Taking the Plunge
A chance encounter with a newspaper story leads to a deeply intriguing proposition.
As a kid, there were only two things I loved as much as boats: treehouses and submarines. To deal with the first of these hankerings, I handcrafted an array of wooden structures around the ol’ ranchero that achieved such lofty prominence the telephone company called my father to complain. To deal with the second, I fondly drew up a set of plans for a rudimentary diving machine which consisted of a 55-gallon drum with an old garden hose for breathing, a plywood hatch (gasketed with inner-tube rubber) for exiting and entry, and an assortment of rocks for ballast. Luckily, my dad stumbled across my drawings and sidetracked the project by giving me a lovely old rowboat, thereby saving my life.
My interest in submarines failed to fade however, and continues to this very day. So when I recently chanced to see a photo of airline tycoon Richard Branson’s new submersible Virgin Oceanic in The New York Times, along with a story headlined “Ambitions as Deep as Their Pockets,” I was big-time intrigued. A bunch of millionaires and billionaires, it seemed—among them Branson, Google’s Eric Schmidt, and movie director James Cameron—were all either building or planning to build small submarines capable of diving the famous Challenger Deep, a dark, abysmal spot in the ocean so remote it’s only been visited once, half a century ago, by a crew of stalwart souls in a special U.S. Navy sub.
Just one submersible manufacturer was mentioned in the story: Florida-based Triton Submarines, which at present is best known for designing and purveying small submersibles for yachts. Of course, numerous companies around the world are currently involved in the subs-for-yachts business, among them California-based outfits like SEAmagine and Branson’s affiliate DeepFlight, as well as U-Boat Worx in the Netherlands and several others. But Triton was apparently the only one working on a high-profile project—“The Race to Inner Space,” Triton calls it—that might possibly give Branson a run for his money.
I dialed ’em up. “We haven’t actually sold one as of yet but yes,” said Triton’s marketing V.P. Marc Deppe, “we have a number of potential clients right now, some very interesting clients, talking with us about our Full Ocean Depth submersible, the Triton F.O.D. 36000/3.”
A full-ocean-depth submersible racing to the depths of inner space. Wow! If what Deppe was telling me about the 36000/3 (The first number refers to the vessel’s maximum operational depth and the second to its passenger capacity) was even remotely spot-on, it would be, if ultimately built, an absolutely fabulous vessel. From the decks of a megayacht, or other comparatively large vessel, it could autonomously visit the very bottom of the ocean with a three-person crew (one pilot and two passengers) comfortably ensconced inside. Virtually in shirt sleeves! Moreover, thanks to a touted descent rate of 300 feet per minute (making a full-ocean-depth dive of approximately 36,000 feet achievable within roughly two hours), it could also deliver intrepid travelers to some of the most rarely seen places on the planet in less time than it takes to see a movie!
“But hey,” Deppe said, momentarily pausing amid a quick-fire barrage of facts, figures, and prognostications, “I’ve got an idea, Bill.”
He then, without elucidating further, proceeded to tell me how the design for the $2.9 million Triton F.O.D. had derived at least a portion of its pedigree, indeed even its basic internal framework, from a comparatively mainstream, yacht-friendly submersible that Triton would debut at this year’s Fort Lauderdale boat show: the Triton 3300/3. Selling for $2.6 million, the production sub would both loosely resemble the F.O.D., Deppe said, and offer the very same occupancy configuration: a centerline pilot seat with two flanking seats for passengers.
Deppe cataloged a few more striking similarities in a curiously persuasive tone. He pointed out that both the 3300/3 and the 36000/3 featured an aircraft-style joystick, digital touchscreen, an oxygen-metabolic make-up system that scrubs carbon dioxide while maintaining oxygen levels, and an array of battery-powered thrusters. And while the basic specifications for each sub were different (with a 13-foot length, 10-foot beam, 8-foot height, and 17,640-pound weight, the 3300/3 is roughly five feet shorter and some 2,160 pounds lighter than its ultra-sophisticated, more-vertically oriented sistership), they each possessed the same high-profile, signature feature: a large, spherical, watertight, see-through compartment or “pressure hull” (the 3300/3’s is 6.7-inch-thick acrylic and the 36000/3’s is 4.3-inch-thick, super-tough borosilicate glass from California aerospace company Rayotek Scientific) that permits unsurpassed underwater viewing.
Eventually, of course, Deppe came out with it—the idea he’d made mention of earlier. In lieu of in-depth but iffy coverage of an F.O.D. dive at some unspecified time in the future, he proposed that I, along with a videographer/photographer of my choosing, do something way more immediate—take a ride in the new Triton 3300/3 during an upcoming ABS-certification dive in the Bahamas with a megayacht on the scene for launch and retrieval—and a projected maximum dive depth of 1,000 feet.
PMY took a dive in a submarine! Dad would be proud, I’m sure. Click here to see what happened.
Triton Submarines LLC
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.