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From Issue #28 October 24, 2013

His Life Aquatic

A practical tiny sub can dive as deeply as 3,300 feet.

By Elisabeth Eaves Twitter icon 

Bert Houtman has the résumé of a rational businessman. The 61-year-old Dutchman studied economics, co-founded a company that makes accounting software, and led it to a successful initial public stock offering.

After leaving his firm in 1996, though, he began casting about for his next act, and got to wondering what was happening in the world of underwater vehicles. “This was the thing that wanted me,” he says. Here is where things start to get less rational.

We sit at a table on the upper aft deck of the Alk, a steel-hulled 100-foot former research vessel anchored in the clear blue sea off the island nation of Malta. The sun blazes, and the air temperature, even on the water, is in the eighties. In the middle distance off the stern, something breaches the surface and rises up out of the sea: a five-foot-wide clear acrylic sphere and what looks like two bright yellow pontoons.

It is a C-Explorer 2, a two-person sub made by Houtman’s company, U-Boat Worx. The submarine obsession he called “a fantasy that became a passion” had also produced something real.

Visiting Davy Jones

A dinghy manned by two barefoot crewmembers ferries me from the Alk to the spot where the C-Explorer 2 floats like a giant mechanical jellyfish. Getting into a submersible is clumsy business. I clamber from the dinghy, step onto a black no-skid patch on one of the yellow floaters, climb three steps to the top of the see-through dome, shimmy through the hatch, and drop down into a seat beside Erik Hasselman, the company’s twenty-something commercial director as well as the vessel’s pilot. Like many people in the submersible-building world, he’d once been a scuba diver, teaching diving in Malaysia and Cyprus. This is better, he says. “You don’t get wet and you don’t get cold.”

We bob on the surface protected by the acrylic bubble, which had been polished by hand for 400 hours in the shop to achieve perfect transparency. Hasselman radios one of his colleagues on the dinghy, and their voices crackle back and forth as they run through safety checks: our carbon-dioxide scrubbers are running, our oxygen is flowing, our hatch is closed and locked.

Then the ballast tanks expel air with a gasp, water sloshes over the top of our cockpit, and we begin a gentle descent into the translucent Mediterranean Sea. Malta is widely considered to have the best diving in Europe — not for its sea life, as the Mediterranean is overfished, but for the clarity of its water and the many hulks strewn across the seabed.

Several minutes into our trip, the intact wreck of a Maltese navy patrol boat comes into view, its outlines perfectly visible against a backdrop of ultramarine. A gun mount stands erect on deck, pointing into the blue as if no one had told it the ship had sunk. Thousands of tiny fish dart in and out of portholes, and a school of barracudas eyes its prey. Inside the bubble, Hasselman shows me how to use the thrusters — bow, stern, port, and starboard — and hands over the controls. The vessel moves gently forward.

Like many surface boats, the C-Explorer 2 responds to commands slowly, so, for instance, the lag time between me pushing the left-turn thruster and the vessel actually turning left is several seconds. As I concentrate on not hitting the seafloor, I stop paying attention to the wreck and the fish. I feel like a beginner scuba diver again, bumbling up, down, and sideways. Still. I am driving a submarine.

Bert Houtman.

A drunken duck

Houtman wears a blue-and-white-striped T-shirt, French sailor style. He is more than six feet tall, forcing him to duck when he steps in and out of the Alk’s wheelhouse. He has blue eyes and looks that are on the cusp of transforming from handsome to mad sea captain. On the aft deck, a crewmember named Caroline — chef, deckhand, dispenser of seasickness tablets — checks to see if we needed coffee or water.

In his youth Houtman had been fascinated with the submersibles that were then only available to scientists. He closely followed stories about the USS Nautilus, which in 1958 passed under the ice cap at the North Pole, and the Trieste, which in 1960 became the first manned vessel to reach the deepest point in the ocean — a feat that wouldn’t be repeated until 2012, when James Cameron piloted the Deepsea Challenger to the bottom of Challenger Deep, a trough in the seabed that reaches 6.8 miles below the surface of the Pacific.

In the late ’90s, after leaving his software company, Houtman started poking around on PSUBS.ORG, a Web site for people who build submersibles in their garages and back yards. He and a collaborator built a prototype, but he knew that a hobby wasn’t going to be enough. In 2002, he started U-Boat Worx, entering a field that attracts mavericks, dreamers, and adherents of the build-it-and-they-will-come school of entrepreneurship. One of his chief competitors in the small-sub market also tries to sell underwater homes.

One of U-Boat Worx’s first models descended and ascended well enough. “But it behaved on the surface like a drunken duck,” Houtman says. “We wanted a submersible that would behave on the surface like a boat.” He achieved that, but in the next model visibility was still limited; the passenger and pilot could see around themselves but not down. In the C-Explorer 2, he rectified that problem by clamping together two acrylic hemispheres with an aluminum band, in effect creating a whole sphere. When I was in it and we approached the sea floor, I looked down past my toes and could make out grains of sand, as well as what was likely a very confused flounder.

