The Quest for Depth
Or, How to Make a Homemade Submarine
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
—from T. S. Eliot’s
“The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”
A surprisingly large number of you are about to realize for the first time that a surprisingly large number of you have been designing your own personal submarines since you were 9 years old.
My friend Jeff and I have known each other for 15 years. On the day we met, I mentioned that when I was 9 years old, I went into my dad's shop and made the hatch for my submarine. (I'd been designing my submarine on graph paper for a while already—it was called The Stinger and was a sort of underwater Batmobile that I would use to fight underwater crime.) The hatch was a shallow five-sided box made out of plywood and particleboard, with a rusty hinge barely hammered to one side and a squeaky handle. I sanded the corners of the square box for days, trying to make it round like a real submarine hatch. When my dad asked why I started with the hatch, I (according to him) answered matter-of-factly, "Because you have to start by getting into it."
Jeff's eyes widened at this banal story, because the very first part of his submarine was the hatch he scavenged from an empty lot near the house where he grew up. Neither Jeff nor I ever built the rest of our submarines. In fact, we both stopped after completing our hatches. But Carl Hardwicke built his.
Hardwicke spent six years building the Seaker 100, a three-man, eight-foot-long, four-ton "personal submersible." Hardwicke used his sub more for sightseeing than crime-fighting, so it had a three-foot diameter clear acrylic nose cone on the front. Any structural engineer will tell you that when acrylic fails under the quintupled pressure of a 50-foot dive, it fails "catastrophically." This means that it doesn't crack and leak slowly. It implodes. In an instant.
But it must have cracked first. There must have been a moment on that April day in 1990, at the bottom of Green Lake, in Michigan, when Hardwicke heard that sickeningly brittle sound and saw the imminent failure, just before 2,000 pounds of water smashed through and committed him to the cold embrace of the deep. As soon as he heard the crack, he knew what was coming—he was, according to reports, a structural engineer.
All that was seen from the surface was a large burp of air a few moments later. Not that anyone was watching.
Three months ago, 22 men gathered in Vancouver, British Columbia, for the weekend-long PSUBS Convention, the eighth annual meeting of an international support group for middle-aged white men who build submarines in their backyards (www.psubs.org).
After a long Friday of touring and talking, and a long Friday night drinking far too much fine rum in a small hotel room, we spent Saturday morning on a dock on the Strait of Georgia taking turns diving in three professional mini-submarines, thanks to Nuytco Research and our host, submarining guru Phil Nuytten, a world-renowned gazillionaire diver and inventor. His underwater designs are in use by more than a dozen navies worldwide. When I asked Nuytten why he was so supportive of the amateurs in his field, he quoted an obscure Canadian eco-philosopher: "Because I have known what it is to be thirsty, I would dig my well where others may drink."
"I think a steering wheel is kind of sexy," said Rick Lucertini, who stalled out on building his first submarine but feels the need to finish it before starting his second. We were talking about rudder controls. "Like a car steering wheel, with a steering column and everything. I think that's sexy." Lucertini's obsession with submarines began when he was 9, as soon as he saw a story about Jacques Cousteau in a diving magazine (Cousteau was mapping an underwater archeological dig and fighting off a giant grouper). "So this is a 'wet' dream come true," he laughed awkwardly.
His steering wheel is mission-specific; the sub's primary use will be cruising coastlines around the Pacific Northwest. "I want to travel long distances underwater and just follow the coastline. A mile? Five miles? Fifty miles? As long as my batteries hold out. I want to go straight up the Strait of Georgia, underwater; I want to camp with my son and the sub. I want to pull up to a log boom or beach the sub, walk ashore, pitch a tent, and spend the night."
Cliff Redus, who's been building and dismantling engines since age 10, wants to fly. Underwater. His interest was funneled into submarines, in part, by finding a copy of the Tintin adventure Red Rackham's Treasure, and his boat, the R-300, bears a striking resemblance to the fictional sub that inspired him—a white whale-shaped torpedo of a submarine powered by a Jet Ski motor gimbaled off the back like a rocket ship's exhaust.
His fantasy: "My sub flies like an underwater airplane. It's fast. So I'm piloting my boat about 25 miles off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, in crystal clear water at about 300 feet. Near the bottom. Now, this is where they scuttled the USS Oriskany, an old aircraft carrier, a couple years ago, to make an artificial reef. It's about 300 feet down. You know, for divers to explore." An insane little smile crept onto his face, and the half-dozen guys standing around him on the dock all leaned in.
"I go to maximum speed and then go right into a classic inside vertical loop with a 150-foot radius, so that I'm inverted right as I near the surface. I then complete the loop and land my boat right on the deck of that aircraft carrier." He relaxed, leaned back, put his hands in his pockets. "I want to be the first person in the world to land a submarine on the deck of an aircraft carrier."
