Deepsea Challenger - Part 4

Posted by Ben Orchard on Mar 31, 2015 6:00:00 AM

After 7 years of planning and 3-4 months of frantic building, moving the submersible from the factory to the ship was a big deal.

We are engineers; we could have each spent another 6 months working on our parts of the system, but Jim was on a schedule and perfection would just have to take a back seat to safe and functional.

So there we were. In the wee hours of the morning, in a light rain, watching the crane very carefully lift our sub Deepsea Challenger onto the back of a flatbed truck.

This photo is one of my favorites from all the ones I took on the expedition. Jim and Ron standing shoulder to shoulder watching their sub get loaded onto the truck in the rain. The two designers, 7 years of their lives, their dream becoming a reality. Very cool.


The ship that was to host us and the sub for the expedition is called the Mermaid Sapphire (PDF with more details). She is mostly used in oil line inspection and repair. In our case, the flat back deck and crane were the attraction to using her for the expedition.


The above photo was taken in the docks at Sydney while she was getting fitted with a satellite dish for our Internet link while at sea.

The very first "dive" with the sub was simply a flotation test. We needed to know how much buoyancy the sub had in order to make any necessary changes to the syntactic foam layout. 

It was also a good chance for the crew to practice the launch and recovery of the sub off the back of the ship for the first time while everything was still (the ship was moored to the wharf).

Here is a shot of that first test launch.

For this test the pilot sphere was mostly empty; with just a few diving belt weights instead of the pilot, she is hanging a little top heavy.

The two sets of gray air bags keep her level once she hits the water. If the systems check out, the bags near the pilot sphere are released and the sub pivots in the water. The pilot is then sitting upright (rather than lying on his back with his feet in the air like at launch and recovery).

If the systems pass their final check, the pilot then calls out over the radio, "Release release release," and the top set of airbags is detached and the sub starts its dive.

After this test dive, the next took place later that night with Jim in the sub for the first time.

That first dive is memorable for the one reason that we somehow messed up with how Jim would hold the joystick controls. He held them the opposite way from the way we had programmed them. This meant that pretty much every control was backwards. This was both easy to fix in the software, but also a little comical... to the point where the audio from this exchange made it into the movie Deepsea Challenge 3D. (Added to the controls snafu was the fact that the sonar display was also flipped, so to Jim it looked like the hull of the Mermaid Sapphire was at the bottom of Sydney harbor).

All that aside, the tests were a massive success and we headed out to sea to a sheltered bay just south of Sydney for more tests.

It was while in this bay that a tragic helicoper accident took two of the team. Andrew Wright and Mike deGruy were killed as they took off from an airport on their way to film one of the launches of the submarine.

It put a huge shock through the team. We were all away from our families and the danger of what we were doing was clear. It was tough, but the decision to press on with the dive program was made and so we set off north, first to Papua New Guinea to start to really dive deep and then on to Guam for the big one.


When you are going from place to place, it's called a transit. There is no diving of the sub going on, but there is still plenty of work to do.

Each of us had our main sub-related jobs to do, but we also picked up a heap of other bits and pieces along the way.
Here's a shot of me sorting out a lot of the spares.


Yes, I took advantage of the calm seas on the way north to go clean shaven for a bit. When the sea was rough, we all grew beards.

One of the things we all had to get used to was having the camera in your face all the time. And when I say camera. I mean 3D IMAX-sized camera. These things are massive!


From the time we woke up till the sub was put to sleep for the night, these guys were there recording all the action. It got to the point where you simply did not notice them. You were so focused on the job at hand, and you were so used to having the film crew around, that they just were part of the team.

One of the downsides of this blog and its photos is that you don't hear what life on the ship was like. When we were getting ready to dive, the ship would use its dynamic positioning system to maintain a single, fixed position. While it was running the hydraulics for the DP system it would, uh, make a bit of noise... through the entire ship. There was nowhere you could go to escape it.

Yeah. Try to imagine waking up, eating breakfast, having team meetings, programming, training, debugging, and so on with that noise. Pretty much every day, for three months.

What you're seeing in the video is Jim getting into the sub for the pre-dive checks. We had a roughly 80-point checklist that the pilot had to go through and sign off on before each dive.

Right at the end you can see John (the life support guy on the left) hand Jim a small mic. There was so much noise that we had the pilot wear a mic to an amplifier sitting next to the hatch. This way he did not have to shout out the hatch during the pre-dive checks.

Life on the ship was a pattern of getting the sub ready to dive and then improving/repairing the sub after each dive. They were long days which blurred into each other pretty often.

A few of us never got our sea legs and so spent most transits and some of the dives feeling pretty nauseous. Oddly enough, this only added to the team spirit as we helped each other out as we could.

The next blog will be my last on Deepsea Challenge. I'll cover what happened during the dives and offer you the chance to win a t-shirt and copy of the movie.

 Till then, cheers Mate.

Topics: Deepsea Challenge

Written by Ben Orchard

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