Houtman and his engineers learned by trial and error. This fall the company launched the three-seat C-Explorer 3, which is made with a single-piece acrylic sphere instead of two hemispheres, thus doing away with the aluminum band and improving visibility even more. The company also makes the five-seat C-Explorer 5. Russian president Vladimir Putin rode one to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland last summer to check out the wreck of a 19th-century frigate.

Who might use these things, though, besides preening heads of state? The price tag for one is in the low millions. A C-Explorer 3 that dives to 1,000 feet (300 meters) costs $2.4 million, and one that dives to 3,300 feet (1,000 meters) – right about where things turn pitch black — costs $3 million. And that doesn’t include the cost of retrofitting one’s yacht with a heavy-duty crane to lift the sub in and out of the water.

With an underwater speed of two knots — 2.3 miles per hour — and a surface speed of four knots, they’re not meant to travel long distances on their own power. Even small submersibles shaped less like flying saucers and more like airplanes, like Hawkes Ocean Technologies’ Deepflight Super Falcon, don’t travel faster than six knots (about 7 mph). Not surprisingly, sales of any given small submersible tend to be in the single digits. U-Boat Worx has four orders in for its newest model, the C-Explorer 3.

The very wealthy are the obvious target market. “It’s a very exclusive sports car,” Houtman suggests, though I don’t think this is quite the right metaphor. Ownership may one-up the billionaire in the next slip, but if that’s the goal it would be more effective to just buy a Lamborghini. Buying a personal submarine requires a lot of money, but also a certain cast of mind — suited to slow and patient observation, eager to explore for exploration’s sake, happy when utterly alone and unseen in the deep. It’s more like a very exclusive telescope.

Houtman’s business plan, roughly, is to sell more subs to the very rich, enough so that he can start building more than one at a time. That will push down production costs and, in turn, prices, allowing him to sell to the not-quite-as-rich. “There must be a larger market, but only if prices go down,” he says. “They will come.”

Humans vs. robots

Timmy Gambin, a marine archeologist at the University of Malta, also visited the Alk and dove in the C-Explorer 2. He admired its steadiness, which he said would allow it to be loaded down with instruments like sonar. In his career he’s explored cisterns, sea caves, and ancient Roman wrecks, but he usually uses a tethered vehicle that’s operated remotely – essentially, a robot on a leash. This was different. “Nothing can replicate the human eye,” he says.

Scuba diving allows for the human eye too, but it has its own drawbacks. As one dives, nitrogen from the balanced mix of surface gases one breathes from a tank becomes dissolved into the body’s tissues. This can cause a painful and sometimes life-threatening condition called the bends, where nitrogen rapidly bubbles out of the body like carbonation out of a bottle of pop shaken and suddenly opened. To avoid the bends, a diver must make decompression stops as he ascends to allow the nitrogen to dissipate. The longer and deeper the dive, the slower and more time-consuming the ascent.

For example, if a scuba diver were to spend more than 8 minutes at 130 feet (40 meters), the typical depth limit in recreational diving, she would have to endure lengthy decompression stops on the way to the surface. In the submersible, which has a pressurized cabin like an airplane, you could spend six hours at that depth without even tapping into the emergency oxygen supply, which is sufficient to last for four days.

Whether the future of ocean exploration lies in manned vehicles or robots is a subject of much debate. The argument in brief: manned subs are more inspirational and human eyes are irreplaceable, but robots allow scientists to gather more information for less money.

At the National Deep Submergence Facility at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, director Andy Bowen is focused on developing a cutting-edge, untethered, remotely operated vehicle. But Bowen doesn’t see small manned crafts, even ones sold as rich-people toys, as necessarily useless. “Are they purpose-designed systems? No,” he says. “But the practical reality is that if you put anything in the water it’s potentially useful.”

He speculates that submersible owners could contribute a form of citizen science. “You can look at it as sad, or think about how to take advantage of it. Maybe we can put sensors on them.” He hasn’t always been immune to the inspiration factor. “[Underwater] habitats and submersibles were among the things that got me into this as a kid,” he says. “That was a starry-eyed time. The Sputnik era.”

He who builds a successful submarine company probably needs to be both starry-eyed and hard-nosed. “I didn’t start this company with the goal of making it a cash cow,” Houtman says. “I wanted to dive.” But he also says that his 11-year-old company will be profitable in 2013 for the first time, suggesting that his inner accounting-software executive isn’t dormant. It’s merely open to wild ideas.

“We had visitors from a company that makes a flying car,” he says. “That’s a product that is appealing to me as well.”

Photos by the author.

Elisabeth Eaves is the author of Wanderlust: A love affair with five continents and Bare: The naked truth about stripping. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Forbes, and Marie Claire, among other places, and she is an editor at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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