The other men included Alec Smyth, a German born in Argentina who makes gorgeous submarining videos in a K-250 nicknamed "Snoopy" ("I will be there, too!" he said to Redus, asking to be allowed to film Redus landing on the aircraft carrier—and no offense, Alec, but when you said it you looked so excited I thought you were going to pee your pants); Greg Snyder, who bought a submarine hull on eBay 10 years ago that was a movie prop from a film called Zeus and Roxanne starring Steve Guttenberg ("It was essentially Benji meets Flipper," he said of the movie), which he hopes to use to dive to the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck in Lake Superior; Dean Ackman, who returned home from Vietnam in the 1970s after serving as a recon special forces marine, retired from his work as an engineer at IBM in 1999, and started building his submarine, the Recon-1, which just floated in water for the first time and will be diving as soon as next summer, also in Lake Superior, which apparently houses hundreds of wrecked ships ("Can you imagine," Ackman said, "sliding along through the dark and coming up on an 1800s schooner?"); Sean Stevenson, who's skipping right over the submarine and going straight for the one-atmosphere diving suit, meaning a hard, jointed, airtight and pressurized exoskeleton with all the maneuverability of the human body; and Frank Dalgleilsh, who saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in a theater in Santa Cruz when he was 10 years old and has been hooked on submarines since.
For the past two years, Dalgleilsh has been building Git Kraken, a sub that looks like it jumped out of a superhero comic—saucer-shaped, with a beaklike nose, owlish eyes, and a curt tail. Its tiny tapered dive planes rotate up and down, each holding a powerful searchlight and an underwater thruster. It's the kind of sub that looks like it should have laser cannons mounted to the sides. It's a two-person sub, where the pilot and passenger sit side by side, 500 feet below the waves, on an upholstered bench seat, each looking forward out a 12-inch-wide round window. "You're side by side," Dalgleilsh explained to me, miming putting his arm around the shoulders of his passenger. "Like a car's bench seat, because I really wanted to be able to share with my passenger." He smiled and lit a Camel, one of his blue eyes slightly winking. I asked what's behind the bench seat. "Nothing," Dalgleilsh said, inhaling deeply on the cigarette. "The seat has to be able to fold down into a bed. You know, in case you want to take a nap... or... whatever." I asked Dalgleilsh if he's building a sex sub. He paused a moment, and then... "Yeah."
By contrast, Ackman, the Vietnam vet, dives for the seclusion, for the solitary world of the solo submariner. "You're out there all by yourself. There's nothing else around you—it's a completely different world. Humans very rarely experience that. For some guys, there's the issue of claustrophobia, getting into that enclosed space and going underwater. For me it's the opposite, it's like putting on a suit of armor... It's protection."
"It's easy to say that because it's long and hard, it's a phallic symbol," said Dr. Tony Hacker, a PhD and psychoanalyst in private practice, when we spoke by phone after my trip to Vancouver. I had asked him to analyze me, and by extension the other submariners, to attempt to explain why we were so fascinated by the deep. "It's easy to say that the ocean, a wet open expanse that holds things, is a symbol for female genitals." Easy, but potentially completely wrong.
Dr. Hacker spent the next few minutes telling me why it's impossible to apply Freudian analysis in the absence of a person to analyze. I promised him a lengthy caveat prefacing anything he said about the symbolism of submarines and oceans. Please do assume that around every quote below, there is an unrepeated contextual quote wherein he asserts, very rightly, that all of this is meaningless speculation without the presence of someone "on the couch."
"I'm very interested in the fact that you started thinking about this at around 9 years old," Dr. Hacker said. "Nine-year-old boys are starting to contend with a lot of things about the adult world that they don't yet understand. Nine-year-olds start to become engrossed in designing and completing mazes, in making and solving puzzles, in figuring out how things work. And sure, there's usually a connection there to figuring out how sexuality works.
"Now, 9-year-olds can't have sex, so you think about plunging a submarine into the depths instead. It's a way of safely exploring the question 'Now how does this thing work?'"
One word that you hear repeated over and over in both psychiatric and submariner circles is "surface." The surface is neither air nor water, neither conscious nor subconscious; it is a perfectly neutral boundary. But you can cross the boundary. Of paramount importance to both psychiatrists and submariners, "the surface" is permeable. It's this permeability that makes both psychiatry and submarining possible.
"That would probably be the way I'd frame it," Dr. Hacker continued. "Not about the womb or penis or whatever, but about an interest in trying to get at an understanding of what's under the surface. That would usually include curiosity and confusion about sexuality and all those things, but it's not limited to that interpretation. It's a confusion, a curiosity, about how everything in adult life works.
