Branson sponsors trip to the ocean's depths

NEWPORT BEACH — They are a pair of wealthy risk-takers from opposite sides of the Pond coming together for the first time to embark on a deep sea adventure.

But some rich men have more money than other rich men. And so Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire-adventurer who founded the Virgin Group of companies, is sponsoring Newport Beach real estate investor and millionaire Chris Welsh's submarine expedition to the world's deepest ocean depths.

The two men announced their plans Tuesday at the Newport Harbor Yacht Club, where Welsh belongs as a member.

A tall, scruffy man with wide blue eyes and a sailor's tan, Welsh spoke nervously at the press conference after Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group.

"People all say they'd like to do this," Welsh said. "The truth is, we all can."

Landing a financial sponsor like Branson was the only way he could make his project a reality. By the time the two finally talked, Welsh had already invested about $1 million of his own money, and was running out of cash fast.

"I can't afford to get to the finish line on my own dollar," he said in February, when he was still looking for a backer.

The costs for the expedition have now been pegged at more than $17 million.

An ambitious yacht racer, Welsh happened upon his deep-sea challenge while buying a boat. He admired the sailing records the late adventurer Steve Fossett broke aboard the 125-foot catamaran Cheyenne, and approached Fossett's family after his death in 2007.

Welsh has won the 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 — the deepest known point in the ocean — and had procured a high-tech "flying" submarine.

Fossett's preparations were cut short when he crashed a plane in the eastern Sierra Nevada, and was later found dead. Branson said he was good friends with Fossett and his widow, Peggy, told him about the challenge.

"I must admit, I thought at first it was too dangerous," Branson said in an interview following the press conference.

In the meantime, Welsh, who made his money buying and selling income investments, purchased the submarine and the catamaran for less than $1 million. He began to assemble a team of scientists, engineers and filmmakers.

He later approached Branson via a sports marketing agency, and also contacted the Oceanographic Institute founded by Prince Albert of Monaco looking for a sponsor. Welsh was hopeful about Virgin, but when Branson came to UC Irvine to speak in January, he didn't make the time to meet.

With the announcement on Tuesday, Welsh said he could see his work paying off.

"It's having a year-long effort coming to fruition," he said. "It's ever more tangible."

Branson said Welsh had found a potential technological solution to the crushing pressure of the ocean's depths — a quartz dome that should withstand 13 million pounds of pressure — so he joined the project.

"Chris saw the technology and a way forward," Branson said. "He's very entrepreneurial, and he's fascinated by the science … you need someone dedicated like him on an adventure like this."

Before the first dive, Welsh wants to practice in the calm waters off Newport's coast. He grew up sailing here and knows people in the marine industry who could service Cheyenne. While prepping for the voyage, Welsh has asked his harbor friends if he could use their docks, and like others he has met, they don't believe him at first.

"On an airplane, you get in a discussion and people are like, 'You're a submarine pilot? Really?'" he said.

While Welsh plans to pilot the first dive to the Mariana Trench, Branson will pilot at least one other — to the Puerto Rico Trench in the Atlantic Ocean. It's the closest to his private island in the British Virgin Islands.

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