If you've followed the saga of the capsized cargo ship Golden Ray, you already know that it was filled with cars, trucks, and SUVs. Now we know more details about that cargo and a possible reason for the maritime disaster: on an early stop in the ship's voyage, nearly 300 Hyundai Accent and Kia Forte subcompacts were removed to make way for Kia Telluride SUVs, which are much heavier and taller, changing the balance of the cargo to disastrous effect.
As the investigation has revealed, a total of 316 brand-new Kia Telluride SUVs were among the vehicles destroyed when the 36,000-metric-ton car carrier rolled onto its port side and capsized off the coast of Brunswick, Georgia, on its way to Baltimore in the still, wee hours of September 8, 2019. A multiagency command is currently in the process of cutting the partially submerged 656-foot ship into eight segments and hauling it off by barge for further dismantling and recycling on shore.
After months of planning and delays due to hurricanes and COVID-19, the team completed a successful first cut of the bow in late November. From its aft side as shown in the photo above, taken on December 1, the section resembled a giant, rusted-out multilayer cake, with a jumble of mangled salvage-yard fodder oozing out like so much jam and frosting.
What Other Vehicles Were on Board?
Some 4300 vehicles were aboard the Hyundai-owned Golden Ray at the time of her capsizing. The pre-load plan diagram shows most were a mix of factory-fresh Ram 1500, 2500, and 5500 series trucks, Chevrolet Blazers and Equinoxes, and Mercedes SUVs bound for Saudi Arabia. (An RV and several other personal vehicles were inside, too.) When the Golden Ray ported in Brunswick a day earlier for cargo to be rolled on and off (hence why car carrier ships are nicknamed RoRos), around 285 Hyundai Accent and Kia Forte cars were offloaded and the Tellurides driven aboard. Forty of those SUVs had spots reserved on the Golden Ray's 12th deck before the ship disembarked. The difference between one of those small cars and a beefy Telluride? Roughly 1200 pounds.
As the First Coast Newsreported on the investigation, the Golden Ray "likely had too much cargo and not enough counterweight in the hull to keep it upright . . . When the ship made the sharp turn out to sea in the Saint Simon's Sound, it rolled over due to the instability."
Altogether, a thorough forensic analysis conducted by the U.S. Coast Guard concluded that the Golden Ray took on 1000 metric tons more cargo—not all in Telluride girth, of course. Meanwhile, it discharged at least 1500 metric tons of ballast water immediately prior to arriving in Brunswick. That water weight could have counterbalanced the severe list the ship experienced while turning out of the channel toward the Atlantic on its way out of town. In a hearing in September to deduce the cause of the accident, Jeffrey Falzarano, a professor of ocean engineering at Texas A&M, likened the idea of righting a listing car carrier to "trying to balance a pencil on its tip. It's very hard to do."
What's more, the hull door reserved for the pilot (the local mariner tasked with steering cargo ships in and out of port) was left open by the crew, which caused the ship to take on water as it listed. "Even prior to possible downflooding, the vessel would've heeled significantly and likely resulted in capsize," added Lt. Ian Oviatt, who led the Coast Guard study. "Our analysis is that the downflooding merely exacerbated the capsize."
The full conclusion of the accident investigation—a joint effort of the Coast Guard, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal, and others— could take another year to reach.
Still, this much seems certain: If it hadn’t been for the quick actions of the pilot at the helm, neither he nor the ship's captain nor the Golden Ray's 22 crewmembers might have survived.
Instead, the only casualties were of the four-wheeled variety.