Lifting Lugs in Place as Unified Command Gets Closer to Cutting Up Golden Ray

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capsizing vessel Golden Ray near St. Simons Sound off the coast of Georgia
In this Sept. 9, 2019, file photo, a Moran tugboat nears the stern of the capsizing vessel Golden Ray near St. Simons Sound off the coast of Georgia. The salvage team salvage team is seeking a federal permit to surround the shipwreck with a giant mesh barrier to contain any debris when they cut the ship apart. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

All 16 of the hulking lifting lugs are now in place on the exposed starboard side of the shipwrecked Golden Ray, the 656-foot-long freighter that has foundered in the St. Simons Sound for eight long months, said U.S. Coast Guardsman John Miller, spokesman for Unified Command.

And crews have already reached the halfway point on installation of an encompassing expanse of mesh netting, the primary defense in the environmental protection barrier that will surround the shipwreck, he said.

While it is still too early for an official countdown, the arrival of the behemoth VB 10,000 crane barge is almost within sight now. The VB 10,000 is the dual-hulled barge crane whose center arch stands higher than the driver's view from atop the Sidney Lanier Bridge. Bad weather or other holdups notwithstanding, the Texas-based, steel-girded leviathan could arrive in the St. Simons Sound before July 4, Miller said.

"It could be here at the end of June or the by the beginning of July," Miller said.

The VB 10,000 will do the heavy lifting and intense cutting that will, according to plans, remove the 25,000-ton ship from sound in eight pieces.

The VB 10,000 will use winches, blocks and pulleys to rip a massive chain up through the hull in seven cuts. The VB 10,000 tips the sky at 255 feet; the vertical clearance of the Sidney Lanier Bridge to ships calling on the port is 185 feet in the center.

The VB 10,000 was designed to dismantle old oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. It is being refitted in Port Arthur, Texas, for the task at hand in the St. Simons Sound, Miller said.

It will take the VB 10,000, pulled by two tugboats, about two weeks to get here, he said. It should begin its journey some time in the middle of this month.

"Versabar designed, engineered and built a rigging beam system with appropriate safety factors for the hull sections to be lifted and removed," Miller said, referring to the company that owns the VB 10,000. "To the vessel itself, they've added some additional temporary fendering to protect the VB 10,000 while it's over the top of the Golden Ray hull during the operation.

"It's really high-tech and really big. You're not going to walk into Tractor Supply and pick this stuff off the shelf."

Take the chain for example. Although it will technically saw into the ship's hull, it is not a chainsaw, Miller said. It is just a chain, a really big chain. The steel links are three inches in diameter and weigh 80 pounds each. The chain itself is 400 feet long.

The VB 10,000 will straddle the Golden Ray's hull. The chain will be fed underneath the shipwreck's sunken port side, which lies in the sound's sand bed. The chain will be pulled up to the other side. Additional chains will be attached to the lifting lugs on the shipwreck's exposed starboard hull.

Powered by the barge's mighty engines and the series of pulleys and blocks and winches, the chain will saw back and forth -- working its way up the hull until the section is separated from the rest of the shipwreck. The barge's four 1,000 hp engines will stabilize it in place during the cutting process.

To keep the necessary cutting tension applied throughout, each cut cannot stop until completion. Each cut will require roughly 24 hours of nonstop cutting. It will be noisy the whole time.

"It's going to be loud, make no mistake about it," Miller said. "Once we start, we gotta keep that tension on, and it's going to be 24 hours of continuous cutting to completion."

Once a cut is complete, the chains on the lifting lugs will hoist the section out of the water and onto an awaiting barge, specially designed with deck walls to prevent pollution spilling over the sides. The ship's pieces are destined for a recycling facility in Gibson, La., Miller said.

"Once each section is stabilized on the barge, we'll get them out of the EPB (environmental protection barrier)," he said.

Welders are still performing the finishing touches on securing the lifting lugs to the hull. Each lug was specially designed to distribute weight evenly on its section of the hull.

Welders, like the rest of the 80 to 100 workers on the floating construction site, are working around the clock to get the job done, Miller said.

The 33-acre environmental protection barrier that will surround the ship is moving toward completion.

Crews have already installed 14 of the 150-foot-long mesh net panels, a project that began roughly two weeks ago. Like everything else in this mission, each of the 28 panels is specially designed for its place in the barrier, ranging from 35 to 65 feet deep to cover from the sandy bed to just above the water's surface. The panels are being connected between the 40 pairs of steel piles that were driven deep into the sound bed.

There are 5-foot gaps in the mesh net, large enough to allow any marine life to pass safely but sturdy enough to catch debris that shakes loose during the cutting process. Specifically, the mesh will catch any of the 4,200 vehicles that were in the Golden Ray's cargo hold when it overturned Sept. 8 while heading out to sea from the Port of Brunswick.

Both the VB 10,000 and the barge that will haul the cut sections will enter the area through gates in the environmental protection barrier.

"Once the Versabar (VB 10,000) arrives on the scene and we get it in place and get the chains set up, we'll give ourselves a few days of prepping before we start cutting," Miller said.

Unified Command consists of the Coast Guard, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Gallagher Marine Systems. It is responsible for ensuring the Golden Ray's owner and insurer abide by the environmental cleanup standards set forth by the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

T&T Salvage is the contractor tasked with removing the Golden Ray. Weeks Marine is the subcontractor hired to build the environmental protection barrier, construction of which began in February.

This article is written by Larry Hobbs from The Brunswick News, Ga. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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