Victor Vescovo is not your typical boat owner – if there is such a thing. Like a few first-time buyers, the Texan private equity investor has enjoyed considerable success on Wall Street, and was looking for an exciting new toy.
Acting as an intelligence officer for the US Navy Reserve for 20 years, he was vice-president of product development at a company called Military Advantage, which helped Americans with military associations to access recruitment services, educational opportunities and more. The platform was sold to careers giant Monster in 2004 and he then went on to co-found Insight Equity, a Texas-based private equity firm.
The toy he ended up with, however, was no fresh-from-the-yard pleasure boat. It was DSSV (deep submersible support vessel) Pressure Drop, a 68.3-metre former US Navy ship intended for serious business.
Refitted to accommodate 47 people – including 19 crew and 12 technical specialists – it’s got dry and wet science labs, full ocean-deep sonar, and an 11.2-metre Triton 36000/2 submersible. Called Limiting Factor, it’s the only submarine in the world that’s able to do multiple dives to the very bottom of the ocean floor, and has a “depth unlimited” rating – something that’s been put to the test recently, as Vescovo, EYOS Expeditions and Nekton Mission journeyed together to the very bottom of each of the world’s five oceans, on an endeavour known as the Five Deeps.
Meanwhile, Vescovo is the first person in history to have been to the peak of all the world’s continents (an avid mountaineer, he’s climbed Mount Everest), to both poles (he’s a passionate skier), and to the bottom of all the world’s oceans.
There’s a famous sky bar on board Pressure Drop. Can he ever see himself enjoying sundowners in the Caribbean, I ask. “No,” he laughs. “It’s just not in my nature."
He is by definition an explorer, but it’s not a badge he wears easily. “It’s always unusual to hear other people describe you,” he says, “but I’ve started to get more comfortable with the role.” Adventure, it seems, has always run in his veins. As a young child, he wanted to be an astronaut, and as a teen he hoped to join the US Air Force as a fighter pilot. “My eyes were so poor I didn’t meet the requirements,” he explains. “I later qualified as a civilian pilot, so I scratched that itch that way.”
In his view, true explorers possess “an innate curiosity in their genes, and there’s also a part of them that likes to push themselves to physical and mental extremes”. Some scientists believe there are certain genetic markers that mean people are predisposed towards being adventurous and risk-taking. Vescovo has been DNA tested and says he has every single one.
Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench is the deepest known point on earth, and in April last year Vescovo reached it. In doing so he went deeper than any other manned dive ever – 10,928 metres down, a descent that took him four and a half hours. “You can’t not be attracted to the drama of it,” he enthuses. “I really enjoy being in the submarine in particular because it’s very peaceful and quiet, and you’re at neutral buoyancy because you move very slowly, so it’s almost a Zen-like experience.”
But Vescovo is no happy-go-lucky tourist – he’s an analyst by trade, and by nature. “He’s very calm, very considered,” says expedition leader Rob McCallum, from EYOS, “and he’s easy to work with because he’s entirely reasonable.” Vescovo puts it like this: “You’re like a test pilot, and you have to manage risk continuously, which requires a very serious disposition.”
His hero isn’t a showboater – it’s polar explorer Roald Amundsen, “an extremely thorough and methodical Norwegian, who rigorously figured out what to do and wasn’t reckless”, he says. “I’ve always tried to use his expeditions as a template for our own work.”
However calm and careful he is, Vescovo wasn’t immune to the shock that many first-time boat owners face. “There were two things I underestimated, and one was refitting a former US Navy ship. I thought, how hard can it be?” he laughs. “Working with shipyards, expenses can get out of hand fast – I wasn’t prepared for that,” he admits. “A yard has so much leverage over you, and there are so many different ways that costs can be increased but not verified – it requires enormous attention to detail, on an almost daily basis.
“The hardest part for me has been keeping track of everything – the submarine, the ship, the crew, the science team, the permits, legal, insurance…” he tails off. Another thing he underestimated? Working with the media. “I’ve learnt some very painful lessons,” he says.
At times, he’s almost apologetic about Pressure Drop. “Our ship is not a yacht, and it’s not luxurious,” he says, “but goodness gracious, we do a lot of good science.” That’s something of an understatement. The Five Deeps dives he and his team have carried out with Limiting Factor have given way to some of the most important scientific research of the decade, and their findings will inform how we use and protect our oceans for years to come.
The team collected tens of thousands of specimens under the guidance of chief scientist Dr Alan Jamieson, and have so far identified more than 40 previously undiscovered species, with more sure to follow, as the bulk of the samples are still being analysed. They’ve taken hundreds of hours of valuable video footage, mapped more than 750,000 square kilometres of sea floor for the first time, and even kicked off a debate with Canadian film-maker and environmentalist James Cameron, one of the few others to have gone to the bottom of Challenger Deep.
“It’s part of a polite scientific agreement that me and Mr Cameron have,” explains Vescovo. Essentially, the Limiting Factor team think they reached a deeper point than Cameron did in 2012. Cameron’s team believe the seabed there is flat, while Vescovo’s believes it undulates – allowing them to go deeper. “Having been part of both expeditions, I do think that Victor got to a slightly deeper spot – but I don’t think it’s at all important,” says McCallum. “It’s the most hostile point on earth, and I think for anyone that gets there, it’s a huge achievement.”