"If I were 9 years old, I would wonder about how things were working. I would wonder about what's happening under the surface, where we can't really see, where we can't really know and can't really go. And I would think, 'I could build a machine, a submarine. To go down and see. See what's happening down there.'"
A century ago, more than half of all Americans had blue eyes. By 1950, that number was down to one in three. In 2006, only 16 percent of all Americans had blue eyes. Why, then, do almost 90 percent of PSUBS members have blue eyes? These aren't made-up numbers. This is the real science.
And what if the color of your own eyes influences the colors you perceive? What if blue-eyed people perceive color differently than those around them? If there were certain colors, certain colors that were perhaps complementary to blue, certain colors that resonated with the rods and cones of blue-eyed people in a way that brown and green rods and cones can't detect... If there were such a color...
It would almost surely be Pantone 14-0848.
Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute, calls it Mimosa. I call it Submarine Yellow. It was the 2009 Pantone Color of the Year™. "The color exemplifies the warmth and nurturing quality of the sun," Eiseman said matter-of-factly, like she was explaining a math equation. "It speaks to enlightenment, as it is a hue that sparks imagination and innovation."
Full disclosure: Eiseman and I have had dinner together. At her place on Bainbridge Island. It was not a date.
The draw to submarines has something to do with Pantone 14-0848. It must. That scuba yellow. That 1962 deep Jacques Cousteau yellow that says, confidently and with a slight French accent, "Submareeene... rebreazer... skeendiving..."
"Yellow is a time-honored color for small submarines, dating back to the '40s," said Vance Bradley with no French accent at all. Bradley is six and a half feet tall, a 60-year-old Tennessean with drawling Southern charm, who spends the day chomping cigars as he paces the dock. All of Bradley's submarines have been yellow. "Me? I'll take a pair of yellow ones, thank you—maybe with some black bumblebee stripes just for fun."
Bradley is a bit of a rock star among the rank-and-file members of PSUBS. Having worked for decades as a professional mini-sub builder and operator, Bradley (now a post-professional amateur home builder) spent the weekend regaling us with stories of danger (his sub, snagged and tangled on an unknown line, 2,000 feet below the surface of the North Sea, his oxygen running out...), his encyclopedic knowledge of the industry ("Subs I've built? Let's see, there was PC-8, PC-9, and PC-1401, then PC-1201 and PC-1202..."), and the undeniably enviable life of an underwater adventurer ("I took the lovely blond wife of the Swedish ambassador to the UAE on a dive once in the Persian Gulf. That was a treat. Hey, it was all business—even the gin and tonics we took with us").
If Bradley had his way, all submarines would be yellow. "What can I say? I'm a traditionalist," he said. "The original bathyscaphe was yellow, Cousteau's diving saucer was yellow, the Westinghouse Deepstars [cousins to the saucer] were yellow, and so on. Plus, as we said, almost all Perry boats were and continue to be yellow. It's not complicated. Yellow is a part of the spectrum that disappears last as you dive deeper and, on the surface, provides strong contrast for visibility." (White is the last color to disappear as you dive deeper, but on the surface, white tends to disappear due to the surf's whitecaps.)
As more and more boats in the 1940s and '50s were painted a similar yellow for practical reasons, the color itself started exerting a powerful draw to all interested in slipping beneath the surface. Like a siren song, Pantone 14-0848 called out to divers, to any who fantasized about exploring the depths.
"That yellow, it somehow slices through all the visual chatter and gets our attention," says the designer Corianton Hale, owner of the design firm Sleep Op (and a former art director of The Stranger). "But it's not like red—red grabs your attention and then bosses you around, makes you do whatever it says. No one wants to be bossed around. Red's bossy. Yellow speaks with authority. Authority but not confrontation. Yellow's on your side. Yellow's getting your attention for your own good."
We try to name other things in life that are painted Submarine Yellow. The first three that jump out are school buses, raincoats, and galoshes. Adventure and protection. Two things seemingly opposed. This yellow is adventure and it is the protection for that adventure.
But Submarine Yellow's draw is selective to an extreme: In 2006, just 3 percent of respondents to an online survey chose yellow as their favorite color, beating only white and gray. White and gray, of course, are the only other colors submariners paint their boats. Submariners are attracted to the three least popular colors in the world.
Here's a quirky thing about the 22 men standing on that dock, a thing that might not mean anything at all: Hardly any of them dive their submarines. Either they are still designing their subs, or if done designing they're still building their subs, or if built they're still testing their subs, or if tested they simply don't have enough time for their subs (what with the kids and the job).
"I definitely play with a lot of people who talk about fantasies that they would not enjoy in reality," says Mistress Matisse, a Seattle professional dominatrix and Stranger sex columnist.
