Pilot Reveals Final Moments of the Car Carrier Golden Ray

Image courtesy USCG

Published Sep 22, 2020 5:31 PM by The Maritime Executive

In testimony Monday before a U.S. Coast Guard investigation panel, the pilot on the last voyage of the car carrier Golden Ray described the vessel's final moments - an account never before released to the public. 

Capt. Jonathan Tennant, an experienced pilot with the Brunswick Bar Pilots Association, brought the Golden Ray into port on September 7, 2019. The transit proceeded in a typical manner and she handled as normal, he testified. 

In the early hours of September 8, he boarded the vessel to take her out again. Though she had conducted cargo operations, her draft remained the same, and the master told him that the vessel was ready for sea. They had "cupcake" calm conditions, and all seemed normal as she proceeded outbound

When the vessel reached Buoy 20 in St. Simons Sound, she encountered an inbound tidal current, and Capt. Tennant ordered 20 degrees right rudder to offset it. At that time, "the vessel immediately took off to starboard, more so than I've ever experienced before," he said. 

"When I went back to midships she leaned into the turn a little bit and started to over-rotate to starboard. Therefore I applied counterrudder [but] it wasn't an adequate amount, there was no deceleration of the turn to starboard," he said. "At this point I'm still level, I have no idea that I'm about to capsize."

Given the ship's strange behavior, Capt. Tennant asked the captain what was going on. He also made a quick call to the pilot on the inbound vessel, saying "Watch out Jamie, I'm losing her." Then he applied maximum counterrudder (hard to port) as the vessel went over. 

Even after the vessel's propeller and rudder were out of the water, Capt. Tennant continued to give maneuvering orders. Once he realized he was aground, he stopped trying to pilot the ship and switched to coordinating rescue operations with the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Possible stability questions

The Coast Guard also heard the testimony of Prof. Jeffrey Falzarano, an expert in ship maneuvering and hydrodynamics who teaches at a prominent American maritime college. According to Falzarano, Golden Ray "may have had marginal intact stability" based on modeling of her characteristics. 

In addition, she may have had a more complex liability involving coupling of her roll behavior with her maneuvering movements during a turn. Assuming a GM of 1.75 meters and a rudder angle of 10 degrees - half the amount applied just prior to the casualty - Falzarano's model predicted high roll angles during the initiation of the turn. If the GM were raised by an additional meter, the roll behavior moderated significantly, his analysis suggested. (Falzarano noted that the model study examined vessel characteristics and movement, not whether the vessel was compliant.)

In separate testimony, the ship's agent - who was tasked with creating the load plan - said that the Golden Ray had loaded more cars onto the fifth deck level than normal on this trip. "Guessing lack of space. They ran out of space [on the 12th deck], so they put the remaining balance on five," the agent said. 

He also indicated that the weight of each individual vehicle was not considered when creating the load plan - only the most convenient arrangement for loading and unloading. "Based off the space that's available at the port of load, we just place it in a way where it's an efficient load and discharge operation," he said.