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Pilot radioed ‘I’m losing her’ as Golden Ray capsized

Hearing into cause of St. Simons Sound accident continues

Coast Guard rescuers drilled through the hull of the Golden Ray to rescue four seafarers trapped in the vehicle carrier. (Photo: U.S. Coast Guard)

The pilot guiding the M/V Golden Ray out of St. Simons Sound recalled seeing “fear in the faces” of the crew as the car carrier capsized.

Port of Brunswick pilot Jonathan Tennant, represented by counsel, testified Friday during a hearing being conducted to determine the cause of the September 2019 capsizing of the roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) vessel.

The hearing, which is scheduled to continue through Tuesday, is being conducted by the Coast Guard, National Transportation Safety Board, Republic of the Marshall Islands maritime administrator and the Korean Maritime Safety Tribunal. The ship was operated by South Korean shipping and logistics company Hyundai Glovis. 

Tennant said he has served Georgia’s Port of Brunswick for 22 years and has handled more than 5,000 vessels as a licensed pilot. His experience with ro-ro vessels is extensive, he testified.

“About 90 to 95% of ships calling the Port of Brunswick are ro-ro. We’re very much car carrier pilots,” he said.  

‘Everything was just as normal as it could be’

It was after midnight Sept. 8, 2019. The water was calm and there was good visibility, Tennant said, testifying that the Golden Ray captain told him the ship was ready for sea. He communicated with a colleague who would pilot an inbound vessel, the Emerald Ace, while he would steer the Golden Ray out of the shipping channel.

There were no sounds of crashing cargo or alarms. “There were no pre-event indicators whatsoever. … Everything was just as normal as it could be — until it capsized,” he said.  

Tennant explained how he piloted the Golden Ray — and all other ships sailing in and out of the Port of Brunswick.  

“I needed to use an adequate amount of rudder to establish the appropriate amount of turn into the next channel. I started with less rudder and when less was not adequate, I then applied 20 [degrees]. It’s commonly done, just about every turn we ever make,” Tennant testified. “At that point, everything was normal. 

“Immediately after applying 20 degrees of rudder, she began to rotate to starboard at a concerning rate,” he continued. “When I applied starboard 20, I felt her lean to starboard, not an alarming amount, a normal reaction. She remained upright. At this time I thought that I was just over-rotating to starboard for some unknown reason. She continued the over-rotation to starboard while flipping over on her portside in a violent, rapid descent.”

He worried the inbound Emerald Ace would collide with the Golden Ray. 

“When I felt like I was losing control of the vessel, I reached behind me, where I propped up the ship’s radio, and said to [fellow pilot] Jamie on the inbound [Emerald Ace], ‘Watch out, Jamie, I’m losing her,’ at which time she capsized,” Tennant said.

He said he quickly began issuing commands. “Everybody was flawlessly executing the commands I was giving, but I had no control of anything. So, essentially at that point, she just plowed into the Sound.”

‘Preserve human life’

For Tennant, the accident took place in “slow-motion time, where everything was happening very rapidly but I was seeing it very slowly, kind of looking at it like through a straw.”

After experiencing “moments of disbelief,” Tennant, who said he drove the Golden Ray up on a sandbar as far as possible to “preserve human life,” took action. 

“I’m just trying not to fall straight down. I’m looking down at the water in the sound. This is now we’re trying to preserve life,” he said, testifying that he retrieved a radio from his life jacket but the tugboat operators could not hear him. “I believe it was because I was on a 1-watt on a handheld and the ship’s hull is above me, blocking me. Jamie could hear me. … I could hear Jamie communicate to [the tugs].”

He was able to get in touch with the Coast Guard in Charleston, South Carolina. “I’m asking them to roll everything and send everything they can to us,” Tennant said. 

Tennant said he worked to determine what the Coast Guard would be up against when it arrived. “The master was on the deck behind me. I’m trying to communicate with him over loud alarms. ‘How many souls are on board?’”

The situation had become “a lifesaving event, not a piloting event. I was able to basically liaison … with the Coast Guard as the only person on board who spoke fluent English,” he said. “The captain was telling me where injured people were and I would try to relay that.”

Tennant said while “it seemed that the ship stabilized somewhat after the tugs were alongside,” the situation remained dire.

“There was fear in the faces of the people around me. I had tried to assure the captain, ‘We’re OK, we’re on a sandbar and the cavalry’s coming, the Coast Guard’s on the way and the tugboat’s gonna hold us there,’” he said. 

Miraculously, none of the 24 crew members were seriously injured during the capsizing, although it would take more than 30 hours before the final four were rescued through a hole cut into the hull. 

By daylight, word had spread of the capsizing and rescue efforts were underway. 

“While trapped in the wheelhouse for hours, I received countless texts and prayers from the community and friends,” Tennant said in written remarks he read at the conclusion of his testimony. 

He thanked the Coast Guard and other first responders who assisted in the rescue operation. “Above all, I would like to recognize that each of these [responding] individuals, the weather, the capsizing location, the capsizing direction that slid my vest with radio to me, not away, and the successful rescue of every crew member comes down to our merciful God, our creator,” Tennant said. 

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Click for more American Shipper/FreightWaves stories by Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills.

Kim Link Wills

Senior Editor Kim Link-Wills has written about everything from agriculture as a reporter for Illinois Agri-News to zoology as editor of the Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine. Her work has garnered awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Magazine Association of the Southeast. Prior to serving as managing editor of American Shipper, Kim spent more than four years with XPO Logistics.