Triton Submarines Races to the Bottom of the Ocean for Fame and Fortune

This is the landscape of nightmares: pitch black, zero oxygen, freezing cold. Beyond the inky, icy darkness lies a seemingly endless expanse of barren rock. Here, silt swirls like snow. Strange creatures, their pale bodies as white as bleached bones, scuttle between rocks. And the pressure is so great that a human would be instantly crushed into a sugar-cube-sized clump of flesh and bone.

But this alien world isn't science fiction. Nor is it the surface of Mars or Jupiter. It's the Mariana Trench: the deepest depths of the ocean, more than 36,000 feet below the surface. Deeper than Mount Everest is tall, the trench is one of the most isolated and extreme environments on Earth.

It's about to have visitors.

Three teams of explorers are locked in a race to reach this godforsaken spot of Pacific Ocean soil. In a contest that would make Captain Nemo proud, each is scrambling to assemble a high-tech submarine capable of withstanding the mind-boggling journey seven miles straight down into the abyss.

Two of the teams have all the money in the world on their side. British billionaire Sir Richard Branson and his silver mane headline one. Hollywood bigwig James Cameron leads another. The director of Avatar and Titanic has already pumped $10 million into his sub, whose design is a closely guarded secret.

Then there is Patrick Lahey. The president of tiny Central Florida company Triton Submarines is everything his two rich rivals are not: a buzz-cut, blue-collar diver with a mouth as dirty as Dennis Leary's and a hardscrabble history to match. Lahey and his band of salty submariners are heavy underdogs. But if they can dive their uniquely designed, perfectly spherical sub to the bottom of the trench before Branson and Cameron do, they'll be heroes. And if they can persuade reality television producers to film the whole ordeal, the average Joes might even get rich.

Lahey has already braved a daring career of toting bombs to the bottom of the sea, survived innumerable explosions and equipment failures, and even skirted the feds after one boss was caught conspiring to traffic tons of cocaine for Colombian drug lords.

But his race into the abyss is his riskiest venture yet. Not only is the Mariana Trench the most dangerous spot on the planet, but a $15 million gamble Lahey has taken to build his craft in a Vero Beach garage could easily torpedo his company if he comes in second or third. If he wins, success could propel Triton to the top of the submarine industry.

"I'm not a scientist or an engineer, just a high school graduate who became a hard-hat diver," Lahey says of his quest. "But more people have been to the moon than have been to the bottom of our own ocean. That doesn't make any goddamn sense."

Patrick Lahey swam down into the darkness and tried not think about the bomb in his hands. A thin wire snaked from a metal cylinder full of C4 to a detonator on the ship hundreds of feet above. The 110-pound charge was designed to obliterate old oil wells, but it could just as easily annihilate Lahey.

Slowly, the outline of an oil pipe emerged. The trim diver lowered the explosive into the 30-inch opening like a father laying down his infant son. From behind his diving mask, he winced as it clanked against the sides of the pipe. Finally, it touched bottom. Lahey exhaled and headed back toward the California coastal sunlight.

"There was no way the bomb could go off until we were back on the boat," Lahey says now, nearly 30 years later. "At least, that's what they always told us, and I was stupid enough to believe 'em."

Lahey has spent most of his life under the waves, first as a diver for offshore oil companies and later at the helm of nearly every commercial submarine ever built. For him, the journey to the bottom of the Mariana Trench isn't a bored billionaire's latest thrill or a business mogul's advertising gimmick. It's the culmination of a lifelong obsession with the ocean — one that has driven him to deeper, more dangerous waters.

Lahey was born in 1962 in Ottawa, Ontario, where the only body of water was the frigid river winding through town. But he grew up awed by the stories of his father, who had battled Nazi U-boats as a member of the Royal Canadian Navy during World War II. So when his father took a job building houses in Barbados, Patrick was primed for adventures at sea.

