Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann joined an OceanGate Expeditions mission to the Titanic wreck in May. Read Part 1 of his experience.
Last month, I was very happy to be selected for the first team to dive down to the Titanic in Mission 2 of OceanGate Expedition’s 2023 season. On our dive, the submersible Titan would be piloted by Oceangate CEO Stockton Rush.
Also aboard in the role of “advisor” would be experienced wreck explorer P.H. Nargeolet.
I was going as a “mission specialist,” the label for non-staff passengers. Other mission specialists chosen were travel advisor Craig Curran of DePrez Travel Bureau in Rochester, N.Y., who had seen the Titan at a promotional event and had previously sent a client on a successful mission, and Stephen, an Australian Navy sub officer.
Stephen, a member of the Royal Australian Navy (left) and travel advisor Craig Curran of DePrez Travel Bureau sign the OceanGate Mission 2 flag. Photo Credit: Arnie Weissmann
The Titan holds five people who sit on a platform, their legs crossed or out straight. At one end is a viewing port that is 21.3 inches in diameter; Rush said it was the largest window of any submersible reaching that depth. Just in front of it is a toilet of sorts. A curtain can be pulled for privacy (of sorts). “Best view from any toilet on earth,” Rush added.
Nonetheless, the Polar Prince’s galley, which had been turning out food far exceeding my expectations for a research vessel, had been informed to feed mission specialists in ways that would keep restroom usage to a minimum.
The Titan is not heated and it gets cold on the ocean floor, we were told. We were given a flight suit and thick socks to wear (we would be leaving our shoes on the ship) and told to layer up beneath the suit.
But Tuesday arrived, and the positive weather forecast had deteriorated to the point that the dive was canceled.
“Thursday afternoon looks good,” Rush said.
I wasn’t completely disappointed. Every morning, the list of things that still needed work was as long as the previous day. Some were what Rush called “squawks” — minor maintenance issues — but others had a high priority.
Despite the long task list, I was impressed with the transparency of the operation — mission specialists like me were not simply encouraged to go to these meetings. We were required to attend.
Rush had received both an aerospace engineering degree and an MBA, and had once been a test-flight engineer with McDonnell Douglas. He urged anyone who was interested in his approach to read “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” by Atul Gawande [Metropolitan Books, 2009], which he left on a table in the ship’s lounge.
The cast and crew
While waiting for a dive window to open, a daily rhythm emerged.
Everyone tended to arrive promptly at assigned mealtimes, sharing tables and socializing in one of two small dining rooms. “Everyone” included the crew of the chartered Polar Prince, who were not OceanGate employees but came along with the ship. You could sit with the captain or chief engineer, both of whom I got to know.
The chef, Rick, shared cooking techniques with me.
There was no alcohol on the ship, but there was always a spread of baked goods out on a table (the galley crew had even prepared birthday cupcakes for my arrival). Candy bars and soft drinks were available 24/7. I’m a sucker for sweets, and on the second night, a gummy candy neatly lifted a cap off one of my teeth. The ship’s doctor made a valiant effort to put it back with temporary cement, but it wouldn’t hold. Fortunately, aside from some minor temperature sensitivity, it didn’t hurt.
The OceanGate cast was an interesting mix of both young and very experienced hands, some on staff and some who, intrigued with the operation, found a way to join and pitch in. Among the young staff were an intern, a P.R. specialist, a photographer, a videographer, a computer programmer and a researcher studying environmental DNA around the wreck.
The researcher was interested in finding out how such a large presence of steel on the ocean floor might impact what plants and animals were at the wreck site. A water sampling canister called a Niskin bottle was attached to the outside of the Titan.
Stockton Rush’s wife, Wendy Rush, was also onboard as communications director.
In the evenings after dinner, people gathered in the lounge and worked on jigsaw puzzles, played on the ship’s guitar (travel advisor Curran gave daily lessons to the photographer) or watched films related to marine expeditions, from James Cameron’s documentary “Aliens of the Deep” to Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.”
During afternoon and early evening meetings in a large room called “the hangar,” Nargeolet showed videos of his dives at various sites. Lessons were held on knot-tying and how to safely get on and off an inflatable dinghy in an active sea. A cornhole tournament was held.
My impression of Stockton Rush’s leadership style was that he is calm, patient, inclusive and caring. One night, he invited me to sit with him on the back deck and smoke Cuban cigars he had picked in St. John’s.
I told him I don’t normally smoke cigars but would be happy to. We were joined by the ship’s captain and chief engineer.
OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush (right) invited Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann to join him in smoking cigars on the stern of the ship one night.
Another side of Stockton emerged that evening as we puffed and watched the mission flag fluttering off the stern, the trailing Titan now obscured by fog. He talked about his history as a young pilot (he flew commercial jets in the Mideast at age 19 as a summer job); how his hopes to be an astronaut were scotched when his vision deteriorated to 20/25; his subsequent pivot to the sea and fascination with submersibles. This Stockton Rush was somewhat cocky, but I felt his accomplishments gave him the right to be so.
Only one thing concerned me: He said he had gotten the carbon fiber used to make the Titan at a big discount from Boeing because it was past its shelf-life for use in airplanes.
I asked him if that weren’t a problem. He replied that those dates were set far before they had to be, and that Boeing and even NASA had participated in the design and testing of the Titan.
It is a conversation I have thought about a great deal over the past week.
(A statement from Boeing said: “Boeing was not a partner on the
Titan and did not design or build it. Boeing has found no record of any
sale of composite material to OceanGate or its CEO.”)
Update: This report was updated June 24 to include a statement from Boeing.
Correction: The report was updated July 12 to reflect that the viewing port is 21.3 inches, not 12.3 inches, in diameter.
Read Part 1 and Part 3 of Arnie Weissmann’s experiences with OceanGate Expeditions in May.