Down with the Ship: Cars in Davy Jones' Locker

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 08, 2020

On a recent trip down South, a visit to swanky St. Simons Island yielded an unusual sight from the beach: A huge container ship not far offshore, turned over on its side. Like a baboon, it had a bright red bottom. While we watched, a dolphin played around the carcass, and you can see it in the photo here.

The Golden Ray lies half submerged off swanky St. Simons Island. (Peter Motavalli photo)

This was, I learned, the wreckage of the Golden Ray, which sank last September in St. Simons Sound with 4,200 vehicles on board, Kias and Hyundais bound for the Middle East from Mexico (with a stopover in Brunswick, Georgia). The ship is (or was!) a “RoRo,” roll on, roll off, designed for the express purpose of carrying vehicles, and driving them on and off. RoRos have huge doors, and one factor in the accident may have been a door that wasn’t secured. There was also a fire. Captain Jonathan Tennant, a harbor pilot, deliberately grounded the Golden Ray after it lost stability, seeking to prevent an even worse disaster.

Remote cameras captured this image inside the Golden Ray. (Maritime Executive)

Twenty crew members were immediately rescued from the enormous 656-foot ship. Another four were trapped in the engine room but were extricated in a 30-hour rescue effort. Under a Unified Command that consisted of the U.S. Coast Guard, the state of Georgia, Gallagher Marine Systems and others, the fuel oil—250,000 gallons of it—was pumped out, averting a marine disaster. A flotilla of 80 vessels and 400 people are involved in the ship’s salvage, with efforts now consisting of slowly dismantling it and shoring it up with 6,000 tons of rocks from nearby quarries. The propeller and rudder were removed by December, and the whole operation could take a year.

They're no longer neatly parked! (Maritime Executive)

But this is a car site, so what about those 4,200 Korean cars? The Maritime Executive posted the only photos I’ve seen, and the cars don’t look happy—at all. Some appear to be under water. There’s no happy ending for them though, because they’re full of oil and gas and will have to be removed somehow.

Maritime expert Rod Sullivan told First Coast News, “They will cut the ship up in pieces and cars will come out with those pieces as they come. They will try to cut along walls or bulkheads so they contain as many cars in each piece.” And, no, you can’t buy one of these Kias and Hyundais at auction. They’re not federalized for the U.S. anyway.

This encounter got me thinking. How often do ships go down with all cars? I thought it was rare, but apparently not so. Back in March, a container ship with 2,000 cars—37 of them Porsches—caught fire and sank off the coast of France. Again, the crew was promptly rescued, but the cars—four of which were the $293,200 911 GT2 RS, went to a watery grave.

This was the Grimaldi line, whose car containers I’ve frequently seen going back and forth from the port of Jacksonville. The cars were bound for Brazil, and the would-be Porsche owners got this letter: “We are sorry to inform you that, due to a fire [a ship] that was transporting your vehicle sank on March 12, 2019. And for that reason your GT2 RS cannot be delivered.”

What a nightmare! Production of that particular car had ended the month before, but Porsche agreed to make a few more, and the patient owners got their replacement cars in June.

Results were more mixed for the 14,000 sheep that were on board the Queen Hind when it capsized off the Romanian coast last November. Some of them swam to safety, some were rescued, but many others drowned.

Back in 2002, the Norwegian-registered cargo ship Tricolor sank following a collision in the English Channel, carrying 2,862 cars to the bottom. The crew survived; the cars didn’t.

Historically, lots of cars are down in Davy Jones’ locker. One of them is a gorgeous Chrysler Norseman show car that went down with the Italian Line’s Andrea Doria—which collided with the Swedish-American ship Stockholm off the Massachusetts coast in 1956. Some 51 people died in the accident.

The Norseman in Italy, before its ill-fated voyage. (Chrysler photo)

The car, built on a 1955 Chrysler 300 chassis (complete with 331-cubic-inch Hemi engine), was one of a kind. It was an aluminum-bodied fastback coupe built by Ghia in Turin, Italy. It was bound for the 1957 show circuit when it went down.

Ghia spent 50,000 man hours on the Norseman, and the car cost $200,000 to design and build—an enormous sum at the time. The car predicts the dramatic rear window/roof treatments we’d see on cars like the Plymouth Barracuda and AMC Rambler Marlin a few years later. The huge roof was cantilevered, meaning no “A” or “B” pillars. All the support was in the rear, a feature that never made it into a production car.

The Norseman had a very unusual cantilevered roof, supported only in the rear. (Chrysler photo)

The inside was innovative, too, with green leather seats that featured reel-type seatbelts. In 1956! The instrument cluster was in a pod, and there was pushbutton gear selection and a writing desk that pulled out under the glove box.

More than a dozen divers have died trying to explore the Andrea Doria, so it’s not surprising that nobody saw the Norseman (packed into a crate) for the longest time. Finally, the late David Bright, a diver, came across it in the mid-1990s. “The crate had disintegrated and the car was in very, very poor condition,” he said. Only the tires and hubcaps were intact.

Now let’s go back to yesteryear, when in late 1929 a full complement of 268 new Nash cars went down in Lake Michigan with the SS Senator (again, following a collision). The ship now sits upright, 450 feet down. “Those cars on the inside [of the ship] are in pretty good condition,” said Tamara Thomsen, a maritime archaeologist and diver who surveyed the wreck in 2016. The vehicles parked on deck got crushed into a big pile. Those poor cars were on their way to dealerships across the Midwest.

We could go on forever, but I recall that famous movie scene where Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet make love in the hold of the Titanic. “Put your hands on me, Jack,” Kate says. The vehicle is some kind of luxury town car, a fact probably few viewers noted at the time. It turns out that this detail was historically accurate.

According to Hagerty, the car (the only one the Titanic carried) was a 1912 Renault Type CB Coupé de Ville owned by a wealthy coal and iron heir named William Carter, traveling with his wife and their two children. At the last minute, Bill Carter hopped into a lifeboat, which meant he survived along with the rest of his family. The car in the movie is, indeed, a 1912 Renault of similar heritage, and you even see it being hoisted onto the ship. The actual vehicle still lives in the hold of the Titanic.

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