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Titanic Expedition Could Jump-Start Interest in Coastal Sports

9 Jan, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The history, tragedy and outright romance of the Titanic has fascinated everyone from scientists to the general public for more than a century. Now, it seems, at least one destination is capitalizing on it.

That destination is not Southampton, England (the ocean liner’s departure point on her fateful voyage) and it’s neither of her two ports of call – Cherbourg, France or Queenstown, Ireland. It’s certainly not New York (where she was due to arrive but never did).

In fact, it’s all the way across the country in Snohomish County, Washington, where a company located at the Port of Everett has created a miniature submarine capable of diving all the way down to the wreck – and taking tourists along for the ride. Could it jump-start interest in wreck diving as a whole – and create another niche in the sports tourism economy? How is Snohomish working with it? And how can organizers as a whole take advantage of this momentum?

Maybe it’s a big leap, but the Puget Sound region and Snohomish County are used to big leaps. Snohomish is a sports capital, hosting everything from soccer to archery. The Puget Sound region and Snohomish are already an aerospace hub. And now, the area is making a name for itself, thanks to the private company OceanGate. headquartered at the Port of Everett.

So, of course, the question becomes: what can this mean for the PNW? And what can the echo benefit be for sports tourism?

To answer both those questions, it’s essential to examine what’s going on in the Puget Sound. That is OceanGate’s headquarters, and that is the site of the design and construction of its most high-profile venture, the Titan, a carbon fiber and titanium submersible. Recently, the vehicle successfully completed a seven-hour manned dive to 4,000 meters below sea level near the Bahamas. And that brings us to OceanGate's most ambitious project ever – its ability to offer dives to view the wreck of the Titanic to anyone who wants to come along.

Why now? Well, according to some news reports, the window is closing for those with a wish to see the Titanic. The wreck, located at a depth of 3,800 meters (12,800 feet) or about 3.8 km (2.4 miles), is decaying rapidly and within the next several decades, may no longer be recognizable. And let’s face it – despite the fact that it sank in 1912, interest in the story of the Titanic has never waned.

Those who want to see the wreck should know that this is no glass-bottom boat ride available to spontaneous day trippers. First, there is the cost. The “mission support fee” for the 2019 expedition is $105,129 per person. (This, it claims on the website, is equivalent to the cost of First Class passage on Titanic’s inaugural sailing after adjusting for inflation.)

A substantial amount of preparation is necessary, since the route involves a departure from St. John’s, Newfoundland, which is the closest access point to the wreck. (The sub was built in the Pacific Northwest, but trips to see the Titanic don’t begin there). It also involves a full day of training, known as Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET), including classroom time and in-pool skill learning.

Mission Specialists in return get to join the crew for an 11-day mission, make one submersible dive about six to eight hours in duration, and assist the expedition crew in one or more support roles aboard the surface vessel and aboard Titan during a dive. And make no mistake – this is actual work, according to OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, who talked to reporters from KOMO News in 2017.

“We don’t want somebody going into the sub to just be entertained,” Rush said. “You’re there with a mission, so if somebody comes with us, they’re going to work on operating the sonar, they might be on communications, they might just be taking pictures.”

Full facts about the expedition can be found here. And in case you’re wondering, the first expedition of 2019 takes place from June 26 - July 7 – and it is sold out. So are the following three. In fact, the first expedition with openings runs from July 21-July 30.

According to Geekwire, the Titanic Survey Expedition was originally scheduled to launch in 2018, but was pushed into 2019 after lightning damaged Titan’s electronics. OceanGate’s exploration will be the first crewed expeditions to the Titanic since the 2012 centennial of its sinking

And while the Titan’s accessibility to the public is bound to be limited, there’s no limit on the public’s imagination, nor in the amount of interest that will grow as a result, particularly in an era of social media and a 24-hour news cycle.

And in an area like Snohomish, which has shown its hosting flexibility, that’s something to take advantage of.

In fact, Tammy Dunn, Sports Development Director of Snohomish County Sports Commission, notes that there is already water sports activity in the area (the Nautique WWA Wakeboard National Championships was held there recently) – as well as recreational diving.