He could smell the Caribbean from his house in Holetown on Barbados' west coast. The former pirate port was ideal for a rambunctious child like Patrick. When he wasn't taking apart the telephone, he was outside stirring up trouble with his seven siblings. They would wag their tamarind-stained tongues while swinging on vines during recess, sword fight with banyan leaves, and sneak into a local bar to watch a trained monkey dance. Once, Patrick and older brother Jim were chasing each other around a hotel construction site when Jim stubbed his toe on something. When the two dug into the soil, they unearthed a human skull with a musket-ball hole through it.

When Patrick was 7, an American submarine docked in Holetown. His father took the family to see the metal leviathan. Patrick was transfixed. Vowing to become a marine biologist, he spent hours after school snorkeling or practicing scuba diving in the family pool using his older brothers' equipment. "That's when my love affair with the ocean really began," he remembers.

When he was 19, he headed to a professional dive school in San Pedro, California. It was a dream come true, but it was also brutal. Lahey was the youngest person there, surrounded by grizzled, fully grown men with scars, tattoos, and years of experience. Instructors would randomly shut off divers' oxygen or ensnare them underwater just to see how they would react.

"Patrick was this young, innocent guy with a big ol' smile. He didn't even cuss yet," dive school buddy Jim Kuenzi recalls. The two rented a tiny room near the beach and did nothing but dive, swim, and sleep on bare mattresses they salvaged from a nearby alley. "Everyone else was in it to make a living, but he was in it for something else. The ocean."

By the end of the six-month stint, Lahey was top in his class and the fittest diver around, thanks to his maniacal diet and early-morning ocean swims.

Lahey's instructors introduced him to Lad Handelman, a former Bronx gang member who had turned his life around on the ocean and now owned the largest commercial dive company in the world. Lahey drove Handelman to the Los Angeles airport in his ancient Oldsmobile 442, and though the jalopy broke down en route, the two became good friends, and Handelman helped the young diver get his first job.

"You find a lot of mavericks and gnarly characters in the offshore world," Handelman says. "It's a special breed of men who work hard and play hard — drinking, womanizing, avoiding irate husbands, things like that." Lahey was different. "Patrick could get the job done as well as anyone," Handelman recalls, "but he also had integrity and principles."

Lahey started out sweeping the floor for $3.75 an hour at a small diving company. But what really caught his eye were the company's Mantis diving machines: one-person submarines built like bulky space suits.

One day a sub operator left the manual lying around. Patrick took it home and memorized it. When a corroded part perplexed the mechanics, they left the dive suit sitting out and went to lunch. After Lahey fixed it alone, his boss let him take the suit for a test run; for the first time in his life, Lahey was behind the wheel of a submarine, looking out at crystal-clear waters. He rode an oil well guide wire down to 1,400 feet before reluctantly returning to the surface.

"I felt like I had won the Super Bowl," Lahey says. "I fucking ate it up."

More than two decades before Lahey's maiden sub dive, two men had already blazed a treacherous path to the bottom of the ocean. Their harrowing journey foreshadows the deadly risks behind today's high-tech-submarine sprint to the Mariana Trench.

On January 23, 1960, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh squeezed into a narrow hatch aboard a blimp-like bathyscaphe called the Trieste. They climbed 20 feet down a ladder, past giant tanks of highly combustible aviation gasoline, and into a tiny spherical cabin with walls of seven-inch-thick steel.

As the Trieste and a support boat bobbed on the waves 300 miles southwest of the Pacific island of Guam, Walsh grabbed the underwater telephone and gave the go-ahead. He and Piccard had tested the submersible to 24,000 feet — about 4.5 miles down — but neither man knew how deep the Mariana Trench was, nor if the bathyscaphe could endure the skull-shattering pressure.

Walsh flipped a series of switches and the Trieste hissed like an angry snake as air escaped its two ballast tanks. While the 50-foot-long steel drum sank steadily into the brine, Walsh and Piccard took turns gazing out the sphere's six-inch window. By 500 feet, the sun was gone. Strange shrimp and jellyfish swirled in the light from floodlights aimed down into the deep.

