like a virgin
Mark Featherstone was race crew and the project manager/boat captain of the late Steve Fossett’s ‘Cheyenne’ (the 125ft Morrelli & Melvin designed round-the-world record breaking catamaran formerly known as ‘Playstation’) for over ten years. On behalf of Peggy Fossett (the late Steve Fossett’s wife) it was Mark who handed the keys to her new owner, Chris Welsh last May. Lia Ditton catches up with Mark Featherstone to talk project: Virgin Oceanic.
MF: With the constant technical advances in offshore ocean racing, the title of ‘fastest boat in the world’ has a very short tenure. Steve once said to me “who wants to have the second fastest boat in the world?” Languishing in an Argentine naval base after dismasting in the “Oryx Round The World Race” the future of ‘Cheyenne’ looked very uncertain. It came as a complete surprise when I received a call from Steve in which he explained his vision of completing another world first – the world’s deepest dive to 36,000ft, in a submersible, using Cheyenne as a launch and delivery platform!
SA: What do you think inspired Fossett to strive to become the first person to explore the Mariana Trench (the deepest part of the World’s ocean, located parallel with the Philippines to the south of Japan) and when did the project technically begin?
MF: Steve’s sense of adventure and goals came from a deep personal motivation. He never courted publicity or sponsorship. To him it was all about being the highest, fastest or deepest. He had a great sense of satisfaction by gaining a world record. Records will always be broken, but once you’ve gained a world record you will always be a holder of that particular record. The prospects of becoming the first person to dive to 36,000ft, shattering all existing dive records and exploring the Mariana Trench in a submersible were the main motivations behind this new project. This project was technically more difficult than any of his previous projects and he had been working on it for many years in secret.
SA: Before the 2007 Transpac experience in which you shadowed the race in the making of the Disney film, ‘Morning Light’ the boat had already been converted into a submarine docking station. What did the conversion entail?
MF: Once Steve was satisfied that the submersible was in its latter stages of development, he gave the go-ahead to convert Cheyenne into a motor catamaran with a range of 4,000 miles plus. Cheyenne was completely stripped back to the bare hulls and beams and rebuilt as new. Between her hulls, a deck, moon pool and derrick capable of lifting and transporting the submersible was fabricated and installed. This work took 18 months in San Diego. Within days of going back into the water, Cheyenne’s endurance capability was put to the test when Disney chartered her to cover the ‘Morning Light’ movie in the Transpac race. She ran like a Swiss clock covering 2,300 nautical miles using only one third of her fuel capacity.
SA: Why did the Mariana’s Trench dive expedition not begin at that time? What was the hold up?
MF: Steve was on the dock in San Francisco to take lines and welcome us back from the Transpac. He thanked the crew for all hard work they have put in. He told us to take a few weeks off and be back by the end of the month to start underwater valuation with a submersible. Within three days Steve had sadly not returned from a pleasure flight in Nevada and was missing. The programme came to a halt.
SA: Having seen the submarine, can you describe it to us?
MF: The submarine is designed for one person. It is very sleek and like all great designs, looks right. With a wingspan of some 17 ft, it has a very close resemblance to an aircraft. It is for this reason that a launch between two hulls is more practical. Launching a submarine of that size, beam and weight from a monohull would necessitate a much larger vessel with all the associated costs.
SA: What problems have they already had in the build of the submarine and what further hurdles do you foresee in its testing and development?
MF: The main problem building a submersible to withstand pressures far greater that of a spacecraft is making sure there are no imperfections in the carbon composite build. All systems have to have an amazing degree of redundancy. Fortunately Steve and the team were able to test all the components under pressure in a United States Navy pressure chamber. I believe it is the only one in the world that can recreate the pressures exerted in the Mariana Trench.
SA: What is your understanding of the Chris Welsh-Virgin partnership?
MF: Chris Welsh has shown that he shares Steve’s vision. He has had great courage in taking on the project with all the challenges and associated costs a project like this will incur. Richard Branson and Virgin coming on board has now given the project more impetus. I wish them every success!!
SA: On the Virgin Oceanic website, the renderings show the former ‘Cheyenne’ with a mast and sails. Is this a new addition to the idea or did Fossett always intend to restore the boat to sailing condition? Surely there is no room now for a boom etc with the viewing tower and hoist situated between the two hulls?
MF: Steve envisaged Cheyenne’s new role as a motor catamaran. Chris Welsh had the idea of installing a new mast and set of sails. He is passionate about sailing having owned and raced ‘Ragtime’ (a wooden Spencer 65) for many years.
Remember that with carbon composite anything is possible, so I see no reason why there shouldn’t be a mast and rig. Under sail, the projects carbon footprint would be greatly reduced.
SA: Do you think underwater tourism is a good thing?
MF: Absolutely, the more people who are aware of what an amazing planet we have the better!!!