Graham Hawkes and the Race to the Bottom of the Sea
Credit: Balint Porneczi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

In a neon-lit garage overlooking the marina in Point Richmond, California, the stubby white form of an experimental submarine with wings and a tail – a child's idea of a spacecraft – rests on a galvanized trailer. The blunt-nosed hull is 17 feet long and just large enough to accommodate a single man. It encloses a glossy black cylinder of wound carbon fiber that ends in a thick glass dome engineered to withstand the eight tons per square inch of pressure it will face sometime this year on its journey to Challenger Deep, the deepest point in the world's oceans – a place not visited by man for more than half a century. Beneath the cockpit, bright-red decals spell out the names of the men who plan to pilot the submarine and under their names in slightly smaller letters, a third credit. ­Designer: Graham Hawkes.

"This," Hawkes announces, "is Challenger." A sharp-featured Englishman in his early sixties, Hawkes may have designed more submersibles than anyone else alive – everything from torpedoes to revolutionary diving suits for oil exploration to an underwater "swimmer delivery vehicle" he's currently working on for U.S. special forces – but the vessel in front of him, known as DeepFlight Challenger, is unlike any of the other submarines he's worked on. "You're looking at a craft that is twice as deep as anything else," he says.

Hawkes had originally designed the submarine for Steve Fossett – commodities trader and professional adventurer – who intended to add a visit to Challenger Deep, at the southern end of the Mariana Trench, to his collection of firsts and world records. Hawkes was weeks away from completing the vessel when, in 2007, Fossett disappeared in a single-engine plane over the Sierra Nevada. Afterward, the submarine languished in Hawkes' workshop, awaiting the unlikely possibility that someone else with the money and nerve to use it would be found. Then, last year, Sir Richard Branson committed to funding the completion of the submarine – under the brand Virgin Oceanic – with Chris Welsh, a California real-estate entrepreneur and trans-Pacific yachtsman, as his co-investor and chief pilot.

DeepFlight Challenger is only the latest version of a dream that has obsessed Graham Hawkes for most of his adult life, a project that has endured through two marriages and several businesses, and survived despite a persistent lack of money, the disdain of scientists, and the death of its most dedicated patron. It's a quest that has shadowed Hawkes' life to such an extent that he now struggles to remember how long it's been since he started. "The holy grail of my profession? To get to the bottom of the ocean? To solve that problem? Let's see," he says, calculating the time past. "Twenty-five years."

And yet, since the Virgin initiative was announced last April, others have come forward to outline their own plans to visit Challenger Deep, including one financed by the director James Cameron and another involving one of Hawkes' ex-wives. For all the decades of effort and millions of dollars the engineer has spent trying to reach his goal, it remains possible that someone else might get there before him.

Humans have entered Challenger Deep only once. On January 23, 1960, two men – U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss scientist Jacques Piccard – squeezed into a steel ball and descended seven miles to the bottom under the weight of nine tons of iron shot. They stayed 20 minutes. Since then, 12 men have walked on the moon, but no one has returned to the bottom of the sea.

Now four separate groups share similar plans to send human beings seven miles down. In addition to the Virgin team, Cameron, who used Hawkes' submersibles to film his 3-D documentary 'Aliens of the Deep,' has been working on his own project for more than five years, and Florida-based Triton submarines has also announced plans to reach 36,000 feet. In California, Google chairman Eric Schmidt has quietly funded the designs of two different machines capable of making the journey – by a team at DOER Marine, the company founded by oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who was married to Hawkes for six years. "For those who care about that, it's a race," Hawkes says. "I don't know that Cameron cares about it. I suspect he does. I think Chris definitely does. I think Virgin definitely does. They're racing."

But so far, the Triton and DOER submarines exist only on the drawing board. And Chris Welsh, who will pilot DeepFlight Challenger and hopes to develop his own business using deep-water technology, has been collaborating with Cameron's team – the competitors share specialized sonar equipment as well as buoyancy foam devised by Cameron himself. Given his head start, Welsh says he's closer to reaching Challenger Deep than Cameron, but any setback in a project this complex will cost so much time that the director could easily get there first. "According to the calendar today, we would be ahead of Jim," Welsh tells me in late 2011. "But somewhere in the equation we could easily trip and lose six, nine months."

Hawkes believes there is little danger anyone else will reach Challenger Deep before his submarine. "I don't have to be smarter than anybody else. I've just plain worked harder and longer than anybody else. I've been thinking about this nonstop – and I'm 64. I think we're way, way ahead," he says. "Unless we're idiots."