Hundreds of pounds of metal shot pushed the primitive sub toward the ocean floor. The two men stared at pressure, depth, and oxygen gauges for hours as the cabin grew colder. Then, at nearly 15,000 feet, the sonar-powered telephone cut out.

"We were absolutely alone," Piccard told a reporter shortly before his death in 2008. "We had no way to communicate with the surface." But the pair kept descending.

Suddenly, a violent crack broke the silence. The Trieste shook as if hit by a missile. Without exchanging a word, Piccard and Walsh halted the descent and frantically pored over the controls to determine the cause of the explosion.

"We didn't know what it was, but it sure made a hell of a bang," says Walsh, interviewed by phone from his California home. "We looked around and thought, Well, we're still alive. The pressure outside was 7.5 tons per square inch. If in fact it had been [a crack in the cabin], it would have happened so fast that we wouldn't have been aware of it. We would have just died."

Without communication with the surface, the two men faced a decision: turn back or continue despite the scare. Piccard sent the sub sinking once again.

Finally, after more than four hours, the Trieste landed gently at Challenger Deep, the bottom of the Mariana Trench, roughly 36,000 feet below the surface. Walsh gazed out the window and saw a flounder-like fish undulate across the murky sea floor. Somehow, despite pressure of more than 1,000 times that on the surface, there was life in the deepest, darkest corner of the planet.

After barely 20 minutes in the bowels of the ocean, Walsh pulled a lever that released the metal shot into the water. The Trieste hurled upward.

The dive made headlines around the globe. But its importance was soon obscured by the glamour of the space race. The Soviets would soon send Yuri Gagarin into orbit, and NASA was scrambling to catch up. Compared to the solar system, the ocean could wait.

It would be five decades before pioneers as brave — or reckless — as Walsh and Piccard came along again.

By sheer luck, Lahey began piloting submarines just as they were becoming a crucial part of the offshore oil industry in the '80s. And only a combination of good fortune, wiles, and skill have helped him survive his two decades in the industry — as accidents, economic woes, and the long arm of the law all conspired to end his sub dreams long before he thought about venturing to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

After dive school, Lahey manned a number of small subs called atmospheric diving suits, capable of welding and repair work on oil rigs deep in the ocean. He mastered them one by one, welding broken oil pipes and laying explosives from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf of Mexico.

The work was dangerous as hell. He nearly died when his oxygen ran out while he was working under a Navy fuel tanker in the Chesapeake Bay. Then he was almost crushed when he was sucked into an underwater power plant pump in Palm Beach. And he endured leaks and fires aboard the small submarines he piloted. Once, in California, his sub got tangled up in wires. When a crane yanked him loose, it tore the sides off the tiny machine.

"We made new [parts] out of steel pipe and went right back in," Lahey says. "In the dive industry, they didn't want you to make excuses."

The months at sea took a toll on his personal life as well as on his health. He had married Catherine Percy, one of the industry's few female divers, soon after dive school, but the relationship became strained when she sued Lahey's bosses for refusing to hire her. The suit went nowhere, and Lahey joined another company in the colder, more treacherous waters of the North Sea.

"I had amazing experiences as a diver that I'll cherish for the rest of my life," Lahey says. "But it wasn't good for my marriage or for being a husband."

The couple tried to save their marriage in 1986 by moving to Jupiter, where they won a contract to search for debris from the Space Shuttle Challenger, which had exploded over the Atlantic. But when that job ended and Lahey began showing tourists around the Caribbean on subs, Percy stayed behind.

Sub tourism didn't take off, and by 1994, Lahey had moved in with business partner and fellow sub fanatic Bruce Jones on the tiny island of Anacortes in Washington state. A decade after getting into the sub industry, he was divorced and broke, living off credit cards and Jones' hospitality.

A Cuban-American playboy named Juan Almeida pulled him back in — until the new job ended in a spectacular federal bust.

