Lahey was the only visitor Almeida allowed at the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami as prosecutors built a case against him. The millionaire's celebrity friends abandoned him, and his family cut off contact. But Lahey showed up every other weekend and tried to keep Almeida's exotic-car empire from falling apart.

Almeida poured $5 million of his fortune into paying lawyers to fight the 30 counts against him. It worked. He was convicted on only one count, and that was overturned in 2003. "The trial destroyed my life," Almeida says. "But Patrick stuck by my side. He knew that I wasn't a criminal.

"Life is all about luck and timing," Almeida adds. "Patrick has got just a few years to really make a mark in this world. That's not much time, but he's very capable of it. I think we are going to be hearing a lot more about him."

The sub cost $3 million to build.
South Florida Dive Journal
The sub cost $3 million to build.
Lahey puts an old-fashioned diving helmet on his daughter, Victoria.
Courtesy of Patrick Lahey
Lahey puts an old-fashioned diving helmet on his daughter, Victoria.

Richard Branson sat on the wing of his submarine and grinned like a kid on Christmas morning. His famous blond locks flapped in the sea breeze while photographers snapped him and local real estate mogul Chris Welsh posing in front of the Deep Flight Challenger, a full-ocean-depth sub shaped like a fighter jet. It was April 4, 2011, and Branson was in California to announce the duo's audacious effort to touch down in the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

"The last great challenge for humans is to reach and explore the depths of our planet's oceans," he said as the Newport Beach marina glimmered behind him. "These are the kinds of irresistible challenges that you have to say yes to."

Fifty-two years after Walsh and Piccard set eyes on it, humans are finally set to return to the Mariana Trench. For the three teams racing to get there, the stakes are as high as the trench is deep.

Branson has put his celebrity-billionaire reputation on the line in the hope of bolstering his Virgin music stores and airlines. Failure for filmmaker James Cameron would sting not only his ego but also his box office receipts. He is expected to turn his adventure into a movie, and tickets to a second-place finish wouldn't be an easy sell.

But the risks are greatest for Lahey and his crew. Triton Submarines doesn't have millions in the bank. Blowing the Mariana Trench mission could wreck the company and cost them their jobs — not to mention the perils of taking a prototype to the world's most unforgiving place.

There's no such worry for Branson, who has set a world speed record for crossing the Atlantic, flown a hot air balloon from Morocco to Hawaii, and crossed the English Channel in an aquatic car. He and partner Chris Welsh created Virgin Oceanic and struck a deal. Welsh will take the team's sub to the bottom of the trench first. But Branson has dibs on the deepest spot in the Atlantic, just off Puerto Rico. For his part, Welsh plans to dive to the bottom of the Indian, Arctic, and Antarctic oceans as well.

The two daredevils are putting their lives in the hands of Graham Hawkes, a British engineer who is the godfather of the submarine industry. He designed and built a multimillion-dollar sub for adventurer Steve Fossett, who was just months away from testing it in 2007 when he died in an aviation accident. Now Hawkes is advising Branson and Welsh, who bought the sub from Fossett's estate. Branson plans to conquer the trench later this year.

And so does Cameron. The Hollywood director has been involved in deep-sea exploration since making his 1997 film Titanic, for which he dived down to and filmed the famous shipwreck. He owns a ranch near Los Angeles where he stores a top-secret sub rumored to have cost $10 million.

Triton Submarines, meanwhile, is run out of a modest metal hangar in Vero Beach. Lahey admits Triton is trailing the millionaire director and billionaire Brit, but he says the strategy is to play the tortoise instead of the hare. While the other two teams are relying on carbon-fiber bodies that Lahey doesn't trust at full ocean depth, Triton's sub will feature a perfectly spherical glass hull that will get stronger — not weaker — the deeper it sinks. It will take longer to build, but it will be safer, Lahey says.

The rival plans have set off a bizarre flurry of energy and innovation more than half a century after Walsh and Piccard reached the trench. "Everybody would like to be first," Welsh says of the race. "There is no question about that. But someone has already been there once to begin with. It's about [exploring] the destination now."

That's where Lahey has the advantage. Walsh and Piccard could barely see through their tiny porthole. But Triton's transparent hull is a revelation.

Lahey's crew recently took a New Times reporter on a test run in the Vero Beach harbor. Even in the silty, cloudy water, the sensation of diving in a clear glass sphere is otherworldly. Underwater scenes swirl 360 degrees around the vessel as sunlight streams from the surface. Even Welsh admits the design is sublime. "This is not the Cold War," he says of the rivalry. "Triton's sub is elegantly executed, and the visibility is amazing."

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R Brown
R Brown

Just want to point out, getting to the bottom of Mariana Trench isn't so hard. Getting back is the trick.