How Personal Submarines Work


"The Turtle" -- the first military submarine
"The Turtle" -- the first military submarine
MPI/Stringer/Getty Images

The Earth is made up of about 70 percent ocean, with an average depth of about 3,200 feet (1,000 meters). That's a lot of water. Since man first figured out they could build vessels that would stay afloat, they took to the seas. This was fun for a while, but with so much going on beneath the surface, it wouldn't take long before we longed to dive deep to see what's going on down there.

The submersible watercraft was first envisioned by Leonardo da Vinci in one of his famous sketches in the early 1500s. Sometime in the late 1570s a British mathematician and innkeeper named William Bourne scratched out some plans for a submarine. He wrote:

"It is possible to make a Ship or Boate that may goe under the water unto the bottome, and so to come up again at your pleasure. Any magnitude of body that is in the water, having always but one weight, may be made bigger or lesser, then it shall swimme when you would, and sink when you list."

It may be 1570s English, but the concept was undoubtedly that of a submarine. He's basically saying that if you make the boat heavier than the weight of the displaced water, it will sink (purposely). Fast forward about 50 years when a Dutch inventor named Cornelius van Drebbel built the first working submarine. Of course, there were no engines at this point, so Drebbel and his 12 oarsmen hit the Thames River and submerged for about three hours. The first military sub, The Turtle, was built in 1776 by David Bushnell and was powered by hand-cranked propellers. The United States military used The Turtle during the Revolutionary War, to middling success.

Skip ahead again to the 1890s, when the first modern-style subs were built. Two rival inventors developed these two designs, which were purchased by the militaries of the United States, Russia and Japan. These subs were powered by petroleum or steam on the water's surface and used electric motors under water. The same inventors came up with the idea of the torpedo at the same time, making the new submarine a very unique war tool.

Submarine Basics

A Chinese Navy submarine slowly submerges.
A Chinese Navy submarine slowly submerges.
China Photo Press/Getty Images

Everybody knows that submarines submerge into the water and back up again to the surface at will. That's the whole point. But you may not know just how. It's actually a pretty simple concept. Heavy steel ships can float because they displace an amount of water equal to their weight. When the water is displaced, it creates something called buoyant force. This upward force allows boats and surfaced subs to float. Submarines can control their buoyancy, making it possible to sink and then surface again.

A submarine controls its buoyancy with the help of two sets of tanks (ballast and trim) that line the craft. These tanks can be alternately filled with water or air. Water makes the sub submerge; air makes it surface. When the tanks fill with water, the air is vented out the top until the submarine begins to sink. This is called negative buoyancy. Compressed air on board the sub is what allows you to breathe while submerged.

For large submarines, short wings toward the rear of the craft called hydroplanes allow the sub to move up and down. When a sub gets to cruising level, the hydroplanes go flat, allowing the sub to level out for travel. Just like a boat, a submarine uses a tail rudder to steer left and right. When the submarine is ready to surface, the water in the tanks is displaced with the compressed air, and the hydroplanes are angled to force the rear of the sub down. This makes the sub rise and point up toward the surface. When the sub needs to submerge again the whole process repeats itself.

On the next page, we'll dive into the world of the personal submarine.

Personal Submarines

The two-man Delta submarine prepares to be lowered into the Dead Sea.
The two-man Delta submarine prepares to be lowered into the Dead Sea.
Bryan McBurney/Getty Images

For years, subs were mainly used for military purposes. Later on, marine science got into the game, using subs for close up viewing of sea life and shipwrecks. But like many things that started out with military and scientific applications, people soon realized that they could also be used for recreation. Personal subs came along in the 1970s, thanks to a man named Graham Hawkes.

Hawkes was one of the early designers of the mini-sub, originally building them to allow marine researchers to get up close and personal with the ocean floor. Years later, the jet set crowd got wind of the personal submarine and decided that they made a pretty nice addition to their yachts. If a 250-foot (76.2-meter) yacht can have a helicopter, a speed boat and a couple of jet skis, why not a submarine? The personal submarine has become a status symbol for the ultra-rich, an expensive toy for people with expensive tastes.

Most personal subs are built to be launched from the rear of a yacht, though some are small enough to carry and launch from a boat trailer. No one knows for sure just how many of these submarines are out there, and since the Coast Guard considers them boats, there isn't a way to log an accurate count. Each type of mini-sub is different from the next. They range from the do-it-yourself kit subs for about $18,000 all the way to luxury subs that sleep up to 20 people and cost more than $80 million. The 5,300 square foot (500 square meters) Phoenix 1000 submarine actually has an option that includes an even smaller, sportier personal sub.

With the difference in price tags comes a wide range of functionality. Obviously, the most expensive subs are more high-tech, comfortable and have a much greater range. The less expensive models tend to stay within 25 feet (7.62 meters) of the surface, but if you want to pay for it, you can go as far as 3,000 feet (914 meters) down.

