An Ordinary Man Facing a Great Challenge

by John Delach

There are no great men, there are only great challenges that ordinary men are forced by circumstance to meet.

Admiral William F. Halsey Jr.

Jonathon Tennant, known as JT, made his way to the “Georgia docks” in Fancy Bluff Creek just outside of port of Brunswick, Georgia late on the night of September 7, 2019. His mission,  to pilot the MV Golden Ray to the open sea. His charge that night was a car carrier, also known as a ro-ro, that featured vast open internal spaces and ramps that allowed for the rapid loading and discharge of vehicles by “car jockeys” who drove them Grand Prix style on and off the ship. (A young man’s dream.) Ugly by design, car carriers resemble upside down bathtubs.

Car carriers are also not inherently seaworthy as the weight of most of those vehicles is above the waterline. To stabilize the ship, the correct amount of water ballast must be carried in tanks below the waterline. While docked in Brunswick, the car jockeys had unloaded and loaded enough vehicles to require new ballast calculations.

But one report I read stated someone in authority decided that the re-calculation could be put off until the Golden Ray reached its next port, Baltimore. 

JT had dreamed of being a harbor pilot since he first saw the big ships negotiating the St. Simons Channel on their passages between Brunswick and the Atlantic Ocean. The port of Brunswick is relatively unknown to outsiders as it is overshadowed by Savannah to the north and Jacksonville, to the south. But because of its excellent rail connections, by 2019, it had become the sixth largest port in the USA for importing and exporting cars, SUVs and light trucks.

JT graduated from the United States Merchant Marine Academy in 1997 and became an apprentice for the Brunswick Bar Pilots Association in 1998.

Over time, his skills and experience let him achieve the rank of a master pilot. He superseded the captain in navigating the ship until reaches the open sea. JT would then leave his position and descend to a waiting pilot boat that would return him to shore.

That morning, he navigated the twists and turns along the St Simon Channel as he had done hundreds of times before as he proceeded on his outbound journey, He remained in contact with fellow pilot and good friend, Jamie Kavanaugh, who was piloting the inbound MV Emerald Ace, another ro-ro, car carrier.

As JT took the Golden Ray through a hard turn to starboard, (right) the ship assumed a serious list to port (left). Tennant adjusted the turn that seemed to correct the Golden Ray, but only momentarily as the list to port became overwhelming. JT advised Jamie not to pass the Golden Ray. “I‘m losing her,”

Time had run out as the pilot’s training and instinct kicked in; the Golden Ray was rolling over. Tennant turned his charge to starboard (right) taking the ship out of the channel and onto a sand bar, grounding the ship as the Golden Ray quickly capsized.

As the ship went over, JT braced his legs around the vertical compass pedestal, braced his upper body against the windshield and managed to grab a life vest skidding off a shelf in his direction. Later, JT would testify that snagging the vest was Divine Providence, not because it saved him, but rather because it had a radio.

His cries of Mayday, Mayday, were immediately picked-up by a Coast Guard monitoring station in Charleston, South Carolina. That call, together with fellow pilot, Jamie’s calls for help, initiated a rapid response.

JT held fast to his perch on the bridge; once horizontal, now vertical.

Captain Skylar Dionne, skipper of the tug Anne Moran, on station in the harbor awaiting the arrival of the Emerald Ace, understood, Jamie’s urgent message and sped out across the sound “at best possible speed” to reach the Golden Ray. On arrival, he braced his tug against the bottom of wreck and applied the tug’s horsepower to prevent the wreck from slipping back into the channel.

If the Golden Ray had slipped into the shipping channel, it would have been blocked for months, but, more importantly, most of the crew would have drowned in that deeper water.

JT held onto his perch until nearly daylight when the rescue flotilla confirmed that they had picked up 19 of the 23 members of the crew. ( The last four were trapped below deck in an engine room. They were rescued a day and a half later after a hole was bored into the overturned hull.)

Finally, JT made his way to one of the fire hoses the crew had previously lowered to escape and  slid down to safety.

Like most ordinary men, Jonathan Tennant was reluctant to accept the credit he deserved for having the instinct and training to make a split-second decision that carried the day. A religious man, JT summed up that night’s experience:

“Above all, I would like to recognize that each of these individuals, the weather, the capsizing location, the capsizing direction that skid my survival vest with the radio to me (not away); and the successful rescue of every crew member comes down to our merciful God, our Creator.”

And this I know to be true: Captain Jonathon Tennant, Brunswick Bar Pilot No. 6 crossed over that line in the early morning of September 8, 2019 and achieved that thing we call greatness!