Alone in the Abyss

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1011Walsh

On the eve of his historic solo dive into the Mariana Trench, epic multitasker Chris Welsh is in his element. The heir apparent to fabled O.C. adventurer Steve Fossett has a sub to outfit, a crew to prepare, and an additional 20 pounds to lose. But the ultimate thrill for the Newport Beach science geek will be what he finds when he gets there.

It’s a perfect late-spring day in Newport Bay and you could understand if Chris Welsh just sat back and let someone else take the wheel, so to speak. Even after piloting a giant catamaran down the inlet and tying up in front of the Newport Sea Base to chat with a small crowd of locals eager to see the enormous vessel—a Spruce Goose among Piper Cubs—Welsh is never really at rest.

He answers questions about the big dive he’s planning, greets friends and acquaintances with perfect ease, but never take his eyes off the scene in front of him: a scattering of adults and a few dozen young, uniformed, and excited Sea Scouts clambering over the gleaming white cat’s frame and, occasionally, a little too enthusiastically over the craft’s travel-worn netting.

“Welser! No jumping,” Welsh calls out to catch the eye of 15-year-old nephew Charlie Welsh, organizer of the Scouts’ visit and in charge of keeping the youngsters in line. Later: “No black shoes on the boat!”

Welsh settles back into conversation with a guest who wonders where he has been lately.

“Busy, busy,” he says with a smile. He tells someone else why—preparing for a deep-sea dive—and there’s a moment of confusion:

“Will you be in a diving bell?” evoking the image of a crude contraption on a cable settling into the ocean depths.

“No,” Welsh says, “It’s a submersible. It’ll go all the way to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.”

There’s not a trace of braggadocio in the statement, though Welsh could be forgiven if there were. He could have added that the Mariana Trench goes farther down than Mount Everest goes up—and that he would be the first person to reach that depth of more than 36,000 feet by himself. He could have noted that if something goes wrong—a tangle with a fishing net, a crack in the sub under immense deep-sea pressure, or a problem retrieving a vehicle that only opens from the outside—the result would be deadly. He lets his answer stand, waiting for a follow-up that doesn’t come, maybe because his questioner is trying to absorb the magnitude of the idea—or figure out where the heck the Mariana Trench is.

If all goes as planned, Welsh will be in the Western Pacific before year’s end, setting a record for deepest solo dive and repeating a trip taken only once before, by two men in the bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960. “It’s just a pretty unique opportunity to do something extraordinary,” Welsh says of the Five Dives Expedition he created to take a sub to the deepest trenches of the world’s five oceans.

Welsh, still multitasking, spots something else that concerns him. Younger brother Doug, Charlie’s dad, is alternately herding and acting as tour guide to the crowd that’s inspecting the Cheyenne, the 125-foot catamaran that for months has been a curiosity in the harbor. “Dougie, just five at a time on the netting!”

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Chris Welsh is a bit “control-conscious,” by his own admission, and an epic multitasker by acclamation of those close to him. A top-notch sailor, an accomplished flier, and an avid off-road enthusiast, Welsh is a man in command of his element, no matter what it is.

The 48-year-old Newport Beach native earned his fortune in investment properties and his fame as a champion sailor piloting his yacht Ragtime. He conceived the Five Dives Expedition on what amounted to a side trip from buying the speedy catamaran that was part of the estate of Steve Fossett, the millionaire adventurer and inveterate record-setter who grew up in Garden Grove and died while flying his single-engine plane over the Sierra Nevada in 2007. Welsh made the trip to see the catamaran while in San Francisco for a race in 2009. A friend accompanying him said: “By the way, there’s this sub … .”

Fossett had commissioned Hawkes Ocean Technologies of Richmond, Calif., to build a one-man sub, the DeepFlight Challenger, expressly for the purpose of adding to his collection of record excursions that included ballooning feats, flight records, and the catamaran’s mark for fastest time around the world.

“I knew a little bit about the sub and knew a little bit about the project and said, ‘Yeah, sure. Let’s go take a look at that, too,’ ” says Welsh.

He bought the catamaran and the sub, a stubby-winged vehicle that resembled a scaled-down F-18 fighter more than a classic undersea military vessel. It had been stored in a Northern California commercial building, gathering dust.

With his affinity for science, Welsh immediately changed the focus of the mission, pushing exploration of the deepest part of the oceans to the forefront.