Is it possible that after fantasizing about submarines for almost 30 years, after decades spent drawing and years and years spent building, that I might discover, only then, after completing the gigantic journey to a finished seaworthy submarine, that I don't enjoy it? Or that I no longer need it? I asked Matisse because her métier is fantasy itself.
"It's common for people to come to me with a fantasy, play it out, and then feel like 'Okay, I checked that box. What else you got?' That's actually a perfectly fine jumping-off place for developing new erotic goals," Matisse says.
Which is all well and good, except that in the submariner's case, you're left with around $50,000 of hardware sitting in the driveway. I first reached out through the internet in the 1990s and realized there were other people in the world who shared my submarine fantasy life. The first evidence I found was not support groups like PSUBS, but classified ads (with photos) of sad-looking middle-aged men standing in flip-flops and Bermuda shorts in their driveways, slightly rusted personal submarines behind them. "Lovingly Built K-250, Must Sell. Moving On." My first encounter with amateur submariners was with the ones who were getting out of the game—either because of the failure of fantasy or simply because it was finally time to give up on the old rusty eyesore.
"The less positive outcome," says Matisse, "is when someone has a long-term fantasy that's heavily emotionally loaded. And after perhaps years of masturbating to it, they try it, and they freak themselves out so much they shut down erotically. They shut down their imagination because they're so scared of where it took them, and where it might take them, and what that might mean."
As I hear the radio crackle, "AQ-1, Topside—you're cleared to dive," I keep thinking about it.
Everyone on the dock is talking about it, as we stand around like virgins lined up at the hooker's door—a distinctly masculine, excited, scared energy. Nearly half of us have never been under the surface of the water inside any kind of submarine. We 22 have come from across the globe to meet one another and ask about the best way to weld a thingamajig to a whatchamacallit, but we have also come for the opportunity to see how this fascinating abstraction, this passionate fantasy, feels in reality. To see how the thing we have all done thousands of times in our minds feels to do once in our bodies.
"You either love it or you hate it. Some people get really unnerved by it," said Redus, the one with the whale-shaped R-300. "You never know, you know?"
"Some guys just can't do it," said Jay K. Jeffries, another of the PSUBS members standing on the dock and a former navy submariner. "We had a guy, an enlisted guy, who realized as soon as the hatch was closed that he was in the wrong fuckin' place."
The "it" everyone is referring to is claustrophobia, it's hydrophobia, it's emetophobia (fear of throwing up), it's the fear that—once the hatch is closed and the ballast is blown and the green seawater has engulfed the ship and sloshed over the tops of the view ports—you'll be, in some way, completely incompatible with submarining. It's the fear that you won't be able to continue to exist under the surface. The fear that you will be somehow rejected by the thing you've been fantasizing about for so long.
"But what do you do on a 70-day deployment under the ice cap?" continued Jeffries. "You don't take him back to port. You don't drop him off on an iceberg. You give the dude the needle, you put him in his bunk, he gets up, you give him the needle again, put him in his bunk, he gets up, you give him the needle..."
I don't want the needle.
"Roger, Topside, AQ-1 blowing ballast one and two."
AQ-1, the Aquarius personal submersible, is sinking—diving, diving, not sinking, damn it—now at an increasingly awkward angle, her nose far higher than her tail. Loose objects are starting to roll and slide toward the back of the boat. "We're not venting equally," says Jeff, our pilot, and he crawls forward, his added weight forcing the fore ballast tank to burp and equalize our descent.
The temperature drops so fast.
The color changes immediately. Everything is instantly green.
Sounds bubble by the sub. You can hear air bubbles tinkling up the outside of the hull.
Gravity, of course, remains in full effect, but somehow it doesn't feel like it.
"AQ-1, Topside, you're go for main thrusters power-up."
Tiny jellyfish are squirting past the window. It takes a long time. The window is almost four feet wide.
The thrusters power up, an oddly tinny toy-ish sound considering how much steel surrounds us. I picture a remote-control car zipping across a cement garage floor, a neighbor's Christmas present in the early '80s...
I realize I'm not breathing. How long haven't I been breathing? Why aren't I breathing? Oh, right, breathe... Why does it smell like old library books?
It is magic down here. Forget for a moment the translucency of the flora and the fauna, the brilliant oranges of the starfish and anemones. Forget the humans and forget the steel and the acrylic. You are 9 years old. You have imagined a submarine, and yes, it exists. The fact that it exists 40 years in the future and a half a world away is insignificant. It exists just on the other side of a membrane as thin as the skin of a bubble. It's magic that allows you to jump from one side to the other—from Tampa 1977 to Vancouver 2009.
You dive your submarine through fathoms and leagues of clear bubbling water, and in it you can hear mermaids singing each to each. What could it possibly matter whether or not they're singing to you? I mean, you can hear mermaids singing...