Let’s take the sub

Advances in small, user-friendly submersibles are opening up new subaquatic playgrounds to hobby explorers and yacht owners. Charlie Norton reports.

April 03 2010
Charlie Norton

For the entire second half of the 20th century the world seemed far more taken with the idea of reaching the moon and other destinations beyond it than with exploring the equally mysterious – and undiscovered – realms of Earth’s own vast oceans. But as the current century enjoys a development boom in state-of-the-art underwater transport and navigation systems, and submersible craft have become smaller, technologically more advanced and easier to use, it’s no surprise that more and more people are investing in underwater mobility.

Imagine gliding through the ocean in the comfort of a private submarine – admiring coral close up, watching rarely seen nocturnal sea creatures frolic under laser light, or manoeuvring a barrel roll with a playful porpoise. With an enormous spectrum of choice now available between £400,000 and £5m, owning one’s own submarine is not as far-fetched as it once sounded. And in most countries, the law relating to submarines in private hands is no different to that governing boat ownership – anyone can have one if they can afford one. (A licence is only required if the craft is used for commercial purposes.)

As Bruce Jones of Florida-based US Subs, the world’s largest leisure submarine design company, says, “People are paying astronomical prices to book trips into space, and yet 99 per cent of the ocean floor is unexplored. In years to come, [people] will live, travel and holiday underwater. The ocean is the biggest playground.”

Jones has clocked a growing demand for submarines that can be docked in “mother” yachts: “I am working on four Triton 1000s” – a model that’s light enough to be trailered, making it ideal for launch and recovery from mega-yachts – “and I have six more contracts.” Capable of reaching depths of 1,000ft and available in four models for two to three people each, Triton 1000s carry a starting price tag of $1.97m.

US Subs’ top-end model is the Phoenix 1000, which also dives to 1,000ft. With 5,000sq ft of interior space on four levels, the Phoenix is fitted out with Jacuzzis, a gym, a wine cellar and up to 10 bedrooms. There is also a docking mini-sub to take you down to 2,000ft, and a locking dive chamber. Crucially, there’s enough stored oxygen to keep 11 passengers breathing easy for up to three weeks of cruising. When the Phoenix surfaces, there’s a full deck to party on. Predictably, all that subaquatic extravagance comes at a steep price – $90m, to be exact (each craft is custom designed).

A more “modest” mid-size model is the $32.7m Seattle 1000, a three-deck vessel with five state rooms, five bathrooms, two kitchens, a gym, a wine cellar and a 30ft x 15ft observation portal.

Parallel to the growing market for these mega-subs, a relatively virgin market has developed for tried and tested, two- to three-man submersibles that have also been classed (ie, recognised as well constructed and outfitted for serious exploration). Will Kohnen, president of Seamagine and chairman of the Manned Underwater Vehicles committee for the Marine Technology Society in New York, says, “You need to make sure you know what’s in the box. It’s the one bit of advice I give to people buying a submarine: make sure it is classed by one of the worldwide classification societies” – such as the Lloyd’s Register of Shipping or the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS).

Kohnen explains that there are effectively two ways to build subs: like a helicopter, in which case it can hover and is a great observation platform; or like an aeroplane, in which case it must keep moving so is not the best option for observing a fixed location close up. Kohnen prefers the former. “I make them like helicopters because they are better for surveying and observing a point of interest. The slower speed of an underwater helicopter is ideally suited for safe exploration.”

Kohnen’s models have made many dives round the world. The entrepreneur Shmulik Blum, for instance, runs one of his three-man Triumph crafts, which is depth-rated at 1,500ft and ABS-classed in operations. It has made well over 1,000 dives since 2005 as part of a successful marine and diving sports commercial venture, exploring the many deep nooks and crannies around the Cocos and Mapelo islands of the eastern Pacific.

On the other side of the Atlantic, a Dutch company called U-Boat Worx produces two- and three-man C-Questers, which recently impressed the crowds at the Monaco Yacht Show. “It’s a very small market, but things are looking up,” says Eric Hasselman, U-Boat Worx’s head of sales. The company currently has four contracts for the new models. Recently, potential customers were impressed by the C-Quester’s ease of use and intuitive control systems during a demonstration off the coast of Monaco. While U-Boat Worx has decided to discontinue construction of the one-man sub, its other models remain the most reasonably priced on the market: a two-man C-Quester, capable of diving to 330ft and classed by the rigorous safety standards of German authority Germanischer Lloyds, comes in at about €545,000.

