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Washington submarine firm to take people to the Titanic

EVERETT, Wash. — When a big ship sinks in the open ocean, it does not gently drift to rest on the seabed. It slams into it, coming to a crushing stop.

“Each wreck lands on the bottom and cracks,” submarine driver David Lochridge explained, slapping his right hand into his left to punctuate his point.

The impact’s violence only adds to any damage that may have led to the sinking. Once on the bottom, natural conditions wear down even the biggest shipwrecks given enough time.

That deterioration can create dangers for divers and submarines exploring the site — downed lines, loose nets and collapsed bulkheads, to name a few.

Lochridge can feel the adrenaline coursing through his body every time he approaches a wreck, he said. “You have to take your time,” using powerful sonar equipment to identify loose lines and nets and other hazardous debris before cautiously proceeding.

That is the approach he took last year when Lochridge piloted OceanGate’s Cyclops I submarine to the wreck of the Andrea Doria, an ocean liner that sank in 1956 after colliding with another ship in fog off Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.

As Lochridge eased Cyclops I toward the wreck, the five-man sub’s lights lit up a sliver of the carcass of the grand ship. Lying on its side in about 240 feet of water, it is shallow enough for some sunlight to reach.

“Looking out the sub’s top hatch, I could see this massive object,” he said in his chipper Scottish accent. He stretched his arms wide to emphasize the magnitude.

Lochridge and OceanGate plan to return to the site this summer to conduct further research. It is part of the startup company’s effort to push ocean exploration. It is also training for its deepest dive yet: the wreck of the RMS Titanic, which lies about 12,000 feet — more than two miles — below the waves in the Atlantic.

OceanGate, which is based on Everett’s waterfront, plans to dive on the famous wreck in 2018 — and it is taking along paying passengers. They will not be tourists, though. Each one has to pass a physical and will work alongside other expedition members, said Stockton Rush, OceanGate’s chief executive officer and co-founder.

The former McDonnell Douglas test pilot launched the company with Guillermo Söhnlein, who left OceanGate five years ago. It developed Cyclops I with the University of Washington. The sub that will take Rush and Lochridge to Titanic, Cyclops II, is still being manufactured. Rush said he hopes to have it in the water for testing in November.

Catching a ride to the Titanic is not cheap: $105,129. It is an awkward number — but one with meaning. That roughly is how much a first-class ticket aboard Titanic would cost in today’s dollars.

The Vanderbilts, Astors and other giants of their time paid $4,350 in 1912 to cross the Atlantic on the ship’s maiden voyage.

Of course, Titanic never reached New York. It struck an iceberg about 400 miles off Newfoundland. The massive ocean liner sank in the frigid North Atlantic waters, and some 1,500 of the 2,344 passengers and crew aboard died.

The wreck lay undisturbed until 1985, when a team led by ocean explorer Robert Ballard discovered it. Since then, a handful of manned and unmanned submersibles have visited the site.

Diving on wrecks can be controversial. Some, including the Titanic, are grave sites for the victims. Exploring a site can also damage it; in 1995, one of the MIR submersibles used by James Cameron to get footage for his film “Titanic” collided with the wreck. It can also be accompanied by looting.

Ballard and others openly have criticized the cavalier attitude many have taken to what he considers a sacred grave. Cruise ships circling above have dumped trash on the wreck.

“And a New York couple had even plunked down on Titanic’s bow in a submersible to be married,” he wrote in National Geographic in 2004. “I’d urged others to treat Titanic’s remains with dignity, like that shown the battleship Arizona in Pearl Harbor. Instead they’d turned her into a freak show at the county fair.”

OceanGate will treat the site with respect and dignity, Rush said.

The scheduled dives will further map and document the site using more sophisticated tools than previously available, and it will conduct scientific research to better understand how shipwrecks deteriorate.

What is learned can help authorities determine how best to clean up existing and future wrecks that could cause ecological damage as they deteriorate, he said. The dives are also a key stepping stone for OceanGate as a business. “With the Titanic, we’ll be profitable,” Rush said.

He and angel investors put “tens of millions” of dollars into the company, he said.

More significant, visiting Titanic will give the startup deep-sea diving experience, something it has to have to expand its list of clients.

“The industry guys, the first question they ask is ‘How many dives to 3,000 meters have you done?,’” he said. “When you say ‘none,’ they say, ‘OK, come back when you have.’”

Most small submarines and underwater remotely operated vehicles are privately owned, making it difficult to rent one. But most companies, public agencies and academic researchers don’t need to own their own sub or remotely operated vehicle. OceanGate aims to fill that gap, offering the underwater equivalent of chartering a private jet rather than buying one.

OceanGate’s potential customers include university scientists, adventure travelers, petroleum companies and even the state’s Department of Transportation, which regularly inspects bridges and other underwater structures.

In 2014, the company had its best-known passenger, hip hop artist Ben Haggerty, or Macklemore, as he is better known. The Seattle native tagged along with the crew of OceanGate’s first sub, Antipodes, on a dive in Puget Sound to find sixgill sharks. The voyage was filmed for the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” series.

As for Titanic, “we plan to go every year as long as the world thinks it’s worthwhile,” Rush said.

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