DEEPSEA CHALLENGER was built in in Sydney, Australia. Seven metres long, she was a marvel of linked computers and microprocessors. When you saw her, you knew that something weird and exceptional was going to happen.
DEEPSEA CHALLENGER was built by a small, group of brilliant misfits from England, America, Canada and Australia. We spent 60 days together on a ship in the Western Pacific.
Our first dive was to one metre. We made 13 test dives to 20, 1,000, 4,000, 8,000 and 11,000 metres. With an untested sub, an untested team and a malevolent ocean, every descent contained a large measure of dread. This once-in-a-century project had echoes of the Wright Brother’s first flight and the initial ascent of Mount Everest.
On the day of Jim’s 10,908 metre dive, I was in the communications room on the ship’s bridge. We were using audio instruments to track the sub’s free fall toward the centre of the earth.
Jim was jammed into the combat confines of the pilot sphere making forty decisions a minute about speed, depth, direction, power supply, oxygen supply and thrusters. He was using joysticks to control the sub’s functions.
I was holding my breath. At 10,908 metres the compression on the pilot sphere was equivalent to the weight of 26 space shuttles—eight tons per square inch—two SUVs pressing on your thumbnail. A thru-hull failure meant a thunderous explosion and Jim would vanish. Slowly, methodically, he took pictures and recovered samples. On the outer edge of the known world, he was the loneliest person on the planet.