Personal View

Chris Welsh, BS 85, a commercial real estate investor and avid sailor based in Newport Beach, Calif., has partnered with Virgin Group Chairman Sir Richard Branson to explore the deepest corners of the world’s five oceans in a uniquely designed winged submarine. Next year, Welsh will pilot the one-man sub 11 kilometers down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. The voyage was originally envisioned by the sub’s first owner, the late Steve Fossett, an adventurer who disappeared in 2007 on a solo airplane ride. Welsh recently met with CalBusiness in Point Richmond, Calif., to talk about the deep sea expedition. What follows is an edited excerpt of that interview, in Welsh’s words.

“I love adventure and exploration. I started sailing when I was 4. A few years ago my cousin convinced me to buy a dual dirt-road bike. We met two friends at the Baja border and took off, covering 2,000 miles in about 12 days. I owned a helicopter with partners and we sold it to a guy in Tennessee. My condition on the sale was that I got to deliver it. So I flew across the United States at 200 feet. You see a different slice of the world that way. Over the years, I have covered tens of thousands of miles by dirt bike, boat, light plane, and helicopter, looking to see what is out there.

After Steve Fossett died, I was keeping an eye on the sale of his 125-foot ultra-catamaran Cheyenne from a distance for about a year. The guy in charge of selling it ended up as part of my crew for Big Boat Series in San Francisco. We agreed to drive to Alameda to take a look at the cat. Crossing the Bay Bridge, he mentioned that there also was a submarine, and I said, ‘Let’s take a look at it too.’ I was immediately captivated when I saw both the sub and the cat [which is the mother ship that carries the submarine].
That led to a number of months of negotiating the contract to buy the sub and cat. During that time, I thought for sure I would get a sponsor, but didn’t. I woke up on a particular Monday morning, and on Friday the wire had to be in to buy it all. There was no one in sight, and I had 5 percent of the money needed in my checking account. By Tuesday morning I woke up and said to myself, ‘I’m going to hate reading about somebody doing this instead of me. Opportunities like this just don’t come along very often.’ I became determined to pull it off, and by Friday, I had gone to my assets and gathered up the monies to do it. That was in April 2010.

50-50 with Richard Branson

I didn’t meet with Virgin until July, and we didn’t set a deal until November. They don’t just write a check the first moment of the first meeting. They say, ‘We want to put money in this and figure out some business application for it. We don’t need to just get publicity.’

I went home and sketched up a plan for a submarine tourism business. They took a look at it and said, ‘This is good. It may be that we never do it, but you’ve organized this better overnight than the last guy we gave three months to, you’ve got the sailing credentials, and you can figure this out.’ I had won the Los Angeles to Tahiti race with my boat Ragtime, and then went down and won our class in the Sydney-to-Hobart Race. These races are big enough that Richard knew if you can sail 8,000 miles away and logistically sort out not only getting there, competing, but also winning, you understand the logistics of these kind of projects.

Which is all I do all day—logistics. Where do people need to be? Where do parts need to be? How’s it going to get paid for? Does the technology exist? How can we improve it or adapt? Because when you cut through it all, the sub, although very elegantly executed, is still a prototype. Battery technology has advanced. The lithium batteries that were in there are the same ones that caught fire in Sony laptops. That’s mildly distressing, but it’s even more distressing when you find out that they even burn underwater. So we went to a modern lithium-polymer battery.

I felt strongly that we needed to include science. Very early on, we went to all the deep sea researchers we could find and invited them to invite everyone they knew to a conference. We laid out the capabilities of the sub. Then we asked them what should we be looking for and what were the biggest deliverables. Due to the sub’s range, the number one deliverable was HD video. We’re also doing water and sediment sampling. We have a limited mass spectrometer that senses life byproducts like sulfur dioxide or carbon dioxide.

Darkness and Danger

It’s a long trip down, over two hours of descent. It’s going to be dark, but there will be a large light show there. The mid-water is full of bioluminescent life. I’m really looking forward to that. My goal will be to descend without lights on. We’re trying to buy cameras that are fast enough and light sensitive enough to work with the minimal ambient light.

The obvious danger is the implosion risk, the collapse risk. Surface recovery is tough, too. The characteristic failure problem with a glass dome is that you will likely get back to the surface even with a crack in it; the pressure holds it together. And inevitably Murphy shows up, the wind and the waves have come up, and maybe you didn’t come up right where the catamaran is. At the surface, you no longer have control over the sub. You’re buoyant, you can’t go back down, you can’t get out of the sub without being let out, and you’re dependent on those guys in the boat to execute the recovery correctly. And, if you’re a little bit of a control freak, which I’ll concede I am, just being trapped in a bottle, waiting for someone to let you out, that’s the toughest part.”

To follow Welsh’s dive into the deep,