By Dorie Cox
With a red helmet in hand, Lead Deckhand Andrius Ziburys grabs an orange life jacket. He loads his scuba-diving equipment into Chuck Norris, the tender to M/Y Axis, a 182-foot Damen and First Officer Chris Parr checks his marine radio. Today they join the rest of the yacht crew to launch the bright yellow submarine.
Sub pilot and yacht captain Les Annan oversees operations. It was 50 years ago that he piloted his first submarine, a cardboard version complete with gauge decals, periscope and conning tower. He and his “crew” were both 5 years old.
The real sub, a Triton 3300/3, will be launched into the canal at Dania Cut Superyacht Yard in Fort Lauderdale off M/Y Axis, support yacht to the 164-foot Westport M/Y Gigi. Even though the self-sustaining vehicle can maneuver untethered to depths of 3,300 feet (1,000m), it requires a minimum of eight people to launch.
The yacht crew started on this morning’s pre-dive checklist at 7:30 and it took an hour and a half. Tonight’s post-dive list is nearly as extensive.
“Part of the pre-dive is that you touch every valve and you start getting in the mindset,” Capt. Annan said.
Next to the standard operating procedures manual on the bridge of Axis sits a scale drawing of the aft deck with paper cut-out shapes of the sub, sailboats, jet skis, seaplane, Chuck Norris and other tenders. The captain and deck crew plan the movement for equipment and portable dock sections, noting where to tie down and position for this morning’s deployment.
Axis has a large garage with the port side dedicated to sub tools and supplies. A nearby table is spread with life jackets, fire extinguishers, toilet bags, wet wipes and flashlights. Opened for inspection is the emergency kit, which includes a carbon-dioxide tester and a water-maker kit. For extreme emergencies, there are self-contained breathing apparatuses and ion curtains to absorb carbon dioxide. And there are decks of playing cards and Tic-Tac mints.
“Well, we’re all down there together,” Capt. Annan said about the fact that three people can survive for 96 hours in the sub in case of problems.
The entire crew has prepared for such emergencies as entanglement, the inability to ascend or an atmospheric problem such as smoke. These examples are why everyone is on duty when the sub is deployed and no one can leave the yacht.
It’s hot in the sun on this May morning. The safety equipment is loaded and crew move to their places. Because the gray deck on Axis heats up, they keep their shoes on.
Parr loads a tray of pellets he calls “scrubbers” into the Chuck Norris, now the “surface op tender.” He tucks a tray the size of a cat litter box under the pilot’s seat inside the submarine to absorb carbon dioxide. After two or three dives, or when the pellets turn purple, Parr changes them out.
“We wouldn’t be able to dive without that,” Parr said of the tray. He also manages tracking and communication with the sub.
“Once submerged, we have acoustic communications that talk to the surface op in the tender,” Parr said. “Tap it and you can hear. I don’t know how to describe it – it’s a piece of rubber that picks up and transmits sounds.”
He follows visually on a screen that reads “little ping pings back with GPS coordinates,” and watches the time.
“We get a trail and can see if it is getting away from us,” Parr said. “Every 14 minutes we communicate, otherwise there is radio silence. When we communicate, it interrupts the tracking.”
Crew are cross-trained and rotate jobs, he said.
Chief Engr. Craig Longstaff operates the crane from a large blue remote control around his neck. He tests the buttons – up, down, port, starboard, and then crew connect a yellow strap from the sub to the crane’s blue lifting line.
Deckhands Ricky Fouri and Kyle Schimmel hold forward and aft lines tied to the sub as Longstaff slowly raises the 8,000-ton vehicle from the deck. Dayworkers Hunter Dupuis and Sammy Navedo tighten their grip on steadying lines as Longstaff swings the sub over the port side of Axis.
Each crew member pulls his line to stabilize the dangling sub. Axis lists a bit to port as it is lowered. Once in the canal, several deck crew release the hoisting lines and tie the sub to the yacht rail.