“All Fossett was going to do was go to the trench, dive it, and give the boat to the Smithsonian,” says Hubie Laugharn III, Welsh’s friend and racing-team crewmate, and the expedition’s “cook and chief of morale,” according to the description on project partner Virgin Oceanic’s website.

Welsh wants to be the first to make the record solo dive, says brother Doug, “but the difference between Chris’ dive and Fossett’s: Chris wants to get science from it.”

Scientists believe there’s a lot to be learned down there. They’re curious about how microbial life manages to thrive without light. “That [science] has been considered a dead area forever,” Welsh says. “Suddenly, it’s blossoming right now.”

Companies are interested in life that depends on chemosynthesis and what it might offer pharmaceutical research. Welsh talks of Katrina Edwards of the USC Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations and her work in the Earth’s crust. “She’s studying microbes that live in seafloor rock. Scientists can bore down, get a core sample, bring it back up and crack it open, and find a microbe ready to live. For 140 million years it’s been locked there and derived enough sulfur to get energy to maintain its DNA. Pretty incredible deal.”

Welsh wrote a paper outlining his goals and started contacting several deep-sea researchers and organizations, including Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and USC’s dark energy investigations center.

Scripps marine microbial geneticist Douglas Bartlett says he was “enthralled” by Welsh’s vision of a new manned mission to the deepest spot on Earth, adding that the would-be deep-sea adventurer “had much to say about the engineering considerations involved and was emphatic about the need for a serious science component.”

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Such an ambitious project requires a great deal of money, more than Welsh has to spare. But early this year, he says, explorer and high-stakes entrepreneur Richard Branson’s interest in the project deepened. In April, at a Newport Beach press event, the two announced a partnership that gives Welsh backing for the estimated $11-million endeavor (including the costs of the sub and catamaran), and 61-year-old Branson, who will pilot the sub during at least one of the five dives, another chance to explore. It also will give Branson another vehicle for his brand: Virgin Oceanic emblems now adorn both the catamaran and the sub.

Branson was a frequent collaborator of Fossett’s, and Welsh, as an accomplished flier and car enthusiast, shares Branson’s well-known adventuring interests. But Welsh thinks it was his sailing that sealed the deal two years before the sub project even entered his imagination.

In 2008, Welsh and his Ragtime crew pulled off a difficult yacht-racing double, first winning the Transpacific Yacht Club’s Los Angeles-to-Tahiti race, a 4,000-mile jaunt in late August. Then, after an interlude in New Zealand, the crew sailed to Australia to win the prestigious Sydney-Hobart contest in December. Sydney-Hobart is “one of the gnarliest” in competitive yachting, says Doug Welsh, a rough-water endurance test that sent many competitors home early. (Ragtime left the course to help a sinking yacht and crew to safety, and won its division on corrected time.)

Welsh said the feat of prepping and then swiftly reprepping his boat for competition—and winning—showed Branson “I could put a program together and execute on the magnitude of what we are doing with this one.”

The formidable project will test the limits of Welsh’s multitasking skills. He will sail the catamaran to Guam to rendezvous with the sub, which then will be suspended from a rig attached to the catamaran’s 162-foot mast, for the journey to its launch point in the Western Pacific.

His experience as a pilot of various aircraft and his comfort with the 3-D world of instruments-only flying will be crucial in navigating the sub past the “twilight zone”—the point where sunlight fails to penetrate, about 300 feet down—and along the nearly 7-mile pitch-black trip to the bottom.

But perhaps no skill will matter more than Welsh’s formidable, innate ability to learn, swiftly and thoroughly.

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Sally Welsh tells a story about her son calling from college at UC Berkeley to say he thought he might be able to graduate in 3½ years, but he needed to take two classes that met at the same time, one of which required mandatory attendance. “I said, ‘Well, Chris, you can’t do that,’ and hung up the phone, and as far as I was concerned the subject was over with. We were just happy he’d be able to graduate in only four years.”

At home the following Christmas break, Chris was relieved when he managed a B+ in macroeconomics. Sally Welsh said to her son: “Why were you sweating out that grade so much?” He told her he only attended the class twice, for the midterm and the final. Floored, his mother asked how he could possibly have pulled it off by just reading the textbooks. “And he looked at me and said, ‘Mom, either you understand macroeconomics or you don’t.’ ”

And so Welsh had earned his business degree with an emphasis in real estate.

