Editorial: Could a ‘ro-ro’ disaster happen in Charleston? Here’s how to prevent it
Visitors at driftwood beach look over St. Simons Sound where the 656-foot “ro-ro” ship Golden Ray overturned Sep. 8. Crews are now preparing to cut the hull into pieces to remove the wreckage between Jekyll and St. Simons islands. AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Stephen B. Morton
If not for the heroics of a port pilot who intentionally grounded the capsized 656-foot Golden Ray on Sept. 8, the roll-on/roll-off ship could have shut down the Port of Brunswick indefinitely.
The overturned ship now sits squarely between Jekyll and St. Simons islands just south of the shipping channel, and it could take a year or longer to remove the behemoth piece by piece, not to mention the roughly 4,200 vehicles on its 13 decks.
The State Ports Authority, Charleston port pilots and Longshoremen, whose job it is to lash down vehicles on ro-ro ships, should all take note. Imagine the consequences of Charleston’s shipping channel being blocked.
Photo: U.S. Coast Guard
Even to the untrained eye, it’s easy to see why “ro-ros” are unstable compared to container ships. They’re top-heavy and high-sided, with more freeboard exposed to wind and waves. And because they’re essentially floating parking decks, most don’t have sectional bulkheads to prevent flooding along their length.
They’re heavily ballasted to counteract listing, but that makes the ship’s righting motion forceful and quick – “stiff” some naval architects might say — and those jerky motions can put undue stresses on lashings that hold in place everything from passenger cars to 45-ton truck trailers and even heavier rolling stock like earthmoving equipment.
Large fore and aft cargo doors can malfunction and leak. And because of their vast, open spaces, with thousands of vehicles each containing fuel, ro-ros are susceptible to fires. For these reasons, among others, they’re all Class B ships, whereas most container vessels are Class A ships, according to the International Maritime Organization. (Class A ships generally have fewer openings and more watertight bulkheads, while Class B ships have higher freeboard and fewer bulkheads.)
The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board are still investigating why the Golden Ray capsized. But, according to the Brunswick News, the accident occurred as the ship was turning right in the shipping channel. First, it listed to the right, then flopped onto its left side. About the same time, a fire broke out, possibly before the capsize. The port pilot then intentionally grounded the ship in about 40 feet of water just outside the channel.
Luckily, no one was killed. Little of the fuel and oil aboard spilled into St. Simons Sound, though oily residue has been found along some 30 miles of coastline. Port traffic in Brunswick, the nation’s second busiest for vehicles, was interrupted for only a few days.
Salvage crews won’t be able to pull the ship onto an even keel because the port side has dug some 20 feet into the soft bottom. About 320,000 gallons of fuel have been removed from the ship, as has its rudder, propeller and shaft. Work crews are expected to use a giant cable saw to start cutting the hull into pieces, which will be hoisted onto barges and scrapped. From an insurance standpoint, it’s been declared a total loss.
The safety of ships is mostly regulated by international organizations. But certainly the SPA should be paying special attention to ro-ros calling on Charleston. The capsize of the Golden Ray in St. Simons Sound was the sixth involving ro-ros this past year. Each had fires.
Before a ro-ro can leave port, the captain has to sign a form that includes a calculation that shows the distribution of cargo is safe and that all rolling stock is secured. The SPA and port pilots should be double checking the math and inspecting the loads, and Longshoreman must ensure all latching and locking mechanisms are in good shape. Even small shifts in loads that cause a ship to list can set off a domino effect, causing a ro-ro to capsize.
The Port of Brunswick was lucky the Golden Ray disaster wasn’t worse. Port authorities here must tilt the odds in their favor by making sure all ro-ros calling on Charleston are as safe as possible.