Almeida, the son of wealthy Cuban immigrants, raced around Miami in a fleet of Ferraris, sold fighter jets to former Soviet republics, and saved spare engines to juice up his cigarette boats. He called Lahey because he had just blown $9 million on his latest gadget: an unfinished 16-person Swiss submarine. Now he needed someone to help him complete it.

Almeida flew Lahey cross-country to his private marina: Fort Apache in Fort Lauderdale. The downtrodden sub expert didn't have much to show for his years below water, but he promised the millionaire that he could quickly get the SPT-16 working.

"I came into the hangar a couple of weeks later and Patrick had taken apart the entire submarine," Almeida recalls. "I didn't recognize it. It was in pieces. But he just looked at me and laughed and said, 'Don't worry, Juan. I know what I'm doing.' "

Lahey got the craft running perfectly — his first major business success — spurring him and Jones to start their own private company, U.S. Submarines, and eventually Triton Submarines in 2006.

Barely a year after his submarine was completed, in January 1997, Almeida was arrested for plotting with the Russian Mob and Colombian drug cartels to transport 40 tons of cocaine at a time from Mexico to Santa Barbara. Prosecutors had wiretapped Porky's strip club in Hialeah and claimed to have caught Almeida and Russian owner Ludwig Fainberg discussing the massive drug operation.

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."

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."

Things are chillier, however, between Cameron and Lahey, who worked on the filmmaker's 2005 documentary about ocean exploration, Aliens of the Deep. "He was trying to get the film in the can, but we'd had multiple sub failures," Lahey says. "[Cameron] was getting increasingly short-tempered and harsh to the crew. And they were at the limit of what they could take. Several came to me in tears.

"Jim is a brilliant guy, and he may get there first," Lahey adds. "But he'll get there in a one-person sub that will go in a museum when he's done."

Lahey's vessels, however, will open the deep sea to thousands of people. Triton plans to take tourists two at a time to the trench, and Lahey hopes to sell the transparent-hulled subs to mega­yacht owners around the world.

"We're interested in getting more people to give a shit about the ocean," Lahey says. "The future of our species depends on it, yet 95 percent of the ocean has never been explored. It really is the last frontier on Earth."

The bright-yellow submarine hangs like an 18,000-pound wrecking ball from the end of the crane. Its bulbous cockpit shines in the midday sun as it's slowly lowered into a muddy inlet of the Atlantic Ocean. Patrick Lahey watches his $3 million baby slip into the water and vents his frustration.

"Fucking insurance premiums," he says in his Ottawan drawl to a half-dozen crew members behind the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Vero Beach. Lahey is irked that he had to shell out thousands just to test-dive his own submarine. "I've had ten claims against me in my car, but I've never had one against me in a sub in 30 years," he fumes. "They really bend you over the barrel, and it's always at the 11th hour."

Time is, in fact, running out for Lahey and his crew in the race to the bottom of the ocean. As their richer rivals begin testing their submarines, the underfunded Triton Submarines is still stuck in the manufacturing stage and at risk of arriving to the party after it's already over. Yet Lahey's caution could also propel his team to glory. Triton's design is slower to build but safer than the other subs, he insists. That means if Branson and Cameron slip up, Triton could steal the victory.

Reaching the Mariana Trench ahead of its wealthy competitors would thrust Triton Submarines onto the world stage and drum up desperately needed business for the tiny company. But failure could cost $15 million and dash Lahey's dream of navigating the Earth's deepest abyss.

Lahey believes Cameron is already testing his mysterious, movie-camera-equipped submarine off the coast of Australia. (The filmmaker couldn't be reached for comment.) Meanwhile, Chris Welsh says he and Richard Branson will conduct test dives in the coming months, with the goal of diving into the trench by midyear.

Lahey, however, is nearly two years away from venturing into the trench. A company in California is manufacturing the glass walls for his sphere, smaller models of which Triton hopes to test in coming months. If those tests go well, a full-ocean-depth sub could be completed by the end of 2013.