Mid-Range Personal Submarines

The dolphin-like Seabreacher draws attention on the Chicago River.
The dolphin-like Seabreacher draws attention on the Chicago River.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The CQ-2 twin seater personal sub, manufactured by C-Quester, is a fully electric mini-sub that's capable of maintaining cabin pressure at one atmosphere. It looks like a small, enclosed speed boat, with two clear bubbles on top for the operator and passenger to behold the wonders of the deep. This means there are no decompression issues to worry about when diving and surfacing. The CQ-2 can run up to two and half hours underwater and has an emergency air supply that will last about 36 hours. Before the CQ-2, C-Quester was known for the single-seat model, and it now has plans to begin manufacturing a four-seat model. The four 36-volt electric motors pack about 100 pounds (45.4 kilograms) of thrust, and the company claims that it's no more difficult to operate than a boat. Even so, the price tag comes with a mandatory four- to six-day course on how to safely operate the craft. Maintaining a personal sub isn't easy or cheap, so C-Quester only sells their subs in markets where they have qualified mechanics available. For just south of $250,000 you can own a CQ-2, and say goodbye to your scuba gear.

There's no mistaking a Seabreacher for a marine science tool; this one is pure toy. Cross a jet ski with "Flipper" and you have the right idea. The sub is shaped like, and operates much like, a dolphin, right down to its bottlenose design. The cockpit is where the head and mid-body of the dolphin would be, with a clear bubble surrounding the occupants for optimum viewing. There are two wings and a rear tail that resemble dolphin fins. You can only go about five feet (1.5 meters) down in a Seabreacher, but enthusiasts of this craft aren't interested in an ocean-exploring deep dive. If you're wondering why it's called a "breacher" -- just like the dolphin that inspired the design, this sub can actually leap entirely from the water at a maximum underwater speed of 20 miles per hour (32.2 kilometers per hour). If you want to cruise the surface, you can crank that up to 35 to 40 miles per hour (56.3 to 64.3 kph). The Seabreacher ranges in price from $48,000 to $68,000.

These are just a couple of options for mid-range personal subs. There are many more models available in a wide price range. We'll look at some of the higher end models of personal submarines on the next page.

The Super Falcon Submarine

The predecessor to the Super Falcon, the Super Aviator, prepares for takeoff.
The predecessor to the Super Falcon, the Super Aviator, prepares for takeoff.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Paying $30,000 to $250,000 for a personal submarine is nothing to sneeze at, but the super wealthy take things to an entirely different level. High performance and ultra-luxurious personal submarines can be had from about $1.5 million to $78 million, depending on what your needs (or wants) are.

The Deep Flight Super Falcon was designed by the original personal sub genius, Graham Hawkes, and his company, Hawkes Ocean Technologies. The idea of the Super Falcon was to get as close to an underwater fighter jet as possible. They came pretty close, which is probably why Hawkes refers to his excursions in the Super Falcon as "flights" instead of dives. The Super Falcon has achieved speeds and maneuverability never before seen in a submarine. The Falcon seats two people in their own separate cockpits, has a long nose and two rear wings. The final design ended up looking much like a fighter jet, only a few feet wide and sleek as a bullet.

The 500 pounds (226.8 kilograms) of thrust it offers enables the Falcon to do something no other personal sub can do -- surface vertically like a rocket at launch. The clear shells that house the operator and passenger are made from a proprietary composite that can keep the craft pressurized at almost 3,000 feet (914 meters). The Falcon uses fighter jet technology for its fly-by-wire control system, and can cruise as fast as 6 knots underwater, about the speed of your average dolphin. If a Super Falcon is for you, plan on dropping between $1.7 and $2 million.

Luxury Personal Submarines

Behold, the 213 foot Phoenix 1000 from U.S. Submarines - complete with mini-sub.
Behold, the 213 foot Phoenix 1000 from U.S. Submarines - complete with mini-sub.
Image courtesy U.S. Submarines

A company called U.S. Submarines, Inc., has taken the luxuries of the fully-loaded yacht and integrated them into the personal submarine. Interiors can be selected from a catalog, or the prospective buyer can work with a designer for a 100 percent custom job. Regardless of the depth of their subs, they remain pressurized at one atmosphere, leaving the comfy climate-controlled interiors feeling like you're above the surface at all times. Their 116-foot (35-meter) Seattle 1000 sub has five staterooms, generous common areas and looks much like a small yacht, save for the porthole windows that line the hull on both sides of the craft.

On the surface, the Seattle runs on diesel fuel, but once submerged, it switches over to battery power for a nice, quiet cruise. It can dive as far as 1,000 feet (300 meters) and can travel at a rate of about 14 knots underwater. In addition to the viewing portholes on both sides, the Seattle has a main lounge on the bow that is almost entirely see-through. If you're into scuba diving, you can take advantage of the optional diver decompression chamber, allowing you to venture out and re-enter while submerged.

If you have some time and money, the Seattle 1000 can be yours -- it costs about $30 million and takes up to two years to manufacture. If you can't swing that and don't need as much space, opt for the Discovery 1000 or the Nomad 1000, priced at $1.3 and $2.6 million, respectively. If you won't settle for second best, shoot for the stars with the 213-foot (65-meter), 5,300 square foot Phoenix 1000. With the Phoenix, you can cross the Atlantic Ocean in style for a mere $90 million.

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