Taking the Plunge
We dive the Bahamian depths onboard the newly launched three-person, yacht-friendly Triton 3300/3 submarine. At midnight!
As our Avon RIB approached the towering stern of the 220-foot Atlantis II in the moonlight, a near-blinding array of orange deck lights disclosed a mad, paramilitary, on-deck scene. Dark figures stood facing aft, arms akimbo, silhouetted in the glare, some at the stern rail, some down at the wave-washed foot of the boarding stair, all apparently intent on monitoring our progress. Hunkering behind them were two bright-yellow submarines—Triton’s 3300/3 (rated for a maximum depth of 3,300 feet with three occupants) and her little sister, the Triton 1000/2 (1,000 feet and two occupants)—each overrun with engineers, riggers, and technicians. And still farther back, a giant Pettibone crane soared, its boom cantilevered over the subs like the beak of a giant, prehistoric bird.
“Jump when I say, ‘Jump,’” Triton’s John Englehart drawled from the RIB’s helm. “And be careful, pardner. Murphy’s Law’s been doggin’ this operation since dawn. Can you believe I picked today to quit chewin’ tobacco? I mean damn, man!”
I knelt in the bow, gingerly balancing against the swell, antsy to get aboard Atlantis II. Not only was I excited (and perhaps somewhat anxious) about experiencing a demo dive in the 3300/3, I was also seriously hyped about visiting one of the most famous research ships of all time, a vessel that had garnered world-wide publicity for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in 1986 by facilitating a series of deep-water dives on the R.M.S. Titanic.
“Jump!” yelled Englehart, and I lunged from the RIB through a slug of salty spatter, momentarily leaving behind my buddy and PMY videographer/photographer Jim Raycroft, as well as a documentary filmmaker from the BBC, a Today show producer, and the director of marine operations for the University of Miami. Messing about in submarines is typically expensive and complicated, and Triton was amortizing the evening’s festivities with a guest list that included not only big-time journalists but all sorts of potential customers as well, from oil-company and oceanographic reps to publicity-shy yachtsmen. A bunch of hip, young TV types were even on hand, filming a pilot episode for an as-yet-unnamed submarine-related reality show.
“Who are you, and how are things going?” one of the youngsters challenged as I topped the boarding stair with Raycroft and the BBC hot on my heels. The black lens of a giant TV camera stared me in the face. A tad startled, I dealt with the first question easily. But the second seemed too challenging to handle with more than a brush-off. “Too complicated to go into right now,” I replied, with all the affability I could muster.
Complicated indeed. The day had begun at 7 a.m. with the gathering of journalists, oceanographers, and other interested parties at Port Lucaya Marina on Grand Bahama Island—there were 12 or so of us as I recall. And while we proceeded to wait dockside for a Triton pickup vessel to arrive in increasingly gusty 15-to-20-knot winds, a full seven hours of thumb-twiddling elapsed; followed by sketchy reports that a test dive in big seas offshore had slightly injured a Triton employee; followed by word that Triton president Patrick Lahey was moving Atlantis II to shallower, more protected water; followed by a pedal-to-the-metal van trip to McLeans Town some 50 miles distant; followed by a nerve-jangling series of after-dark RIB rides through a vast coral reef without benefit of navigational markers or GPS, four persons per ride; followed by a moonlit race to Atlantis II in a diesel-powered Midnight Express 39; followed by our 9 p.m. arrival at the ship via yet another set of RIB rides, mostly because debarking from a speedboat in four-foot swells seemed risky.
“Welcome aboard, Bill,” boomed a big guy, just as the reality-show youngster shoved off, presumably to gather more sound bites. “I’m Bruce Jones, Triton’s CEO. Thanks for coming out here tonight. Gonna be a nighttime deal instead of the daytime dive we promised I’m afraid. Weather shot us in the foot today.” Jones then began walking Raycroft and me around the gleaming Triton 3300/3 while praising her 82-inch-diameter pressure hull (the integral acrylic sphere is reportedly the largest ever made for a manned submersible); her electric thrusters (which allow forward, reverse, and vertical movements); and her hydraulically actuated, under-sponson, fore-and-aft-sliding battery trays that facilitate trim adjustments.
“Goin’ in!” yelled Lahey from a vantage point aloft, simultaneously cutting Jones short and seriously intensifying on-deck focus. Ensuing procedures were the same for both subs. First, several mooring rings were cast loose and a big strap bridle was fastened to four corner-mounted lifting eyes by technicians and deckhands. Then, after the same guys had affixed tag lines to two or more additional attachment points, a hook at the end of the crane’s cable was lowered and snapped into the bridle. The actual hoist came next, with the crane lifting and booming each sub over the side while deckhands worked the tag lines. Finally, the RIB moved in to put the pilot aboard and remove the bridle.
Our deal started at midnight. “I can’t believe I’m doin’ this,” said Raycroft standing barefoot in the boarding-stair wash with a big Canon 5D Mark II around his neck.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this either, Jim,” I observed truthfully, just as the RIB bumped home and a couple of wide-eyed Today show folks hopped free, their demo dive complete. A brilliant full moon hung high in a sky bejeweled with stars. What a night! The trip to the glowing 3300/3 felt like the best boat ride I’d ever taken.
The dive itself? For starters, the entire 45-minute extravaganza went slicker than a hound dog’s nose although the maximum depth Lahey piloted us to was significantly curtailed (just 160 feet versus the 1,000 Triton had promised) due to the weather difficulties Jones had referred to earlier. Once both Raycroft and I were familiar with ballast, trim, and other systems as well as various safety features (the 3300/3 has scuba-type breathing apparatus onboard should the main life-support system fail, for example), Lahey initiated a gradual, sloping glide into the blue, reaching bottom in mere minutes after passing through arrays of squid and tropical fish, all psychedelically illumined by our brilliant, forward-facing LED lights. I experienced no claustrophobic feelings whatsoever during our descent, perhaps because visibility was so panoramic and stunningly immediate, without glare or reflection. The joystick worked simply enough, with sideways motion inducing turns, banks and lateral progress and an on-top wheel for tilt. “Wow,” I concluded as we skimmed peacefully along, “it’s like flying.”
Glory fades, all too quickly it often seems. And our trip back to the barn after our spectacular underwater experiences proved the point in spades. Maybe it was the long, cold, two-in-the-morning race to the reef in the Midnight Express that started all the gloominess. Maybe it was our RIB driver getting lost in the flats beyond the reef and running aground. Or maybe it was when Raycroft and I had to jump overboard at 4 a.m. to drag the RIB across the muddy wastes, seemingly for miles, to find deeper water.
Who knows? All I can say for sure at this point is that the bonefish guide who pulled over on Grand Bahama Highway to pick up a couple of half-drowned rats with thumbs extended, some 50 miles east of Freeport, was one helluva discerning gentleman.
“You be swimmin’, mon?” he asked, with a quizzical expression, half curious, half concerned.
“No, mon,” I replied. “We be divin’.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.