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

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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.

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Michael E. Miller