Industry » Features » The Rise of the Submersible?

The Rise of the Submersible?


It may be hard to believe, but you couldn’t always land a helicopter on private yachts. For one thing, most private yachts were too small to accommodate such heavy equipment. And even if the boat was big enough, then there was the fact that you needed a helideck, which took up a lot of deck space. Plus there were all the extra costs and maintenance that come with helicopters.

Suffice it to say, those days are behind us. Helidecks and helicopters are fast becoming just another accessory these days.

In the same way that helicopters first started to appear on boats at the behest of owners willing to take the risk, designers and engineers are now starting to explore ways of accommodating submersibles. Three companies have started to tailor their subs for the superyacht market and they’re hopeful that the timing is ripe for their products. “I think it might even become more popular than helicopters,” said Erik Hasselman, the sales and marketing manager at Netherlands-based U-Boat Worx.

Within the past 12 to 18 months alone, Florida-based Triton Submarines has started to see a major shift within the industry, said Marc Deppe, the company’s vice president for marketing and sales. “It’s already changing,” he said. “People are starting with new builds – even if they’re not considering a submersible at that point – they’re considering that they may want to in the future.”

Only a handful of yachts have submersibles on board at the moment, but it’s not for lack of desire. If it were as simple as adding jetskis or a new tender, then the subs would already be much more prevalent. But there are still a number of looming questions about just how feasible these multimillion-dollar futuristic dive machines are on a yachts. It’s not about how safe the subs are while underwater; the concerns deal with getting the sub in the water and the people in the sub, and then all of it back on board safely.

“I’m going to assume that everybody’s submarine works underwater, which may be a stretch,” said Ian Sheard, the director of engineering with California-based SEAmagine Hydrospace Corp. “But that’s the easy part. The hard part is safely getting people in and out. It’s launching and recovering. It might be a nice, calm flat day when you launch but three or four hours later it might be blowing a gale and you might have four-, five-foot swells.”

SEAmagine1And not only that. But the subs have to be readily and easily accessible. Sheard said he knows of subs that were installed on yachts but were almost never used “because the actual logistics were just too complicated,” he said. “You cannot sacrifice useability.”

Interest has certainly spiked in the past few years, according to those referenced for this article. But that hasn’t yet translated directly into sales and installations – even if the manufacturers are anticipating that it will. Owners are still holding off, waiting to see if and how they will work. “It’s a very expensive and very serious toy to have on board,” said Ben Snead, the director of North Carolina-based Expedition Yachts International, which has dealt with the question of submersibles. “But they can be a lot of fun if you want to take someone down who doesn’t have the endurance to do something like a wall dive.”

In the beginning

SEAmagine was founded in early 1995 with an eye on the tourism market. “The idea was basically to make a shallow-diving tourism sub that was easy to get in and out of – that was very simple,” Sheard said. The basic design hasn’t changed much since then – just the size and the capabilities.  A glass sphere is fixed between pontoons like a pearl, with lateral and vertical thrusters positioned for control.

SEAmagine’s original designs called for an external pilot in scuba gear controlling a sub with two passengers inside the glass bubble. It was designed to go to 30m (100 ft). “Then we kept getting requests that people wanted to go deeper.”

It will come as no surprise that this has been the trend, especially since competition ramped up with the arrival of two new submersible companies: U-Boat Worx in 2005, Triton in 2007. All three companies have pretty much stuck to the same basic design, with each offering its own unique variations.

SEAmagine3They have each also developed subs that can descend to a depth of around 1,000m (about 3,300 ft). This, obviously, means the external pilot was no longer feasible – though SEAmagine maintains the external controls for easy surface manoeuvrability. However, Triton has announced a new sub that would significantly up the ante. The company claims the 36000/3 model will be able to drop 11,000m (or around 36,000 ft) below the ocean’s surface. This is, essentially, pushing the boundaries to their logical limit, since that is the equivalent of the deepest point in the ocean along the Mariana Trench. Deppe said Triton’s partnership with Rayotech Scientific, a specialty glass manufacturer, has made the project possible, though the model is still very early in the prototype.

In addition, each of the companies maintains its own pilot certification course. “It’s pretty much a self-regulated certification,” Hasselman said, though organizations like Lloyd’s Register Group or the American Bureau of Shipping must approve of the vessel and the certification process before most insurance companies or flagstates will even allow a sub to be placed on a ship. Still, it appears that most of the companies have performed their due diligence on the training. “It’s the reputation of the submarine builder that’s at stake, as well,” Hasselman adds.

The red tape

Submersibles have been turning heads in the superyacht market for years now, but they are still relatively rare to find on board. There have been a number of limiting factors, one of which was a shortage of certified operators, according to Liz Howard, a charter broker with Fraser Yachts. “You can’t get it and go. It would be like a helicopter if there were only 20 helicopters in the world,” she said. “The toys have evolved for yachties. For a while it was helicopters – and it still is. But I think I’m seeing that the submersible is the new toy. But there’s not the staff to man them.”