Meanwhile, Parr ferries rescue diver Ziburys and Capt. Annan in the tender from the yacht’s stern around to the sub. He pulls close and Ziburys climbs onto the sub pontoons. There are black no-skid strips on all horizontal surfaces and a cloth cover over the 6-foot sphere. He opens the black heavy metal hinge, and Capt. Annan climbs inside and Ziburys closes the hatch cover from the outside and inspects the seal. Ziburys takes another look at the two aft props and two side props and he opens three window covers for the captain to see to drive.
Still standing on the floating, half submerged sub, Ziburys holds on to the yellow lifting strap for a ride on top of the sub as Capt. Annan starts the engine and heads to the yacht’s stern to tie off.
“I’m on standby with the rescue tender to rescue and look for damage,” Ziburys said, ready with scuba tank and fins in the tender. “I serve as communication with what’s happening below, I can dive, come up and report.”
He and Parr rotate 10 kilo weights in and out of the sub to keep 340 kilos (750 pounds) inside to maintain neutral buoyancy. That balance is vital to navigation.
“As to understanding imperative concepts, neutral buoyancy is the hardest to teach,” Capt. Annan said. “One liter of water makes a difference.”
But today’s deployment is not for guests. The captain and crew are in search of the source of air bubbles noticed on the last dive. Although he describes it as “a minor leak,” Capt. Annan said it is imperative that it is fixed. Recently, he took apart the chamber, pulled the foam, and made repairs. Now he wants to check in the water.
“This is like a helicopter; it needs a lot of attention,” Capt. Annan said.
For a regular day with guests, one would step on board the sub, climb up two steps, sit on the rim of the hatch opening and carefully lower down to stand one foot on a small black metal step. The next step is down onto the seat before stepping to a plexiglass floor panel to sit. There are two guest seats and the pilot is the last to climb in. After he sits, he folds the small step forward to reveal the joystick and drive station underneath.
Inside, two guests cannot fully extend their arms. Capt. Annan’s shoulders practically touch the adjacent control panels, radio, forward-looking sonar, and depth sounder. There is Wi-Fi on board for communication with the tender, but no internet and every nook is filled with tools and supplies from the table where they were checked this morning.
“If there is an emergency and I can’t operate this, I teach passengers how to put on the headset, to use the radio and hit these two black knobs to ascend,” Capt. Annan said as he pointed to his right. Everything is about safety, in fact, on a typical day with guests, the morning starts with a Triton manufacturer safety video and debrief.
“It’s like what you see on an airplane,” Capt. Annan said. “People fly so much I don’t think they’re really concerned. When was the last time you listened to the [airplane safety] talk? I really don’t think anyone is nervous.”
But just in case, the crew pack the cooler with drinks, have guests sit in the tender, and keep the cover on the sub to keep the temperature low.
“That’s why we need to keep it cool; heat can make people uncomfortable,” Capt. Annan said. “If they’re claustrophobic, I just get them out.”
For typical guest dives, Capt. Annan begins to dehydrate himself in the morning.
“I’m usually sitting here, in this seat, from 7:30 to 5, all day,” he said from the pilot seat inside the sub. “I can’t pee.”
On those days, the sub spends 5 to 6 minutes on the surface between trips. The time is limited because the plexiglass sphere heats so quickly; it can take 30 minutes to recover the cool of the air conditioner. If they’re going to be on the surface for more than 5 minutes, one of the deckhands throws the cover on.
Back on the aft deck, Longstaff and other crew adjust a hose they have run into the sub’s open hatch to add additional cool air while they check for the leak. Safety dictates that a crew member must sit inside the sub at all times. Right now, it is the captain. It’s getting later in the afternoon and he climbs out. He is disappointed.
“That sucks; it didn’t even slow it down,” Capt. Annan said of the leak. “All that work for nothing.”
After hours of preparation, pre-dive checks and deployment, the problem air bubbles are still rising to the surface. Even though the crew has done this many times before and the captain has completed more than 100 dives, each submersion has to be treated like the first one.
“Whether we dive three meters or a thousand meters, we have to do the same check,” Capt. Annan said.
The crew are disappointed that all of today’s work did not find the leak. But this is just what they do for every deployment. Overall, the work is worth being a part of the sub program.
“We’re happy to do this, but it is long hours,” Parr said. “I do want to learn to run the sub. In the future, there will be more market for them on yachts.”
Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.