The British passenger ocean liner that struck an iceberg and sank in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912, is quite possibly the most famous maritime disasters in history. Despite the macabre circumstances surrounding the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the ship continues to capture the hearts and imaginations of many.
Is this fascination due to the fact that the ship was embarking on its maiden voyage when it sank? Or because the ship was said to be unsinkable? Stockton Rush, CEO and co-founder of Everett-based submarine expedition company OceanGate, has his own theory about why Titanic continues to captivate.
“It’s got something for everyone: It has tragedy, it has romance, it has hubris, it has pop culture,” Rush said. “To have the No. 1 grossing movie and also have the No. 1 hit song be all about a story that you couldn’t just make up with the maiden voyage, and it sinking, the rescue; there are so many elements of the Titanic that would be a great (story) if just one of them were the case.”
It’s no surprise then that OceanGate made waves (pun intended) earlier this summer with the announcement that it was planning its first expedition to Titanic beginning as soon as summer 2019.
A life-long SCUBA diver and a submarine owner since 2003, Rush — along with his cohort of OceanGate staff, private investors, and researchers — isn’t the first submariner to journey to the 12,500-foot-deep wreck. Since the 1985 discovery of the wreckage 370 miles southeast of Newfoundland, scores of subs have visited the site for research, documentation, and maybe a little sight-seeing — the former of which is Rush’s main objective for OceanGate’s expedition.
“There had been tourist dives to Titanic, but they didn’t have a research component, and there were a lot of things I didn’t like about how they did those,” Rush said of previous expeditions. “So, we looked at that, and said, ‘What about going to the Titanic and scanning it?’ — that’s a real need to see how it is decaying — and maybe we can take those scanned images and make virtual reality experiences.”
Taken on an annual basis through return expeditions to the wreckage, the researchers in Rush’s cohort hope to be able to glean the rate of deterioration over time.
With such a “titanic” undertaking, OceanGate wasn’t about to just dive in with any equipment. Rush said countless manhours went into developing innovations that would provide the team smooth sailing.
First, a new sub was built from the ground up using the latest in carbon fiber technology to ensure the sub was light, strong, and buoyant. Previously, carbon fiber had been used only for small, unmanned submersibles. This time, OceanGate worked with Boeing — which had seen great success using carbon fiber in aviation — for several years to analyze how to best use the technology.
“One of the great things about carbon fiber, on a strength-to-buoyancy basis — which is what matters in the ocean — (is) it’s three times better than titanium,” Rush said. “So, we spent the better part of three to four years now just working on different cylinder designs.”
The biggest hurdle OceanGate needed to overcome with the carbon fiber hull was to make sure the material would hold up to the pressure caused by deep oceanic dives, such as the eight-to 10-hour round trip dive to Titanic. For this, engineers developed a real-time acoustic monitoring system that uses small transducers to essentially listen to the carbon fiber for signs of stress.
“Just like an old tree will start to creak and groan, and then someday it snaps, the carbon fiber is the same way; it starts to make noise way before it fails,” Rush said. “By using this system, we’re basically listening to the heartbeat of the sub all the time.”
Finally, OceanGate needed a way to ferry the sub out to the dive site, launch it, and then bring it back into a dry-dock environment. Most subs are launched by custom ships with built-in cranes, according to Rush, but these can be costly and in high demand. Instead, OceanGate developed its own sinking barge — or floating dry dock.
“We are able to transport the sub and that barge anywhere on the planet with a standard truck, assemble it in less than a day in a shipyard, launch it, and then tow it out on location with a ship of opportunity, whatever ship is available,” Rush said. “That was a big innovation for us.”
Rush is proud of OceanGate’s game-changing sub, but humble enough to admit that he drew inspiration from others in his field. For the sinking barge, Rush said he had to give credit to the Hawaii Undersea Research Lab because it was the only one “who had it right.”
Still, there were a few things that Rush wanted to improve upon: The system wasn’t mobile, and it required an operator to man it — both modifications that OceanGate brought to the design.
In addition to in-house innovations, OceanGate will benefit from the innovations of its partners on the Titanic expedition. For instance, an exclusive partnership with Virtual Wonders, a virtual reality and 3D modeling company based in the Philippines, will ensure documentation of the wreckage. Additionally, French firm IX Blue is loaning OceanGate its costly navigation system.
“We couldn’t have done this without industry partners,” Rush said. “You’ve got to have an eco-system of partners to really leverage your success to be able to do things cost-effectively.”