Got R326-million? Treat yourself to a private submarine

For the multibillionaire who wants to flit discreetly between continents, a solution is at hand - the private submarine. And forget all those war movies about cramped, claustrophobic U-boats

15 October 2017 - 00:00 By Matt Gross
What the Migaloo private submersible yacht will look like.
What the Migaloo private submersible yacht will look like.
Image: Supplied

If you're the helipad-on-a-sea-vessel type, the M7 private submersible yacht not only has a place for your chopper to land, it has a swimming pool, VIP suites, multiple hangar bays and a design inspired by the US Navy's Zumwalt-class destroyers. (Alas, its engines are diesel-electric, not nuclear-powered.)

Unlike a regular yacht, which just sits there on top of the water, floating around like an expensive chunk of burnished driftwood, the M7 can dive to 460m and cruise underwater at 20 knots. The real excitement, as Sebastian the Crab once sang, is "under the sea".

Life may be better down where it's wetter, but the M7 will cost you. There's no precise price tag yet, says Christian Gumpold, CEO of the Austrian company behind the vessel, Migaloo. But something in the region of R30-billion would be close. "This would make it the most expensive private object worldwide," Gumpold said.

This would make [the M7] the most expensive private object worldwide
Christian Gumpold, CEO of Migaloo

The M7 is not the only submarine available to those rich enough to afford one. For a few decades, companies such as Triton Submarines, DeepFlight Adventures, U-Boat Worx BV and Seamagine Hydrospace have been producing and selling "submersibles".

These are smaller vehicles, capable of taking from two to eight passengers thousands of metres down to explore the ocean for hours. OceanGate, founded by the adventure-loving entrepreneur Stockton Rush, is planning to take passengers to the remains of the Titanic next year.

Submersibles can't, however, generate their own power, and they rely on yachts or other vessels for long-distance transport and servicing. They're pretty awesome, but they're more James Cameron, less James Bond.

Full-on, luxurious, yacht-style submarines are a more recent development. Three companies - Migaloo, the Florida-based US Submarines and Ocean Submarine in the Netherlands - produce sub designs that aspiring Bond villains dream about: capable of travelling 1,000 nautical miles or more, luxuriously appointed, and the kind of underwater headquarters from which you can plot world domination, or host friends for a week of exploration.

'MOSTLY' THEORETICAL

As you might expect, private submarines are phenomenally expensive. US Submarines' Nomad 1000 - which seats 10 to 24, has a range of 1,000 nautical miles, and can dive to 300m - begins at R89-million. Its top-of-the-line 65m Phoenix 1000, which has more than 465m² of interior space, is estimated to cost R1.23-billion.

So while dozens of private submersibles are bobbing around the deep, there are currently no private luxury subs in existence. For all the renderings zipping around the internet, subs such as the M7 and the Phoenix 1000 remain (mostly) theoretical.

"We're not building anything right now," said L Bruce Jones, founder and CEO of US Submarines, adding that his company, which is affiliated with Triton, is focusing on submersibles "because that's where the market is".

It seems like a massively expensive engineering exercise - and an unproven one - in the recreational sector
Stewart Campbell, editor of Boat International magazine

"It seems like a massively expensive engineering exercise - and an unproven one - in the recreational sector," said Stewart Campbell, editor of Boat International magazine.

"Yachting is often a volume game - how much space can you pack into your hull and superstructure? There's a cost-per-gross-tonne calculation that the super-yacht world understands.

"I imagine with one of these big submersibles, that equation goes out of the window. You're not getting much volume for the money, and the equivalent yacht will give you more of everything."

It's also possible that safety concerns hinder potential buyers, though all sub makers adhere to safety standards issued by organisations such as the American Bureau of Shipping and the Norwegian DNV GL, as well as to the US Navy's Subsafe specifications. They all also claim perfect records, with about one million passengers every year going on dives as tourists.

Of the three manufacturers, only Ocean Submarine (which supplies subs to the military) is under contract to complete a civilian vessel, for what CEO Martin van Eijk calls "a very rich client".

Set to be delivered next year, the 21m Neyk L3 can seat up to 20 passengers, depending on the configuration, with a bar, galley, and library. The L3 may be smaller than Migaloo's offerings, but its size offers some advantages. The company's idea of luxury is, according to its brochures, about "more than Connolly leather".

As with, say, a Lamborghini, this is about comfort and control: vertical thrusters let the L3 remain in one place, despite ocean currents; landing gear allows the sub to pull up on beaches (no marina necessary); and the ride is quiet and precise, with a range of 500 to 1,500 nautical miles. Plus, it's only R326-million, practically a bargain.


The interior of the Neyk luxury submarine.
The interior of the Neyk luxury submarine.
Image: Supplied

Learning to pilot these subs - or rather, training a crew to pilot them - is essential. In the US, pilots must have a master's licence, but there's more to it than that. "When a submarine is on the surface, it's the same as another ship," Van Eijk said. "But when you go down under, you need some rules to understand."

Ocean Submarines, he said, has a German training centre, with the same simulator as airplanes. "We can do the same interior as the cockpits so the client can see how exactly the submarine will work," he said. The training typically takes four months.

Once you've got your sub and your trained crew, you can go wherever you like, the manufacturers told me. There are no specific legal restrictions on civilian subs anywhere in the world. Which is not to say coast guards won't take note of your presence.

The exterior of the Neyk luxury submarine.
The exterior of the Neyk luxury submarine.
Image: Supplied

FOREIGN WATERS

"When you bring a submersible into someone else's territorial waters, not everybody is as enthusiastic about allowing you to go diving," said Patrick Lahey, founder and president of Triton Submarines.


"The areas in which people seem to be most concerned about submersibles being used are Greece and France, because they have antiquities on the bottom and they're concerned that a person who owns a submersible might be going down and taking things that might be an important part of history." (Mechanical grabbing arms and diver lock-out chambers are popular add-ons for most subs.)

There is a way to assuage concerns, Lahey said. "Involve the local authorities in what you're doing to assure them you're not there to plunder their antiquities and give them an opportunity to dive in their own waters and see things maybe they've never seen themselves."

If that doesn't work, you could invite them for a dip in one of your Jacuzzis, or a midnight screening of the new Star Wars movie in your sub's open-air cinema. If the paparazzi show up to spy, you can do what super-yacht owners can never do: dive. - Bloomberg

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