How submersibles became the coolest piece of kit on board

1 April 2021

Onboard submarines are growing larger and delving deeper, opening up a whole new world for superyacht owners to explore, says Caroline White

Whether you can call a submarine a superyacht “toy” is questionable, but that’s half the appeal for an adventurous owner: keep your frivolous playthings, I’m buying a portal to another world. No one takes submarines more seriously than Triton, the industry’s go-to submersible manufacturer – and no one understands better how these incredible machines are developing. The Florida-based team boasts a combined 400 years of experience in the submarine business, ranging from underwater tourism to defence. John Ramsay, Triton’s principal design engineer, for example, used to design submarine rescue submersibles – the ones they send down to get people out of sunken military submarines. “After that, I was doing swimmer delivery vehicles, for getting US Special Forces covertly into wherever they needed to be,” he says.

Credit: Nick Verola

Despite its broad spectrum of talent, Triton has been focused on the yachting sector from its foundation in 2007, a brave choice at the time. When founders Patrick Lahey and Bruce Jones started visiting boat shows to talk about their new business, people were “incredulous”, says Craig Barnett, director of sales and marketing. This was a time when explorer yachts were a minuscule niche. The first sub they put on a yacht was for the 50-metre Trinity Mine Games (now Amarula Sun): it was a gold 1000/2 model (Triton’s naming protocol refers to the diving depth in feet, followed by the number of passengers). Since then, the evolution of yachting culture has proved the founders right. “There’s been a growing change in social currency from the materialistic to the experiential,” says Barnett. “That’s reflected in the way people use yachts – whereas before they were seen as a status symbol, now they’re platforms for exploration, discovery and adventure.” That change has promoted the onboard sub from a novelty to a valuable tool.

Credit: Nick Verola

It has also affected the type of yacht being built and the boom in explorer boats has undoubtedly increased demand for submersibles. They require complex, purposeful subs equipped for marine research and documentary making. The subs can be weightier than would be possible on a white boat because on an explorer there’s space for heavy-duty launching equipment; and they can be larger too, since the sub will probably sit on deck rather than be housed in a garage. Triton’s 3300/3 model, popular in the support vessel and explorer market (the company has delivered nine) is about a metre taller than its low-profile subs. Barnett likens the 3300/3 to a Swiss army knife with cameras, manipulator arms, recovery baskets and other attachments that can be swapped in, depending on use.

“We are in the construction process on the 7500/3, which will be the world’s thickest and deepest-diving acrylic pressure hull,” says Barnett. It’s a sign of this sub’s capability that the first one is for 182.9-metre research vessel REV, the biggest boat of its kind in the world. Built for eco-minded Norwegian billionaire Kjell Inge Røkke, it is packed with the most advanced exploration gear on the planet. They also built the record-breaking two-man vessel Limiting Factor for Victor Vescovo’s Five Deeps expedition (to dive the five deepest points in the ocean) and twin 3300/3 subs for Mark and Ray Dalio’s new film-focused 87-metre OceanXplorer.

Credit: Nekton Mission

But aside from expedition vessels, the increasing size of yachts in general has provided opportunities. “Ten years ago a 100-metre yacht was absolutely huge but now 140- or 150-metre yachts are becoming a lot more popular,” says Barnett. Big yachts have more space for big toys – and the kind of owners who want every bell and whistle. They also carry more guests, so from these yachts the demand is for subs that can take as many people as possible. For one such boat Triton is currently building a 1650/7 for seven passengers.

The company’s solid base of experience in creating vessels like this means that they can now concentrate on shaping the underwater experience in much more sophisticated ways. Wondering how far they could push the technology from REV’s 7500/3, the team spoke to their acrylic manufacturers, and realised they could create a two-person sub that could dive to 4,000 metres. “And that will give you access to the Titanic, basically,” says Barnett. The problem with going that deep is that it’s dark. Those who film at that depth often take two subs, one to light the subject and one to film (lighting and filming from the same angle doesn’t make for great footage). The defining features of the new 13000/2 are therefore two gull wings that fold up and out, to allow filming and lighting from the tip of each – you can film from one and light from the other, or film a presenter sitting inside the sub.

The Triton 13000/2 with its gull wings deployed. Right: there is easy access to the sub’s components

If the 13000/2 fulfils the dreams of explorer yacht owners, the new 660/9 is a gift for gigayacht owners. This new model was only possible because Ramsay worked out a way (now patented) to safely elongate the spherical acrylic hull – a shape that traditionally responds best to pressure – into a lozenge shape. “The problem with a sphere is that everyone wants to have a front-row seat,” says Ramsay. To widen a sphere enough to give more than two people that position, it also has to extend up and down – add a few more people and you soon have a sub that’s too big and heavy for any mothership.

Credit: Nick Verola

The elongated shape of the 660/9 seats nine in a theatre arrangement while staying reasonably compact. It’s also versatile: “There’s a cocktail mode, so you can have a mixologist and do the traditional sundowner cruise that you would have on the yacht – only at 200 metres, looking at an amazing reef, watching darkness fall and seeing all the nocturnal fish,” says Barnett. There’s also a dining mode, a poker mode, even a set-up where all the seating is replaced with a massage table and the sub becomes an underwater spa – only the whale music here is live. “You can change the arrangement in half an hour,” adds Barnett.

The 660/9 in fine-dining mode

However owners choose to get down there, there’s no doubt that submarines deeply enrich the yachting experience. “Owning a yacht without a sub is a bit like flying on a private jet over New York, but never going down and seeing things at street level,” says Barnett. “There are coral gardens as enchanting as anything you’ll see in the Amazon. The pelagics, the sharks and squid and things like that, are as amazing as the Big Five you’d see in Africa. The wake on a yacht is literally scratching the surface.”