The manufacturers contest this idea. Generally, the manufacturer trains a few members of the crew to handle and pilot the new machine. Sheard said that SEAmagine has trained close to 50 pilots in its weeks-long intensive course. But it’s the retention of those personnel that is important, and “it’s a good few years away before you have a person with submersible pilot listed on their resume and that’s why you hire them,” he said.

U Boat1While there is a problem with crew turnover leaving the ship without anyone certified to run the sub, new crew can be trained in four to six weeks. And each of the companies maintains its own pilots who can be shipped off anywhere in the world to operate a submersible system when an owner wants to explore.

Still there are practical complications with placing a submersible on a yacht. Most submersible operations use ships designed specifically around quick, easy and safe launching of the underwater vessel. This is most often accomplished with an A-frame crane at the stern of the ship, and the submersible resting on a nearby platform in the open air. There are a couple of other operations where catamarans place a raising platform between the hulls, which allows the operation to easily lower and raise the sub out of the water.

It’s not so easy with yachts.

“Handling is an issue with any vessel,” Snead said. “They’re heavy and they’re delicate.” In addition, yachts must remain aesthetically pleasing, which pretty much rules out the A-frame. Submersibles are about four times heavier than the average tender, and so not only does the crane system have to be upgraded but the whole process of launching and recovering becomes much more dangerous. “The sea conditions have to be pretty ideal,” Snead said.

However, those walls are beginning to crumble, according to some. “The integration is one of the most important factors,” said Hasselman. “The earlier in the process that the yacht is prepared to have a submarine on board, the more probable it will be that the outcome will be useable.”

Usually owners would prefer to keep the sub in the tender bay at the stern. One major advantage to this is launching in the lee of the vessel without adding any effect to the vessel by launching off one of the sides. “It’s usually, when the bow is into the waves and into the wind, it’s very calm at the back,” Hasselman said. “So you can take your time to launch and unhook and drive away.”

Triton2But this translates into height restrictions, and the sub developers have had to modify their models with this in mind. “The reality is that there’s very few garages in the industry that have sufficient height to be able to accommodate one of our larger subs,” Deppe said. Triton’s smaller models are more diverse in that sense.

SEAmagine recently installed a sub at the bow of a boat under the helideck. Launching off the bow obviously meant there was a greater distance for the sub to travel on a crane, which meant added safety concerns. “A lot of people said it would never work – it would be moving too much. But in reality, we’ve operated in some pretty strong winds and five-foot swells. And as long as you position it so that the wave action isn’t a problem and as you’re taking it out you have tie-points all around. Again, it’s a case of training not just the pilot, but the crew,” he said. “What was potentially thought that this could be quite a problem actually turned out to be quite simple in reality.”

Growing interest 

While refit integration appears more applicable with each successful and unique integration, it’s still a “square peg in a round hole exercise,” according to Deppe. “You’re integrating a submersible into a vessel that was not originally designed to carry one.” The obvious preference would be to have a vessel designed specifically with submersibles in mind. “Now some of the major architects, builders, and their clients are coming together to visit with us – and not just at industry events,” Deppe said. “We just spent some time with an Italian yard who is doing a ground-up build that is almost being built around the submersible. It’s a major trend-shift in the industry and it bodes very well for the submersible industry.”

Hasselman has seen a similar development. “I’ve been doing this job for six years now and I’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of requests from the yacht industry and also from the more established players,” he said. “Where you first see the more innovative, smaller shipyards and naval architects trying to incorporate submarines in their designs and their proposals to clients. We now see the big shipyards coming out and embracing this new thing.”

SEAmagine4There is also the proliferation of shadow vessels, which are designed to lift and carry large equipment and without any of the concerns over deck space. And Triton has also worked with a company to design LARCs (Launch and Recovery Catamarans) – two of which are expected to be delivered along with submersibles in September and December, Deppe said. These developments could open up the market considerably – especially if they can be broken down, shipped to a cruising destination and reassembled, as Triton plans.

“Let’s say you want to put one of these on a yacht. You’ve got a cost-of-entry there which exceeds, in most cases, $50 million – between the boat and the submarine and the associated costs. You’re really talking about an extremely high net-worth individual, and consequently quite a narrow market,” Deppe said. “But with the design and delivery of these catamarans, we’re now able to provide somebody with, a $4-to-$5 million turnkey solution, which includes the support vessel and the submersible. And that’s a game-changer. It makes submersible ownership much more accessible to a much broader clientele.”

The number of submersibles currently on yachts was perhaps somewhere near a dozen as of this writing. SEAmagine had two subs on yachts, according to Sheard. U-Boat Worx had four, Hasselman said. And Deppe wouldn’t specify how many Triton subs were on yachts. “There’s quite a few out there, but we don’t release our production numbers,” Deppe said. “The reality is, we’ve been building a couple of these things a year, and recently there’s been a big uptick, and we anticipate doing four-to-six a year going forward.”

And with all of the manufacturers reporting elevated levels of interest, it appears that submersibles just might be on the cusp of something big.


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