So for many years now, I’ve had this idea for a personal submarine that could be used for travelling around the world. Yes, I understand how crazy this sounds, especially given the horrible potential for drowning in something like that, but as a person who has always had a strong interest in submarines in general, it’s something I’ve always thought about as an option for travelling in a different sort of way. Ever since I went on a Tiger Cruise with my biological father on the USS Tecumseh as a boy, I’ve always had submarines in the back of my mind. I want to go over the design that’s been rolling around in my head in this article, but before we go off into fantasy land, we have to acknowledge several things.
Of course, you have to go though a pro and con list for anything, especially something as weird as this, and I’ve spent a while doing that. One of the benefits of travelling in a submarine is the reduction of wave action on the boat, mostly because most of it is sunk in the water, even while surfaced. You’re still going to be moved around a lot, but not nearly as much as you would on a sailboat, and once you submerge and go down a bit, you would feel little to no motion from external forces. The comfort of this as compared to a surface boat would be immeasurable, especially for anyone who has a tendency to suffer from motion sickness.
Another benefit could be increased security. Piracy on the ocean is nothing new, and many are the sailors who have been kidnapped, robbed or murdered by opportunistic people with no qualms about using violence to get their way. In a submarine, you can always dive down under the waves when you see suspicious vessels approaching to avoid potential conflicts. Frankly, if you set the submarine up the right way, you can use a snorkel to stay under the water indefinitely with virtually no risk of detection…unless they somehow happen to get within visual range of your mast. Even then, you just pull it down and slip away.
The most obvious con is the the dangers inherent in travel while submerged. If you have a structural failure of any kind while underwater, the odds that it’s going to be fatal are vastly greater than on any kind of surface vessel. Ideally, a personal submarine would not be designed to go super deep, but even if you had some kind of really good escape system the odds of surviving a sinking submarine even just a couple hundred feet down are questionable.
Fuel is the other major factor when it comes to dreaming up something like this. There’s a reason why most people don’t sail around that world in power yachts. Most just don’t have the fuel capacity to get across the ocean, but even if they did the cost would be exorbitant. I sometimes wonder if a diesel electric submarine would get better “mileage”, but even then it would still use up a lot of gas. There’s a reason most people use sailboats.
Obviously, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone is going to build a personal submarine who isn’t at least a multimillionaire, and probably more. I saw an ad for a company who claimed to be building personal submarine yachts for tens of millions of dollars, and that sounds awesome, but what about the rest of us? Would there be a way to DIY a much smaller project to bring the budget down to something closer to the price of today’s standard yacht prices?
The short answer is: probably not.
You see, the number one most important characteristic of any submarine is the pressure vessel. Any fool can grab some kind of steel cylinder, slap some caps on it, do a bit of reinforcement and have a large pressure vessel. Frankly, there are plenty of manufacturers out there who make pressure vessels large enough to turn into a submarine. The issue, just as in naval submarines, is quality and safety. Military submarine pressure hulls go through an extremely demanding inspection that includes microscopic and x-ray inspections of the hull looking for weak spots. The only way to be sure that the hull isn’t going to fail is to be absolutely sure all the welds are perfect and that the steel itself doesn’t have any defects. Anything less presents an unreasonable risk to the crew.
Now obviously if you’re not going down thousands of feet, this becomes less of an issue, but you still want to be relatively sure that the hull isn’t going to buckle at whatever operating depth you plan to run at. Unless you have the technical knowledge to not only design a proper pressure vessel, but also inspect that vessel to be sure it’s solid, you’re asking for an early death. This means hiring a company that knows how to do all this properly, and there aren’t that many of them out there. The price goes up with every specialist you require.
After that you have to actually start building everything out, and if you think a sailboat is expensive, imagine all the crazy parts needed to make a submarine work. The propulsion system alone is likely to cost as much as most brand new sailboats, and then you need batteries, wiring, filters, hosing and myriad other small things. And the cost of the hull itself is going to be astronomically high, even just in the material cost. Everything about the project is going to be out of the reach of most people.
So no, I’m not expecting to be running around in a personal submarine at any point in my lifetime…unless I win the lottery or something. Most of the article to this point is intended to simply explain some of the details of why this is the case, and why the following is going to be simply a fantasy design that will never see the light of day unless some super rich person happens across this article and decides to go for it.
