Byline: Shane Scott
NEWPORT BEACH — Cheyenne, the 125-foot catamaran and mothership for businessman Chris Welsh and Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson’s planned Virgin Oceanic expedition, has been granted permission to stay another year in Newport Harbor.
During their Nov. 13 meeting, Newport Beach Harbor Commission members agreed to grant the vessel permission for an extended stay, while Welsh, a Newport Beach resident, prepares his submarine for his Five Dives endeavor.
In the Five Fives project, Virgin Oceanic plans for a one-person submarine to be carried aboard Cheyenne for adventures exploring to the deepest part of each of Earth’s five oceans. But first, final repairs must be made to ensure that the sub is ready for those deep dives.
“The main thing is, we’ve been waiting for the (sub’s) new dome forever, and its getting down to a finite number of weeks away — we don’t know if that’s three or seven (weeks), but it’s very, very near,” Welsh said. “When it arrives, it has to be fitted to the sub — then, a pressure test needs to occur.”
The long-awaited dome, which is being constructed from strong, solid quartz, will cap the Virgin Oceanic submarine, allowing for 360 degree viewing during its dives.
“When we got the ingot, it was bigger than we wanted,” Welsh said. “The amount of material that needed to be removed was very large. The hardness and toughness of the material was greater than expected, so it’s taken four times as long as expected.” Once the dome is delivered, it will be fitted to the body of the submarine, waiting in Newport Beach. But the attachment won’t be that simple.
“It’s going to be fitted to a titanium ring that will hold it in place, then will be epoxied into place,” Welsh said. “There’s a very precise outcome you’re looking to achieve. I could easily see us not being happy with the first result and doing it again.”
With Cheyenne being granted permission to stay another year, Welsh estimates they will need at least two-thirds of that time to prepare for the voyage. “We have to test it in the ocean again. The most ideal place to test it is here in Newport,” he said.
Once completed and successfully tested, Virgin Oceanic will head out, nestled in a carriage in the middle of Cheyenne, to complete more than 35 dives, Welsh said — including exploration of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the world’s oceans.
The Trench — which was originally visited by a manned vessel in 1960, then again in 2012 with filmmaker James Cameron — has a lot of wonders left to explore, Welsh noted.
“We’re hoping our dive will bring more substance, by exploring more,” Welsh said. “The prior dives each touched down and came back. Our sub has the potential to submerge for six to eight hours of time on the seafloor, which translates to 20 kilometers of exploration.”
While, biologically speaking, there’s a fair amount to be seen in the bottom of the Mariana Trench, this deep underwater habitat is largely unknown. Welsh, who will be operating the submarine upon its descent, plans to record every foot of what he sees on multiple cameras — in multiple directions, using sonar technology, and chemical detecting systems — all of which will be time-stamped from the start, he said. The data will, in turn, be utilized by a team of scientists for analysis, checking their theories with data from several available data points.
“If you could imagine flying over the Rockies and the Grand Canyon before they’d ever been seen, you’re going to learn something,” Welsh said. “You don’t know what it is yet, but you’ll learn something.”