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Deep pockets, deeper ambitions by Sylvia Pennington

The DeepFlight Super Falcon submersible.

Undersea dreams

The DeepFlight Super Falcon submersible.

  • The DeepFlight Super Falcon submersible.
  • Tom Perkins pictured beside the DeepFlight Super Falcon submersible.
  • James Cameron emerges from the Deepsea Challenger submersible after his successful solo dive in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean.
  • Filmmaker James Cameron emerging from the hatch of Deepsea Challenger during testing of the submersible in Jervis Bay, south of Sydney, Australia.
  • Sir Richard Branson and explorer Chris Welsh (L) attend a press conference in Newport Beach, California in 2011 to announce plans to take a solo piloted submarine to the deepest points in each of the wolrd's five oceans.
  • Late Swiss deep sea explorer and inventor Jacques Piccard posing on the deck of his pocket submarine F.A Forelon the Lake of Geneva near Cully on June 31, 1995.

While jet skies and motorbikes satisfy the average bloke’s need for petrol-powered thrills, the uber-rich are sinking to greater depths to get theirs.

The recreational submarine has become the boy-toy of choice for a swag of adventure-seeking Forbes rich list fellas including Sir Richard Branson, the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and the Silicon Valley mogul Tom Perkins.

Branson has turned his attention away from racing into space to exploring the mystery of what lies beneath. The Virgin founder plans to take his self-piloted mini-sub 20,000 leagues down, to the deepest part of each of the world’s five oceans, beginning with the Puerto Rico Trench in the Atlantic, later this year.

Hollywood royalty is in on the act as well. The Titanic director, James Cameron, first went below the waterline in 1997 in a former Russian military submersible to film his blockbuster. He returned to the watery depths in March this year to complete the first solo voyage to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a 10-kilometre deep ditch off Guam in the western Pacific.

For some others, the sub is an add-on purchase; something to throw on the back of the super-yacht before setting sail on the high seas. On Abramovich’s $1 billion super-yacht Eclipse, the world’s largest at nearly 170 metres, the submarine jostles for room with two helicopter pads, two swimming pools and bunks for 20 guests.

Submersible prices start at about $US750,000 ($724,900) for entry-level craft and soon rise into seven figures for customised models; a snip compared with the nine- and ten-figure price tags of the big boats.

The editor-in-chief at Britain’s online charter service, Ben Roberts, said the inclusion of a private submersible could give luxury voyages a fillip.

“Vessels with submarines on board often receive a lot of attention on the charter market and it’s understandable as to why.

“Super yachts offer an untold amount of luxurious freedom to their owners … but imagine having the ability to travel both across the sea and under it; exploring the abyss of an unknown world, like Jacques Cousteau with friends or guests, on the perfect personal cruise.”

For the octogenarian venture capitalist Perkins, a former Hewlett-Packard board member and one-time husband of the romantic novelist Danielle Steel, it’s this sense of liberty that keeps sending him down for more.

Perkins’s latest yacht, Dr No, has been retrofitted as a carrier for his DeepFlight Super Falcon submersible, which he has already tested off Mexico, the Virgin Islands and in the South Pacific. “I love scuba diving, however scuba does not allow you to cover the depth and range of the DeepFlight Super Falcon submersible,” he says.”The fact that [it] is flown like a plane gives you a marvellous freedom of accessing three-dimensional space that you cannot get otherwise.”

Designed to dive to between 100 metres and 300 metres, recreational submersibles offer a relaxed view of the depths.

Perkins says his sub has research as well as recreational functions – he plans to use it to study the behaviour of whales and other large ocean animals.

For those whose budget does not stretch to a personal submarine, a super yacht to store it on, or the four-person crew needed for launch and recovery, a San Francisco submersible designer provides the chance to get in the pilot’s seat for a fraction of the price.

Hawkes Ocean Technologies offers one, two and three-day underwater “flight schools” in locations including the Bahamas, Mexico, Jordan and Lake Tahoe on the California/Nevada border. The three-day course costs $US15,000.

“The owners we have sold submersibles to have been interested in piloting the sub themselves but they also train their boat crew or resort crew to pilot the sub so there are multiple pilots,” the Hawkes marketing chief, Karen Hawkes, says.

-The Sydney Morning Herald.

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