Coast Guard Expert Testifies Heavy Loads Left Cargo Ship Unstable

A U.S. Coast Guard analysis found that a cargo ship overturned after departing a Georgia seaport because of unstable loading that left its center of gravity too high, making the vessel susceptible to rolling over, an expert told officials investigating the shipwreck Tuesday.

Coast Guard Lt. Ian Oviatt testified that his analysis found no fault with the design of the South Korean-owned Golden Ray. He said the ship lacked enough water in its ballast tanks, used to add weight at the bottom of a vessel, to offset that of 4,200 vehicles in its cargo decks above.

He was many who have spoken during hearings over the past week by the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board into what caused the shipwreck.

The South Korean-owned Golden Ray had just left the Port of Brunswick on Sept. 8, 2019, when it overturned with 4,200 vehicles in its cargo decks. All crew members were rescued safely. But a year later, the vessel and its cargo remain partly submerged off St. Simons Island, waiting to be dismantled.

A naval architect with the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Center, Oviatt testified during the seventh and final day of the public hearings on the Georgia coast to examine what caused the 656-foot (199 meter) ship to tip over.

Oviatt said his team calculated how weight was distributed aboard the Golden Ray using documents from the port showing how its cargo was loaded as well as data stored on the ship’s computer, including how much water was in the ballast tanks.

“The cause of the vessel capsizing was lack of righting energy due to the way the vessel was loaded,” Oviatt said. “The vessel could have taken on additional ballast to be in compliance.”

The Coast Guard analysis showed the Golden Ray failed to meet stability standards required by the International Maritime Organization at the time it capsized, as well as during its two voyages before arriving at Brunswick, Oviatt said.

He said the crew jettisoned roughly 1,500 metric tons of ballast water prior to arriving at Brunswick, 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Savannah. That raised the ship’s center of gravity and made it susceptible to capsizing.

On Monday, a tugboat captain who helped push the ill-fated cargo ship Golden Ray from the docks as it left a Georgia seaport, testified he observed only “smooth travel” before the giant vessel overturned.

Clifton Gorden told federal investigators all seemed normal with the ocean-bound freighter before it began leaning and capsized while making a starboard turn.

Gorden, a tugboat captain for 25 years, testified that the tides and weather conditions were calm enough the morning the Golden Ray departed that only his boat was needed to nudge it free of the dock. He followed behind the ship a short distance to make sure it cleared the port.

“Everything looked normal,” Gorden said. “There was no swaying back and forth when he moved his rudder. Usually, I can see a little bit of that. It was just smooth travel out of the narrow channel into Turtle River.”

The Golden Ray’s pilot released Gorden soon after clearing the port. He said he was drifting toward another ship he was scheduled to assist when he got a radio call saying the Golden Ray needed help. Gorden’s tug arrived half an hour later, along with several other small boats, to find the 656-foot (200-meter) ship on its side. He stayed through the night helping with crew evacuations.

The hearings haven’t pinpointed what exactly made the ship tip over. Capt. Blake Welborn, the Coast Guard officer leading the investigation, said last week that investigators found no evidence of failures in the vessel’s safety equipment, communications equipment or machinery that contributed to the wreck.

Both the Golden Ray’s captain, Gi Hak Lee, and Brunswick-based harbor pilot Jonathan Tennant, who was steering the ship, testified last week the vessel began listing and overturned without warning, The Brunswick News reported.

“Everything was just as normal as could be, until it capsized,” Tennant, a harbor pilot with 20 years of experience, testified Friday. “It’s an unexplainable situation that I’ve never experienced as a captain.”

As a precaution against coronavirus infections, the public was not allowed to attend the hearings in person. Instead, the proceedings in Brunswick were streamed live online.

It could take another year before investigators publish a report of their findings, with recommendations aimed at improving safety.

Separate from the investigation, a multiagency command has spent the past year making plans to carve the ship into eight giant chunks to be hauled away by barges. Officials hope to begin the first cut sometime in October.