She also tells of visiting her son’s new home in Newport Beach several years ago and seeing five books laid out on his bed.

“There was a book on exotic birds,” she says, “there was a book on the brain, there was a book on flying, there was a book on the rainforests in South America and,” she says with a disapproving chuckle, “there was a smutty novel. And I said, ‘Are you reading all these at the same time?’ He looked at me like I was crazy, as if to say, ‘Well, why wouldn’t you?’ ”

Doug Welsh tells about a bargain his brother made with a teacher at Newport Harbor High. “Chris really hated to do homework,” because, after reading a book through once, he had the capacity to retain it and considered homework an irritant. “So he made a deal with the chemistry teacher and said, ‘If I get an A on every test, you have to give me an A in homework.’ And the teacher said, ‘Fine: If you get an A on every test; if it’s a B or a high B+—89.9 percent—you’re going to get an F in homework and a C in the class.’ ”

Welsh got his A.

USC scientist Edwards echoes the quick-study characterizations offered by Welsh’s family. “He’s an adventurer, and has that spirit of exploration firmly ingrained. But he’s also very pragmatic, like a scientist. I could relate to what he was doing and got immediately behind the whole project.”

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Welsh and his brother had plenty of latitude growing up, but responsibility as well. Their father, Terry, says, “I told the boys very early on that if they would learn how to sail—and be gentlemen—they could sail anywhere they would want to in the world. Basically, they have.”

Chris Welsh now runs a successful investment properties business through careful delegation to what his dad calls “good managers who keep everything on an even keel” when Welsh is pursuing his other interests. His brother became a securities broker, and is manager of Crowell, Weedon & Co. in Newport Beach.

As teenagers, Chris and Doug piloted the Balboa Ferry, following in the footsteps of their father, who worked it in his teenage years. The ferry operated 24 hours in the summer back then, and the brothers drew graveyard shifts—which might account for Chris’ capacity for long and late hours. “A lot of time he’s at his desk at 3 a.m.,” his mother says. “He works very hard, but he plays very hard, too.”

Work and play have combined in the Five Dives Expedition, which grew swiftly from its birth less than two years ago into a consuming enterprise. This summer Welsh reluctantly skipped his first Transpac L.A.-to-Hawaii race in several years, his time consumed by the expedition’s complexity.

Welsh worked the finances with Virgin, and assisted in completing construction of the sub at its Bay Area base. He also helped prepare for the dive, maneuvering through red tape from multiple governments. And he wrangled the project’s scientific team with frequent help from Doug, the “Newport Beach home base manager.”

The submersible’s technology, curiously, is considered a “weapons system” by the U.S. government because of its deep-dive capabilities. When the feds theorized that Welsh could carry mines to 36,000 feet, he posed the question: “But who else is going to set that mine off and blow anything up?”

“Me or Jim Cameron,” says Welsh, referring to the director of “Titanic” and deep-sea aficionado who is building a deep-dive sub in Australia. “That’s it. There’s no one else.”

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Science’s grip on Welsh is evident. Ask him about, say, the effects of deep-sea pressure on buoyant material and he’ll start dropping vocabulary and numbers straight out of a textbook. In case you wondered, “for every cubic foot of buoyancy, you only get 17 pounds of gain (against total weight)”—an equation that prompted Welsh to drop 30 of a desired 50 pounds (“high protein, low carbs, working out, and Balance Bars”) from his wide-shouldered, 6-foot-3 frame to lessen the need to add more buoyancy to an already slightly overweight sub.

While Welsh clearly has an affinity for science and needs it to make the project worthwhile to him, is it just as clear that science needs him? Marine scientists are able to collect data via robot submarines and by sending devices—experimental apparatus called “landers”—to the bottom and bring them back up with samples. Why send, at great risk and expense, a human being?

Kevin Hardy, Scripps engineer and designer of landers for the Five Dives Expedition, offers a careful response: “On average, the scientists think there’s more science possible from the landers than the manned vehicles, but they are excited and grateful for the attention the hadal zone [the deepest parts of the ocean] is now receiving.”

But Edwards says the chief practical value of the manned sub is reconnaissance. Welsh will be able to roam, take video of the ocean floor, and “map the physical and chemical and biological properties of different systems,” Edwards says. “We’ll gain an enormous amount of information.”

