as he walked in the dark with an ultraviolet light, which causes oil to glow. “Horse shit will glow the same color,” he said. “That’s where the smell check gets dangerous.” We rounded the northern tip of Jekyll and made our way toward the ocean side of the island and its famous Driftwood Beach.

Sams and other environmentalists are pushing for a natural resources damage assessment, or NRDA, a comprehensive state and federal analysis of the environmental effects of the Golden Ray incident, which would also include a plan for their remediation. “There’s already been damage,” Sams said. “You need to get a grasp on what’s been impacted, how bad, and what needs to take place to fix it.”

That decision may wait until the salvage is complete. In December, Doug Haymans of the Georgia DNR told me: “We’re certainly not at the point of calling for a NRDA. We’re in the data-collection phase.” (The DNR, Haymans said, would be one of three “trustees” in the study, along with NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.) He continued, “You look around the estuary, and you have to ask yourself: Where’s that permanent, long-lasting damage? This isn’t an Exxon Valdez. This isn’t a BP”—referring to the Deepwater Horizon, where BP was a responsible party—“where there’s millions and millions of gallons.”

On our way back to the pier, Sams and I ran into a cleanup team from Unified Command—Sams told them he’d made marks in the sand where he’d found oil or debris. The crew were just one component of a multivalent environmental response on display that day, and just about every day last winter: Offshore, responders in boats fished objects out of the water, and spotters in a helicopter overhead looked for sheening. Sensitive ecological areas had been surrounded by boom—materials that can either absorb or deflect oil, while nearby vessels could be dispatched, singly or in formation, to collect it. Two shrimp boats had been retrofitted to trawl for debris. Teams combed the beaches looking for pollution that could be as small as a drop of oil or as big as the fender of a car that had fallen from the wreck.

The Golden Ray cleanup is shaping up to be potentially the most expensive maritime salvage operation in U.S. history—with costs projected by the ship’s insurer, in May 2020, to exceed $400 million. (The responsible party and its insurer are on the hook for cleanup costs thanks to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed following the Exxon Valdez spill. Regarded as a highly successful piece of modern environmental legislation, OPA 90 is also one of the last major pieces of federal environmental legislation on the books. Last year was its 30th anniversary.)

The environmental responders and scores of salvors—from technicians maintaining the cutting apparatus to divers checking the chains—have turned St. Simons Sound into a hive of activity. The first cut, completed in November, had originally been projected to take 24 hours but ended up taking three weeks; the second cut began on Christmas and took nine days; the third cut commenced in late January. The work progresses slowly.

After the summer Covid-19 outbreak, Unified Command decided to quarantine the operation’s most critical workers. Since September, more than 100 salvors have been living in isolation at Epworth by the Sea, a serene St. Simons retreat center. So far, the operation has extended its lease twice—most recently through May.

One of its residents this past winter—and one of the youngest workers on the project—was Catherine Teige, who graduated in 2019 from SUNY Maritime College. The Golden Ray is her first major salvage project. She entered the bubble in early January. After 75 days, she’ll have the option to take some time off, but, when we spoke in early February, Teige thought she might stay on: “For most of last year, we were in the planning process. I want to see all the planning come to life, you know? We’ve already cut two sections of the wreck”—the third cut was then underway—“but being on the VB, it happening right in front of me, is just surreal. It’s awesome.”

Workers are on 12-hour shifts, round the clock. There is a weight room, a game room. It’s peaceful—after all, it’s a retreat center. The off-hours are mostly for sleeping. “Sometimes, I play ping pong with the guys after dinner,” Teige said, and laughed: “And I have my little ice cream.” Site work is overseen by two veteran salvage masters, who trade shifts. One of them, Jim Conroy, told me about the rhythms of life at Epworth, where members of his crew have now observed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. “The guys, you know—most of them shop,” Conroy said. “It’s amazing. I’ve never seen so many packages show up.”

“They do . . . online shopping?” I said. Well, it’s not like they can go out and see the sights. And many of us who are not quarantined at Epworth by the Sea also have spent these last long months in our little rooms, in our little apartments or our little houses, looking out the window, checking Twitter, eating our little ice cream, going for little walks, consoling ourselves with one-click ordering. Our bubbles may be bigger and more porous; but it’s often difficult to escape a sense of being inside, looking out.

Speaking for myself, anyway.

“Yeah,” Conroy said. “Some days, you can’t even get through the lobby with all the packages. To me, the unknowable thing is—you gotta shop that much? You need that much?” He laughed. “I guess as temperatures change, they’re buying clothes. And a few things to keep themselves entertained. There’s a lot of PlayStations on the site, that’s for sure.”

This article appears in our April 2021 issue.

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