But Mariana's sheer crushing pressure gives Lahey hope. He believes his rivals' designs will suffer setbacks. "I feel strongly that building a carbon-fiber hull is flawed," he says. "I want to make something that's safe to sell, not something that can fail at any time."

His competitors deny that they are putting speed ahead of safety, however. "Every submarine program is going to have its Achilles' heel," says Graham Hawkes, the engineer behind the Deep Flight Challenger submarine. "Politicians work with absolutes like safe and unsafe. That is all nonsense. Engineering at these extremes involves statistics and probabilities."

Whenever someone does reach the bottom of the trench, dozens of scientists are ready to analyze whatever the team brings back. Engineers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have designed small robotic vehicles that will accompany the Virgin Oceanic sub and collect water and soil samples in search of microbes and other signs of life.

The dash into the depths also could be a boon for the burgeoning underwater mining industry, says Steve Scott, a geologist at the University of Toronto. "Nobody is going to be mining in the Mariana Trench," he says. "But what it will do is show the public that we can work in the deep sea. It will legitimize the whole idea of doing things of economic value in the deep ocean."

Lahey, meanwhile, says he hopes his expedition will unveil new species, medicinal cures, and alternative food sources before global warming cooks ocean creatures in their shells.

But the underdog environmentalist estimates that Triton needs another $15 million in order to build a sub capable of reaching the bottom of the trench.

Triton has two shots at raising the money. The first is by showing off its current $3 million submarine (called the 3300/3 for its ability to take three people 3,300 feet down) in the hope of luring investors.

But a recent trip to the Bahamas to give tours to prospective buyers nearly turned into a disaster. Lahey steered the sub to 1,000 feet below the surface, deep enough that the light from the Caribbean sun disappeared above them. Suddenly, one of the vehicle's 900-pound, yellow battery pods detached without warning.

You've got to be shitting me, he thought as the $150,000 pod plummeted into the darkness. The suddenly buoyant sub began rising toward the surface, and Triton's first open-ocean test dive for the 3300/3 came to an instant end.

The December 7 mishap jeopardized Lahey's whole trip to the Bahamas. It left him and his crew only three days until tours scheduled with more than 40 prospective buyers — mostly millionaires and scientists — from around the world. If they couldn't fix the sub in time, the tours would be scrapped, no subs would be sold, and Lahey could forget about raising the money needed to reach the bottom of the trench.

Lahey immediately sent half of his employees back to Miami for a spare pod, while he and the remaining crew stayed up all night fixing the problem. By the time potential clients arrived two days later, the sub was working perfectly. So well, in fact, that on one dive, the sub followed a giant manta ray the size of a car for 45 minutes. "It was unprecedented," Lahey says proudly.

Even better, a billionaire who took the sub for a spin said he was interested in funding the dive to the Mariana Trench. Triton might be trailing Cameron and Branson, but the race isn't over yet.

If a sugar daddy doesn't materialize, Triton has a back-up plan: reality television. The company has already met with the producers of reality-TV shows Gold Rush and The Deadliest Catch. One thing is for sure: There would be no shortage of thrills or F-bombs.

On the patio of his two-story suburban house in Vero Beach, Lahey doesn't look much like a reality-TV star. He's just a regular guy flipping steaks on a grill and listening to Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come. He married Tiziana, an aspiring Italian opera singer, a decade ago. They have a mischievous 8-year-old daughter named Victoria.

But like the ocean he adores, there is something remarkable under Lahey's surface: 30 years spent exploring a world most people only glimpse through snorkel goggles and an almost-realized dream of visiting the Mariana Trench. Whatever the risks to get there, Lahey is committed.

"That will be his magnum opus," Tiziana says over dinner, "his Holy Grail."

"You pour so much of your time and energy into these submarines that you care about them," Lahey says. "We all love them a little too much. They are so precise, so beautiful. And because they do these incredible things, they become something more than these fucking inanimate lumps of metal and wires. They become your life."

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Michael E. Miller