Besides, she says, “One of the reasons it’s so great is that it really puts exploration back in the forefront of human existence, right? We humans are hard-wired to explore. It’s an overwhelming characteristic of our nature.”

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Explorers have forever faced great danger, and the Mariana Trench dive is no exception.

There will be no diving-bell cable spooling out a lifeline attached to the DeepFlight Challenger. In fact, for much of the dive, Welsh will be out of communication range altogether. And those close to him approach the dangers in different ways. Doug Welsh and Charlie will make the trip, but Welsh’s parents have elected not to go.

His father says simply: “It’s a huge challenge. We just pray he’ll be safe down there.”

“I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t concerned,” says Doug, who places his faith, as Chris does, in the rigorous testing the sub has undergone and the multiple safety measures built into it.

“Of course I’m worried,” says Sally Welsh, who has seen her son come through all manner of dangerous enterprises and excursions, “but I could sit in a corner with my thumb in my mouth and miss out on all of it—something that he has chosen to do with his life. And I would be the only one to suffer if I did that. So I’ve decided I’m getting on board and just [taking] the whole thrill ride with him.”

Welsh says: “You know, there are all kinds of things in our lives that we take for granted because they work every day, and that would have equal levels of disaster if they go wrong. A jet engine is a great example: You have a failure in a jet engine—it’s bad. We’re just oblivious to risks that we’re used to.”

In a phone conversation during which Welsh, typically, was busy doing something else (“Can I call you back in a couple of minutes? I’ve got a boat up on a crane.”), he speaks to the aspect of the project that trumps fear: the need to explore.

“On a dirt-bike trip in Baja, for instance, I tend to be the rabbit in the group. I’ll get out in front of everybody and stop and wait for them to catch up. And I’ll sit there and there will be a shrub, and there will be lichen on the shrub, ants running up and down the branches, something else is growing underneath the shrub because of the shade—and, you know, I can fascinate myself for 20 minutes easily with everything that’s going on in that little picture.”

He is fond of saying he has a history of turning over mossy rocks to see what’s underneath. Soon, he’ll be looking as far underneath as it gets.

Who is Chris Welsh?
Age 48
Hometown Newport Beach, born and raised
Family Parents Terry (retired, real estate) and Sally Welsh(retired, schoolteacher); brother Doug (securities broker, manager of Crowell, Weedon & Co.)
Education Newport Harbor High; UC Berkeley, degree in business
Occupation Investment properties

Air
Multiple pilot’s licenses, including seaplanes, helicopter; flies a dual-engine “push-pull” small plane for business and pleasure; sold his helicopter to a buyer in Tennessee and flew the aircraft cross country to deliver it.

Land
Avid long-distance dirt biker; Porsche aficionado since boyhood: “I like operating machinery—maybe not at its limit, but where I’m aware of its limits.”

Sea
Owner-skipper of Ragtime, a 60-foot yacht built in the ’70s in New Zealand; major races won include Transpac L.A.-Hawaii, Transpac L.A.-Tahiti, Sydney-Hobart

Undersea
Pilot, Five Dives Expedition deep-sea submarine dives, partnered with Richard Branson and Virgin Oceanic; passenger, various Disneyland submarines on assorted birthdays growing up.

 

The Five Dives Expedition
Partners Chris Welsh and Virgin Oceanic’s Richard Branson are pilots

Sponsors include Google, Poseidon Engineering, Maersk Line, and Helly Hansen

Research Team Scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USC, Woods Hole, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, University of Alaska, University of Hawaii

What are the 5 Dives?One-man sub explorations to the deepest part of the world’s five oceans:

1. Mariana Trench, Pacific Ocean: 36,201 feet (Chris Welsh, pilot)

2. Puerto Rico Trench, Atlantic Ocean: 28,232 feet (Richard Branson, pilot)

3. Diamantina Trench, Indian Ocean: 26,401 feet (Pilot TBA)

4. South Sandwich Trench, Southern Ocean: 23,737 feet (Pilot TBA)

5. Molloy Deep, Arctic Ocean: 18,399 feet (Pilot TBA)

For the latest news on Welsh’s mission, visit virginoceanic.com and sign up for the Five Dives project blog.

This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Orange Coast magazine.

 

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