Anyway, my design would look very much like a traditional nuclear submarine, with the sort of tear drop shape. I’d want the entire hull to be made out of some super strong transparent material so you can see out into the water, especially up at the front where the pilot seat would be. Imagine the incredible panoramic view of a big, clear bubble at the front! Privacy would be an issue in a completely transparent boat, though, so we would paint the interiors of any spaces like restrooms or cabins to block them from view.
So moving from fore to aft, we would start with a clear dome at the front where the pilot and other seats would be located. Controls would be as simple as possible, and there would be monitors mounted so that the pilot can see things like engine conditions, oxygen levels and also monitor the cameras that would be mounted on the mast of the submarine which would provide a 360 degree view when activated. With such a clear forward view, the odds of actually running into anything by accident are extremely reduced, and it would provide an amazing view of anything you decided to visit underwater. Imagine looking at shipwrecks or reefs from the comfort of your submarine!
As you move at you would get to the galley (kitchen) and living quarters. I haven’t really put much thought into how that would actually be configured, and a lot of that would depend on the size of the boat. I’ll leave it to your own imagination what it would look like, but being a submarine it’s likely that it would be fairly cramped. Everything has its drawbacks.
Right around the middle of the boat would be the sail, which most submarines have to provide clearance above the waterline. No one wants to be swept over the side as water washes over the decks. The middle interior would be a wet/dry environment for climbing into and out of the sub. It would likely be the storage place for things like the life raft, life preservers and other emergency equipment. The ladder into and out of the boat would be there as well.
Aft of that in the rear third of the boat would be the propulsion system, which would be a diesel electric design with a ton of batteries for extended submerged operation. The batteries for the actual operation of the electric motors would be lead acid, primarily because the discharge rate required by larger motors are quite high and only the best lithium batteries are able to handle that kind of current. Lithium battery banks would be reserved for powering sensitive electrical equipment like computers and sensors and such.
There would be two diesel generators on board, which would intake air from the cabin and exhaust it through tubing that exits the boat through a snorkel. The snorkel itself would be extendable so the boat can operate submerged, bringing in fresh air to the cabin and exhausting burned fuel to the surface. The aforementioned cameras would be mounted to the snorkel to keep an eye on things.
The boat would have to electric motors mounted on opposite sides of the rear of the boat. While it’s tempting to do like modern nuclear subs and go with one big propeller, I would prefer to have the additional maneuverability of twin screws, especially in tight spaces. I’m not really sure if it’s best to mount the motors outside directly to the screws and run wires into the hull to power them, or to have them inside and do shafts out to the screws. The engineer helping with design would probably have a lot to say about that.
One of the more interesting ideas I’ve had about this design is the idea of increased security while away from the boat. I would want to include some kind of external control over the sub that allows me to submerge and surface the boat from the outside. My reasoning for this is that if the boat is sitting on the bottom, it’s extremely unlikely that anyone poking around will even know it’s there, much less be able to do anything do it. If we’re going somewhere for the day, we simply get in our dinghy, sink the boat to the bottom and go have our fun. Then when we get back, we surface the boat and continue on with our day.
Perhaps the most recent consideration has to do specifically with the dinghy. The more you consider ideas like this, the more details you start to realize you need to account for. Having a submarine like this would be great, but how do you get around in places where you’re not taking the sub? Sailboats have dinghies, and the sub would need one as well. I’ve been kicking around ideas like designing the sail to be detachable from the hull and shaped in a way while detached that allows it to move quickly across the water. Or we could so something similar to the rescue subs that the military uses and have them attached to the hull in some way.
You’d obviously have to account for the fact that it’s going to be underwater, so water management becomes a concern, and you obviously can’t keep the outboard attached while it’s underwater, so there are logistical challenges there. I would imagine a hoist to get the motor into and out of the sub would be required, but if you’re spending that kind of money it’s unlikely a hoist system is going to be an obstacle.
So probably long before we reached this point many of you have been thinking that this is an awfully and unnecessarily complicated way to go travelling around the world, and I absolutely agree with you. Nothing about any of this is reasonable in the slightest. The entire idea is all about the cool factor, though in my personal case it isn’t about impressing anyone. I just think it’s an extremely cool idea that I would love to experience if I had the means. Sometimes you just want to do things because you think it’s cool, regardless of how insane it sounds.
Here’s to all you insane dreamers out there!
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