On paper, Samuel Langley’s scientifically tested math added up to the elusive solution to powered flight.

In practical application, however, the celebrated scientist’s flying contraption flopped into the Potomac River in 1903, leaving it to bicycle makers Orville and Wilbur Wright to master powered flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., later that same year.

This history lesson is brought to you by the latest setback in the salvage operation of the shipwrecked Golden Ray. Just as with the designs on the first flight by Langley and the Wright Brothers, those charged with removing the 656-foot shipwreck from the St. Simons Sound are delving largely in uncharted territory.

An endeavor that should have been underway by now has been delayed for several weeks because a massive support anchor is not performing as it indicated it would on the drawing board, said Coast Guardsman Michael Himes, a spokesman for Unified Command. Not yet, anyway.

The 15-ton anchor in question is one of five anchors dropped strategically around the shipwreck to steady the massive crane vessel that will cut it up and hoist the pieces out for hauling away.

“The anchor plan was designed by engineers, but it wasn’t designed in the field,” Himes said. “It looked good on paper. When we say they are engaged in an unprecedented undertaking, we mean it has literally not been done before. There’s not some kind of recipe they can go back to and reference on this.”

The Golden Ray has remained half submerged between the resort island of Jekyll and St. Simons islands for more than a year, capsizing Sept. 8 while heading out to sea with a cargo of 4,200 vehicles.

Unified Command officials announced last week that the salvaging effort would be delayed because of that one anchor. The anchor in question was not passing muster in “pull tests” conducted by the tugboat Kurt Crosby.

The five anchors have been dropped in specific locations in and around the environmental protection barrier that surrounds the Golden Ray. They are meant to steady the 255-foot-tall, dual-hulled VB 10,000 crane vessel as its cuts the Golden Ray into eight pieces.

Based in Sabine Pass, Texas, the 10-year-old crane is the largest lifting vessel in the U.S. It was designed to dismantle old offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, its dual hulls powered and steadied by four formidable 1,000 hp thruster engines.

However, the shallower waters and swift tidal currents of the St. Simons Sound present unique conditions for the VB 10,000. The anchors are needed to steady the crane vessel in those conditions as it straddles the shipwreck and cuts it into pieces with 400-foot-long anchor chains.

“Imagine the spokes of a bicycle wheel,” Himes said. “If the center of the wheel is the VB 10,000, the anchors are the spokes. And the issue is, one of those spokes in the array of spokes is failing the pull test.”

That fifth anchor is located near the shipping channel. It is the heaviest of the five anchors. The four others each weigh from 6 to 7 tons, Himes said. They will attach to the VB 10,000 by anchor chains.

Crews continue to make adjustments and conduct strength tests on that fifth anchor to make it work, Himes said. The pull tests must be taken at low slack tide. The other four anchors are testing satisfactorily, Himes said.

“That one anchor is itself part of a bigger piece,” Himes said. “The anchor, the anchor chain and the placement of the anchor all work to form that one part of the array.”

Other stabilization options are being studied, including one proposal to steady the VB 10,000 with pilings during the cuttings. (Each cut will take 24 consecutive hours, and the process must continue to completion once it commences.)

Those piles would be similar to the 40 pairs of steel piles that support the environmental protection barrier, he said. The piles are each 3 feet in diameter and 140 feet long, driven roughly half their length into the sound’s bed.

As the plan progresses to a starting date, Unified Command will at some point extend the safety zone around the shipwreck, Himes said. The present 50-yard zone into which boaters cannot enter will be extended to 150 yards.

Meanwhile, the core of roughly 100 essential workers on the salvage project remain sequestered at Epworth By The Sea retreat and conference center on St. Simons Island. Among those workers are many of the engineers working to solve the dilemma of that fifth anchor or to devise another plan, Himes said.

Himes said the priorities remain safeguarding the workers and the public, protecting the environment, preserving commerce and executing a salvage project the like of which has never been done.

“It requires us to do some complex engineering feats,” Himes said.

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