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Apodaca: Adventurer has calm to face ocean depths

May 20, 2011|By Patrice Apodaca

Chris Welsh is the kind of man little boys dream of becoming, a rare, boundary-pushing breed whose life is full of exploration, derring-do and far-off places. He's a nerves-of-steel guy who flies planes and helicopters, races boats, goes on off-road dirt bike journeys and swims with great white sharks.

Now Welsh is poised to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, a solo ride to the deepest reaches of the ocean, a project so startlingly daring that Welsh convinced Sir Richard Branson — the British billionaire whose resume also includes the title "adventurer" — to help foot the bill.

Like a modern-day Lewis and Clark, the pair hopes to blaze a trail that could open new vistas of understanding about the least-explored areas on earth.

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It's no wonder that Welsh, who lives in Newport Beach, drew a huge crowd to hear him speak Wednesday at the Balboa Pavilion, part of a lecture series sponsored by the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum.

The audience was riveted as Welsh matter-of-factly explained his planned voyage to the bottom of the sea in a tiny, plane-like submarine made of carbon fiber and titanium that looks like something out of a James Cameron movie.

I met with Welsh the following day, and I was again struck by his no-fuss, easygoing manner, which seems at odds with the inherent drama of his project to plumb the ocean depths. Indeed, he discussed the upcoming voyage as calmly as if it was a weekend sail to Catalina.

"I'm very practical and pragmatic about things," he said.

Exploration is as natural to Welsh as breathing, but the self-described "control freak" prepares meticulously and calculates risks methodically, drawing confidence from knowing every inch of the craft he'll be piloting.

A big, shaggy-haired man with a graying beard, Welsh was raised in a family of sailors. He attended Mariners Elementary, Ensign Middle and Newport Harbor High schools, and UC Berkeley. A successful real estate investor, Welsh is also well known on the racing circuit, and in 2008 won the Sydney-to-Hobart Race in Australia with his 65-foot sailboat, Ragtime.

Welsh is also a bit of a science and tech geek: It's obvious that he's driven more by the chance to advance knowledge than a desire to set records or win accolades. There's not a whit of braggadocio about him — and it's precisely that lack of cockiness that makes me think this guy is going to do exactly what he sets out to do.

And what he's planning is enough to send a lesser man's blood pressure skyrocketing.

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