An ocean exploration of Titanic proportions Venture: Hanover- based Nauticos has coordinated the mission to help Discovery broadcast new footage deep within the hull of the submerged ship.

August 07, 1998|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

Tom Dettweiler will spend the next nine days floating more than two miles above the wreckage of the RMS Titanic, which lies at the bottom of the cold North Atlantic.

His mission is to make sure an army of cameramen, editors and producers is able to gather new footage deep inside the hull of the wreck, which sank with more than 1,500 on board after it rammed an iceberg in the darkness of April 14, 1912.

Dettweiler said in an interview before embarking that the Titanic project, if successful, will break ground for ocean exploration.

"This is totally new. There haven't been too many live shows done from the middle of the ocean, especially as far out as we are going and in as deep water as we're going," he said.

A veteran of dozens of deep-sea recovery projects, Dettweiler, 46, is one of four experts with Nauticos, a Hanover-based deep-sea exploration and oceanographic company. It has been hired by Bethesda-based Discovery Communications Inc. to help coordinate filming what many consider the most famous 20th century shipwreck for a TV program that will include a live broadcast from the wreck from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Aug. 16 on the Discovery Channel.

NBC's news magazine program "Dateline" also has crews at sea to film a segment on artifacts being recovered. It will air Wednesday.

More than 10 scientists, naval architects and Titanic experts are scattered on four ships taking part in the fifth exploration project to visit the wreck site.

Discovery is underwriting this exploration at a reported cost of about $6 million in a joint-venture arrangement with RMS Titanic Inc., a New York-based company that holds salvage and exploration rights to the wreck.

Robert Reid, executive producer for Discovery's Titanic program, said yesterday that the cable TV channel wanted experts with experience in managing complex undersea operations.

"This is probably the most ambitious project Discovery has every undertaken," said Reid.

"It's a very complicated, complex and technologically difficult operation. We are planning to do live television two miles under the sea. Clearly, we needed experienced people to do this kind of work."

David W. Jourdan, Nauticos' founder and president, said his firm spent months planning thousands of details to ensure the filming operation could be accomplished, from securing equipment that could sustain the deep ocean's crushing pressure to finding a "hotel boat" to accommodate 96 people, including film crews and scientists.

Nauticos' crew, which has been at sea for about a week preparing for the project, is also responsible for coordinating a complicated effort to raise a 23-by-12-foot, 20-ton piece of the hull that was found near the Titanic's resting place.

In 1996, an effort to raise the artifact failed when the piece was lost in stormy weather after being raised to within 200 feet of the surface.

RMS Titanic Inc. said it wants to attempt another recovery of the hull piece so that it can be included in an exposition of recovered Titanic artifacts in Boston until Nov. 1.

Jourdan said Nauticos had to overcome a number of technical and logistical challenges to prepare for the at-sea operation.

Those challenges included redesigning and rebuilding a piece of equipment known as a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, that will be used to go inside the stern and bow. The goal is to film areas that have never been seen, such as the damage the iceberg inflicted on the inside of the ship.

Nicknamed T.Rex, the ROV, which is about the size of a 27-inch TV set, was built by a North Carolina teacher and Titanic history buff, William Willard.

Discovery had agreed to use the ROV, but when it arrived at Nauticos' headquarters, company engineers determined that it contained a number of key design flaws, said Jourdan.

Nauticos engineers John Coombs, Bruce Brown and Michael Davis worked 12-hour days for two weeks redesigning electronics and other gear, then rebuilding T.Rex.

Technical challenges included revamping electronics using parts purchased at Radio Shack, said Coombs.

"The toughest thing was, we had this compressed time frame facing us to have ready a key piece of equipment," recalled Coombs.

Plan for discovery

Jourdan said Nauticos plans to help Discovery and NBC film the wreck and recovery efforts.

From the Ocean Voyager, where Dettweiler is managing operations, the Magellan, an unmanned ROV about the size of a small car, will be lowered into the sea. Tethered to Magellan will be T.Rex. The two will be lowered by a cable to the Titanic.

Magellan is also equipped with video equipment so that Nauticos' crew can monitor and control undersea operations.

Magellan will be maneuvered alongside the open end of the Titanic's hull -- the ship split in two as it sank -- and T.Rex will be deployed inside.

Jourdan said T.Rex is equipped with cable that will allow it to travel 200 feet within the hull.

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