The expert in the UK is Plymouth-based Marlin Submarines, where Paul Moorhouse, the chief designer and managing director, says business is booming. Marlin is currently working on a two-man leisure prototype called the FC01 – or the “Fruitcake” – essentially, at this juncture in its development, an experiment in how to confront the problems of a workable two-man mini-sub. It will have an operational depth of 330ft and hold over 72 hours’ oxygen. Moorhouse hopes to be able to sell modified versions of this model in the future but, meanwhile, “We’re enjoying the freedom of designing on our own, outside the constriction of prescription orders.”

The Fruitcake can also be custom-made to dock in a yacht, and will be priced between £500,000 and £800,000 (before the extras, which Moorhouse concedes can quickly raise the price). Moorhouse also offers sub-piloting courses to clients: “If you have a good background in boats and technology, the course lasts about four weeks. With some military and industrial subs, it takes more like three to six months to learn to run them.”

The other news-making submersible technology is “flying” submersibles, which are developed by Hawkes Ocean Technologies based in the San Francisco Bay area. Graham Hawkes, who began his 40-year career building subs for the British Navy, has designed Deep Flight “winged” submersibles. Similar to an aircraft on a runway, Deep Flight has to gain speed (about two knots) on the surface of the water, at which point the pilot pushes the joystick down and the sub’s nose submerges for a dive. There are rear stabilisers, rear rudders, wings and a throttle – controls familiar to any aeroplane pilot.

These subs are in vogue. Richard Branson has just bought the latest model, the three-man Deep Flight Merlin (from $600,000), which is the fifth-generation Hawkes sub and is small, light and even more manoeuvrable, with three cockpits side by side. Necker Nymph, as Branson has named it, will dock in his luxury catamaran, Necker Belle.

Tom Perkins, the American entrepreneur and founder of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, was the first to order a Deep Flight Super Falcon in 2008. (He previously ran the largest privately owned sailing yacht, the Maltese Falcon.)

“It was an incredibly fun project,” he says of his pioneering prototype venture. The Super Falcon ($1.5m), dives to 1,000ft, and moves at speeds of up to five knots in level flight, 10 knots on powered ascents and 0.5 knots for close examination of wildlife or sea fauna. It logs five hours’ flying time on a single battery, two pilot positions with joystick controls, acrobatic handling (with rolls and loops) and light and laser probes for night flight.

For trials, Hawkes and Perkins took the Super Falcon into the waters surrounding Mexico’s Socorro island. Perkins describes the experience: “We were able to get really close to marine life – sharks, manta rays, myriad kinds of fish – as the sub is so quiet and makes no electrical noise, which can be picked up by sharks and stop them coming close.”

Hawkes – who offers a Super Falcon Flight course (last year in California, this year in the Caribbean) in which potential buyers learn to operate craft on a three-dimensional axis – is very much a designer for the daredevil submariner. He created a heavy-duty sub, the Deep Flight Challenger, for the American adventurer Steve Fossett before his death in 2007. Built mainly out of a carbon fibre that can withstand pressure of 20,000lb per square inch, it was designed specifically to cope with the Mariana Trench, which is 36,000ft below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Hawkes described it as “part spacecraft, part airplane and part submarine”, and it was purportedly four weeks away from launching when news came of Fossett’s disappearance. (It is now owned by the Fossett estate.)

Hawkes even designed the Deep Rover submersibles for Canal+, which were used by film director James Cameron in his 3-D Imax film, Aliens of the Deep, which was where Cameron picked up his inspirational research for the film Avatar. Cameron is known for his passion for oceanography and exploration and, as he waxes lyrical about the deep, makes a compelling case for considering a submersible – even a small one – of one’s own: “When I had an opportunity to dive the Everest of shipwrecks – the Titanic – I took it, and I made a movie as a result of that. When it turned out to be a huge success, I bought my own submarine [a Deep Rover submersible], and now I enjoy the possibility of exploration throughout the world’s oceans. My childhood fantasy wasn’t to be a movie director: it was to be an explorer. And now I get to do that for real.”

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