Vescovo agrees. “I respect him immensely, and I’m hoping we can settle the debate scientifically,” he says. “We’re going back to Challenger Deep this summer, and we’ll dive it up to eight more times to measure the topography of the area as detailed as we can. Maybe he’s right,” he says, “but we’ll certainly have a magnitude of information to be able to solve things.” Vescovo has extended an invitation to Cameron to join him on board, he says, but so far hasn’t received a response.
Of course, being the owner of a ship-cum-science hub has had its complications. “There’s definitely a balancing act involved, and one of the obvious ones is that I wanted to do all of the first dives solo,” he explains. “The science team thought it was a bit of a wasted opportunity, and I agree with them – but it’s a very different thing to explore solo than with someone else,” he says, “and this is also about my personal experience.”
In fact, it’s easy to forget that this is Vescovo’s pet project, his vision and his money. Shouldn’t it be governments and other global organisations that should be taking all this on, I ask, rather than one individual? “I do think they should be doing more,” he agrees, “but I’m realistic. I understand the inefficiencies that can come with international bureaucracies and state organisations."
As an example, he explains how hard it was to obtain permits to dive in the five zones and to conduct marine research, even though it was at no cost to the organisations themselves. “The knee-jerk reaction always seems to be no,” he says, “but in a way I’m very happy writing all the expenses myself, because it gives me a degree of control. I think the most under-appreciated aspect of both business and exploration is speed, and we’ve stunned many people in the oceanographic community by how quickly we’ve been able to build the system, and then use it to do something that no government has ever even tried to do, at a fraction of the cost.”
And yet there will be more voices around the table next time round – at least in theory. Vescovo is embarking on a new mission, termed the Ring of Fire, exploring trenches in the Red Sea, the Yap Trench and the Palau Trench in the western Pacific Ocean, returning to Challenger Deep as well – and, for $750,000 (£626,000), sponsors will be able to join him in the passenger seat. “We’re certainly not making money here,” he stresses. “This is not a tourist venture.”
The money from sponsors will go towards fuel and other expedition expenses. “Those few who have signed up so far understand that we’re going to be doing serious science on these dives,” he explains. “Ninety per cent of the ocean is unexplored and there’s never been a tool that could go down repeatedly and reliably below 7,000 metres before. We’ve only just scratched the surface.”
Vescovo is keen to continue with the dives for the next 10 to 20 years, but he has made no secret of his desire to sell the whole set-up to a research organisation or a government that would be able to refit it and employ it year-round. His partner of eight years is very supportive. She’s claustrophobic, so probably won’t ever join him on a dive, but “she knew what she was getting into when she met me”, Vescovo laughs.
Talking to Vescovo about his hobbies, it’s clear that he’s obsessed by all things mechanical. “I’m never happier than when I have my hands on a wheel of some kind,” he enthuses, citing a helicopter, a jet, a motorcycle and a huge car collection as evidence. “I still have every car I’ve ever owned.” His favourite, he says, is a 1989 Lamborghini Countach, “the first of the exotic supercars”. In his workshop at home he creates everything from metal objects and wooden furniture to hand-crafted fountain pens.
The only thing he seems to enjoy that doesn’t involve a dashboard or a toolkit is reading sci-fi novels. His company, Caladan Oceanic, is named after the planet Caladan, the birthplace of his favourite sci-fi character, Duke Leto Atreides, from the novel Dune. “It didn’t end well for him,” he says, “but he had a lot of great virtues – and he was great at attracting people.”
Vescovo himself is not too bad at pulling together a crack team, I suggest. “What’s fascinating is that I was able to attract the best people in their field, simply because this is the kind of thing people really want to do,” he says. What’s more, Pressure Drop seems to be a happy ship. “Speaking from the heart, it’s an incredible working environment,” says McCallum. “Anyone who’s spent time at sea knows that you see people at their very best, and their absolute worst. You bond – and I’ve never seen that at a higher level than on Pressure Drop. We’re a very close bunch.”
There was a fair amount of vetting involved early on in the process. “A big part of my job is building and perfecting teams to run companies, so I made quite a few replacements because I know when things aren’t working out,” says Vescovo. “I’m the tip of the spear,” he goes on, “and yes, I funded everything, and I had the initial idea. But it’s the team that made everything happen – my expedition leader Rob McCallum, Patrick Lahey, co-founder of Triton Submarines, my captain Stuart Buckle, my head of sonar and mapping Cassie Bongiovanni – without these extraordinary individuals performing at the height of their careers, none of this would have happened.”
What’s the next frontier to be tackled and conquered, I ask. “I would very much like to go into space,” he says. “I’m speaking to some commercial firms that are trying to give access to private citizens.”
As for citizen science at sea, I ask him if he thinks superyacht owners do enough. “The thing is, the entire cost of our system – to build it and test it and perfect it – cost less than a modern Gulfstream aircraft, and in some cases it’s dramatically less than the extremely large yachts that other people construct.” Why don’t others, then, follow in this bold adventurer’s footsteps? “I just don’t know,” he smiles. “It’s always been puzzling to me.”
This feature is taken from the May 2020 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.