“Diving is somewhat popular in our waters,” she adds. “The City of Edmonds has an underwater park where divers go diving. Most of the diving that is done here is for education including what OceanGate does.”

And she notes, there is an ancillary plus to being in the same area as such as high-profile program. “With what OceanGate is doing, our STEM programs benefit a great deal. STEM programs are becoming more popular in Snohomish County schools as well as school districts are focusing more on STEM programs for all grade levels, including elementary and middle school.”

Patrick Pierce, president and CEO of the Snohomish County Economic Alliance, says the additional attention can benefit the area as an innovative business destination as well.

“Anytime one of our companies is in the national and international media, it is positive for our county. Snohomish County is already known for aerospace because of Boeing. It’s exciting to see composites technologies now being deployed in non-aerospace applications. When talking with companies interested in Snohomish County, especially in maritime and composites, we always highlight OceanGate. It’s not just about the technology though, it’s also about the strength of our engineering and technical workforce, research institutions like Washington State University Everett [whose students helped design the vehicle’s electrical system], and the overall favorable business climate.”

At the moment, the Port is not as much of a tourist destination, he notes. “OceanGate is really just a start up and don’t have the capacity for large-scale tours at this point. However, if they are as successful as we think they will be, I would anticipate this changing. In Q1 2019, commercial air service will begin at Snohomish County’s Paine Field with Alaska and United Airlines offering 24 daily flights to west coast and mountain west destination like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Denver. The Port of Everett will also complete phase 1 of their Waterfront Place Redevelopment.”

And that, he adds, does present the possibility of increased tourism. “I could see tourists flying into Paine Field, taking the Boeing tour or heading to the FUNKO HQ, afternoon kite surfing on Jetty Island and staying the night at the new Hotel Indigo across from OceanGate. Dinner at the Blue Water Bistro and Organic Distillery and a hockey or WNBA game at the Angel of the Winds Arena. In the morning, a walk (or run) along the pier to catch a glimpse of one of OceanGate’s subs, Sisters in downtown Everett for blueberry pancakes before heading out for the trails in the Cascade Mountains. That’s a fun weekend in my book.”

While not every destination can boast an OceanGate, many destinations can benefit from the increased interest in diving and underwater exploration that are sure to follow as publicity continues to emerge about the ship. Event owners hosting tournaments should know there are often opportunities for the public to take advantage of tourism opportunities offered – snorkel and SCUBA lessons – as well as information on the many dive spots – or even hiking or other day trips to view wrecks from a nearby shore. And setting up something in advance, then promoting it well, can result in an extra revenue stream as well as more economic impact for the destination being visited.

While an enormous number of states have wrecks – and many are able to be seen by the public (yes, even in landlocked states like Arizona), some dive sites are more spectacular than others. Additionally, diving and snorkeling provide opportunities to learn about marine life, conservation and even water and boating safety. An enormous part of the Outer Banks’ identity, in fact, comes from its reputation as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, with its dangerous shoals and frequently rough waters contributing to more than 5,000 ships sunk in that area since the 1500s – the most recent being 2012 during Hurricane Sandy. (The area around Cape Hatteras alone is home to more than 600 wrecks.)

On the opposite side of the country lies the Graveyard of the Pacific, a stretch of the coastal region in the Pacific Northwest, from Tillamook Bay on the Oregon Coast northward to Cape Scott Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. The unpredictable weather conditions and coast characteristics have caused more than 2,000 shipwrecks in the area.

Event owners and rights holders interested in taking advantage of the momentum expected to be generated this summer by Titan’s voyages should be ready to help bump up interest in applicable destinations:

  • Make outreach to CVBs and sports commissions to learn about opportunities existing in the area; it may be that wrecks exist or that artifacts can be found in local museums

  • Work with vendors or tour companies in the area to craft excursions that would appeal to the demographic being entertained in the event

  • Publicize events – remind people that it’s a limited opportunity

  • Use the side event to add media interest to the tournament or sports event

Another benefit of the increased attention on submersibles may be growth of swimming, boating, SUP, fishing and other water-related sports. Savvy event owners should be ready to harness the enthusiasm and help those interested get their feet wet.

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