Adventurer wants to base submarine in Newport

NEWPORT BEACH — Harbor officials don't get this type of application often.

Newport Beach yacht racer and businessman Chris Welsh has applied to park his deep-sea submarine atop a 125-foot long, 60-foot wide catamaran in the middle of the bay.

Harbor commissioners approved his application Wednesday night, which clears one hurdle in Welsh's audacious plan to dive to the deepest points of the world's five oceans.

With the high-tech "flying" submarine and its mother ship already purchased, Welsh has been assembling a team of scientists, engineers and filmmakers. But he is still missing one major component — a financial sponsor — and without one, his expedition may never depart.

"It's pretty captivating to go after it and see if you can get there," he said, later adding, "We have some major hurdles ahead of us, both financial and practical."

The "Five Dives Expedition" would send the first solo-piloted submersible to what is believed to be the deepest point in the earth's crust: the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench. Except for a two-man bathyscaphe that reached the bottom in 1960, only unmanned research vessels have plunged that far since.

Once his submersible's components have been pressure-tested, Welsh wants to practice dive in the calm waters off Newport's coast. Engineers are individually testing each part, and if funding comes through, they'll rig the vessel with 3-D IMAX-quality cameras and equipment to collect animals from the ocean's bottom.

A real estate investor, Welsh has been funding the project himself but says he can't complete it without a backer. He has approached some potential sponsors, and would like to land someone like Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin Group mogul who already explores space.

Branson owns his own submarine in the Caribbean, which he charters along with its mother ship to people who pay more than $100,000 per week. The same engineer and designer, Graham Hawkes, of Hawkes Ocean Technologies, built Branson's and Welsh's submersibles.

Private funding, from a source like Virgin, may be the only way to reach the bottom of the major oceans.

Public sources often don't usually take purely exploratory missions, said Katrina Edwards, the director of the USC Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations, who has been collaborating with Welsh.

"Most scientific work has been driven by hypotheses and very specific scientific objectives," she said. "But until you make observations, you're not going to know what hypotheses are important in the first place."

Edwards' research focuses on "extreme life" in the ground below these trenches. She wants to find out how far into the earth's crust microorganisms can live.

Nobody has been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench since 1960, when Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh took the 50-foot long bathyscaphe Trieste to the spot, called Challenger Deep.

That record lured the late adventurer Steve Fossett, and it was from Fossett's estate that Welsh purchased the submersible and a 125-foot catamaran, the Cheyenne.

The two men shared common hobbies — international sailboat racing and piloting planes — and Welsh admired his moxie in both. Fossett, who grew up in Garden Grove, held a number of records.

Aboard the Cheyenne, he broke the time record for sailing around the world. He was also the first person to fly solo nonstop around the world in a balloon.

Welsh won the 2008 Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race in Australia aboard his 65-foot sailboat Ragtime, and has competed in the U.S. and other races. He's also a glider, helicopter and seaplane pilot.

When first inquiring about buying the catamaran, Welsh learned that Fossett wanted to be the first person to dive solo to the bottom of the Mariana Trench and had procured a high-tech "flying" submarine.

But Fossett's preparations were cut short when he crashed a plane in the eastern Sierra Nevada in 2007, and was later found dead.

Besides Mariana, the other trenches he hopes to reach are: the Puerto Rico Trench in the Atlantic Ocean, the Molloy Deep in the Arctic Ocean, the South Sandwich Trench in the Southern Ocean and Diamantina in the Indian Ocean.

It will be at least another month before the Cheyenne is ready to be sailed to Newport Harbor from San Francisco, where it's now berthed.

Because the harbor's main turning basin is over Orange County tidelands, Welsh will have to get county approval as well.

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