It was an unusual Tuesday morning at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club as Sir Richard Branson and a huge contingent of press pulled in for the announcement that Newport Beach’s Chris Welsh will be taking a Branson-sponsored submersible to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
The Marianas dive – to 36,000-plus feet – will be the first in an effort to reach the deepest points in all five of the world’s oceans over a two-year period. The Five Dives Expedition, as it is called, will be undertaken by the new Virgin Oceanic unit of Branson’s Virgin Group.
Branson is planning to pilot the one-person sub himself to the bottom of the Puerto Rico Trench, at 28,232 feet the deepest point in the Atlantic.
Welsh is a well-known local businessman and adventurer, and the owner of the racing yacht Ragtime.
The submersible is designed by Graham Hawkes, a pre-eminent designer of submersibles and deap-sea equipment. It is made of 8,000 pounds of carbon fiber material and titanium.
“The view from the sub is extraordinary, like a fighter pilot’s view,” Welsh said. “This gives the ability to truly explore. The Virgin Oceanic sub is a game changer for undersea exploration – with the ability to venture anywhere in our Oceans, with a modest mother ship and a fraction of the resources normally needed to explore regions like this.”
Welsh is aware of the dangers as well as the potential.
“The depth is beyond the capabilities of any other craft, so rescue is impossible,” he said. “It’s like being on the dark side of the moon.”
He said his main fear is of something happening that leaves him stuck in the sub as the oxygen runs out.
“A pressure event would be instantaneous,” he said, “But an oxygen problem mwould give me a lot of time to think about it.”
Welsh said the sub will be tested in the waters off Newport Beach in the coming weeks and, if all goes well, it will make a practice deep dive off either San Diego or Monterey. Then it will be off to the Mariana dive later this year.
The sub’s “mother ship” is the former PlayStation, now the Cheyenne, a 125-foot catamaran that held the record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe by a sailing vessel. It has been moored in Newport Harbor for the past couple of weeks, causing a considerable buzz in the local maritime community.
Tuesday, it was all shined up and the sub was mounted at the stern of its starboard hull. The Cheyenne also will be outfitted with a rig for lowering the sub into the water and raising it, but that has not arrived yet.
The deep-dive project was originally begun by adverturer Steve Fossett. The submersible was incomplete when Fossett died in 2007. Welsh acquired the sub and the Cheyenne from Fossett’s estate and set about bringing the project to fruition.
Virgin is working with several other sponsors and partners on the project, including Google – which will use data collected by the sub to help construct a comprehensive virtual globe – the Scripps Institute, Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Ocean Research and Conservation Association and the British Broadcasting Corp.
For more information, read the Virgin Oceanic press release.