Coast Guardsmen Spend Thanksgiving in the Epworth Campus 'Bubble'

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A Coast Guard machinery technician ensures safe salvage operations aboard the shipwrecked Golden Ray
Petty Officer 2nd Class Josh Rice, a machinery technician with the U.S. Coast Guard National Strike Force, ensures safe salvage operations aboard the motor vessel Golden Ray in Brunswick, Ga, Sept. 17, 2019. The Saint Simons Sound Unified Command is developing plans to remove fuel from the vessel and construct a long-term salvage plan for a complex situation. (Taylor Bacon/U.S. Coast Guard)

Dallas resident Josh Waldmeier is duty-bound to spend Thanksgiving on St. Simons Island, which under ordinary circumstances would not be an insurmountable gap to forge for the wife and kids.

But as far as getting a kiss from Lindy and a hug from Everett, Ethan and Emerson this holiday, the U.S. Coast Guard reservist might as well be on the moon. Waldmeier and a hundred or so other folks are living in their own little world at Epworth By the Sea.

"Nope, not happening," Waldmeier said of a possible Thanksgiving reunion. "I've had to explain to my wife a couple of times. She's been tempted to gather up the kids and come down, but there would be no purpose to it. No one's coming in, and no one's going out."

Welcome to the "bubble," home to an elite crew who are considered essential to the task of once-and-for-all removing the shipwrecked Golden Ray from the St. Simons Sound. And welcome to 2020's pandemic realities. This collection of salvors, engineers, hazard-pay divers, naval architects and Coast Guardsmen are too valuable to the herculean task at hand to risk exposing any of them to COVID-19.

The 83-acre Epworth campus has been restricted territory since Sept. 23. The public is barred from entering, and the operation's most valuable players are restricted from venturing beyond the boundaries of Epworth — except to catch the boat that takes them to work each day at the shipwreck.

Talk about Thanksgiving plans being crimped by COVID-19 concerns.

"My mom lives in South Florida, and it breaks my heart to tell her it's probably not going to happen this year," said Brisa Alsdorff, a salvor with T&T Salvage. "Now that I'm in this 'bubble,' I can't leave."

She cannot even see her dad, who is known around Texas-based T&T as Mr. President. T&T is the company contracted by the Golden Ray's owner and insurer to handle the salvage project. It is the company that orchestrated the recent arrival of the 255-foot-tall twin-hulled crane vessel VB 10,000, which now straddles the shipwreck and towers over the St. Simons Sound in all its bright yellow glory.

"My dad is president of T&T and it's kind of nice working with him, but not really because I don't get to see him in person," said Alsdorff, 31, a graduate of State University of New York Maritime College. "I just see him on the conference video calls."

Frankly, Alsdorff and Waldmeier and the rest of the crew will be too busy Thursday to acknowledge Thanksgiving unless the chow hall at Epworth serves up something special. They are too focused on employing the VB 10,000 to cut the 656-foot shipwreck Golden Ray into manageable 2,700- to 4,100-ton pieces to fret about carving a turkey.

Work days on the water are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., which does not include the commute by boat. And there is always a crew working the nightshift. And every day is a work day.

The operation's first cut — to shear off the shipwreck's bow — has been a bear of a challenge. But that cut is nearing completion, after which the VB 10,000 will hoist the section from the water and place it on a barge.

"You know, we may have a little turkey dinner or something, and that's great," said Waldmeier, 41, a Coast Guard salvage division supervisor. "But everyone here is laser-focused on that first cut."

Juan Lejarraga, a graduating naval architect at SUNY Maritime College, said working inside the "bubble" as a T&T employee has been an incomparable college internship.

A Guatemalan native with family roots in New York City, Lejarraga has been here with the salvage operation since February. He entered the Epworth "bubble" on Oct. 27.

"I graduate in January and just to be able to work with and follow some of the best naval 'archs' in the world is a great opportunity," said Lejarraga, 25. "But it doesn't matter which day of the week it is — it's all the same. You start the day at 5:15 (a.m.) and finish the day at 6 (p.m.). Doesn't matter if it's Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year's, it's work."

Alsdorff looks on the bright side. As a salvor, she has served long stints on shipwrecks from the Mississippi River to Gulf of Mexico. If you are going to be confined to one place, it might as well have views of moss-draped oaks and sunsets glowing over the Frederica River.

"I wasn't allowed off of those vessels, and it's kind of the same here — except you don't have all these pretty trees and the nice scenery there that we have here. I think it's a great setup, to be honest," said Alsdorff, who has been part of the Golden Ray salvage operation since January and entered the "bubble" on Oct. 27. "Epworth has more of a homey feel. And with the wreck site nearby and the travel time to get there, it just all works out."

Although they are bound to Georgia, the prevailing language at Epworth these days leans more to "Geaux Tigers" than to "How 'bout them Dawgs," Waldmeier said. And that makes the Lake Charles, La., native and LSU graduate feel right at home. But the scenery at Epworth has a nice familiar touch too, he adds.

"Half the crew onboard the Versebar is from Louisiana," said Waldmeier, an environmental engineer in Dallas when he's not on reserve duty with the Coast Guard. "On shore, we're in Georgia, but on the water it is all about Louisiana — thick accents and talking LSU football. But Epworth is a beautiful campus. Being from Louisiana, I appreciate the live oaks and Spanish moss."

Unified Command, the multifaceted cog in this salvage operation, has Epworth reserved for its essential workers through March 2021. For anyone who does this for a living and loves what they do, the turkey, dressing and gravy is waiting out there every day at a massive shipwreck on the St. Simons Sound.

"I'm grateful to be a part of this. It's one of the biggest projects of its type in history," Alsdorff said.

"This is the biggest salvage operation in U.S. history," said Waldmeier, who entered the "bubble" on Oct. 13. "Who wouldn't want to be a part of it?"

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

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