In just a few minutes, I would enter a small "personal submarine" and drop several fathoms into Puget Sound with little more than 6 tons...

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In just a few minutes, I would enter a small “personal submarine” and drop several fathoms into Puget Sound with little more than 6 tons of steel between me and a watery grave.


On board the escort boat, Kurt Pagenkopf was reading the safety briefing. It sounded a little like the Riot Act, the Articles of War and a mattress warning label wrapped into one.


“Do so as the captain instructs and ask questions later … In case of fire or hull breach … spare air canisters for instant breathing … the hatch cannot be opened until internal pressure is equalized — which means flooded.


“If there’s any sign that a crew member might be uneasy about diving,” Pagenkopf concluded, “they should not go.”


Before he could even say, “You comfortable with all that?” my reaction was unequivocal.


“Cool!”


The skipper, Shoreline resident Ellis Adams, is hoping to find similarly eager — but much richer — people to embrace his brand of underwater exploring.


“We’re pioneering the personal submarine market,” said Adams. “The idea is people can own a submarine instead of a yacht and do a lot more with it.”


This test version is a dinghylike sub — it’s small and, when it’s on the surface, tippy. An accompanying boat watches for wakes when Adams prepares to open the hatch, and you definitely honor the one-hand-for-you, one-for-the-boat rule when you walk on the deck.


Going down the hatch is like wrestling into a hollow, swaying tree. The inside is stripped down and cramped. You crawl around or squat on the cushions and, aside from the viewing port in the bow, the décor is all gauges, tanks and wires.


Remember, this is the test-drive vehicle. Leather seats and wet bar are for the options package.


Waiting for the big break


Adams and partner Bruce Jones co-founded U.S. Submarines in 1993, with an eye toward marketing personal diesel-electric luxury submarines.


In theory, this should be a great business, even with each of the prospective vessels selling for anywhere from $750,000 to the stratosphere (there’s a $70 million model on the company’s Web site, www.ussubs.com). There are several thousand multimillion-dollar mega-yachts afloat, not to mention the personal corporate jets and other toys of the super-rich. Dozens of tourist subs have been lurking around the Caribbean, Scotland’s Loch Ness, the Mediterranean and Hawaii.


And “submersibles” — less mobile and independent than submarines — are taking tourists to the wrecks of the Titanic and Bismarck for about $35,000 a trip.


“There doesn’t seem to be a limit for what people might spend for this kind of entertainment,” said Don Walsh, a submersibles consultant who shares the record for the deepest dive on Earth — seven miles.


But even with all that wealth out there, “to my knowledge, there are perhaps two personal submarines in existence,” Walsh added. One is owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen for use on his superyacht Octopus.


U.S. Submarines and another Washington firm — Olympic Submarine Technologies, of Shelton, Mason County — bid to build Allen’s submarine. A nondisclosure agreement keeps Olympic from saying so, but it’s an open secret in the sub world that the company won the bid.


Mike Laffey, sales manager for Olympic’s parent company, Olympic Tool & Engineering, confirms only that his company built the working hull and propulsion system for a 40-foot submarine capable of diving to 1,200 feet.


Laffey called U.S. Submarines “a strong name in the industry.”


“I imagine their challenges are very similar to ours, depending on what they’re building,” Laffey said. His company is “actively looking for customers,” with several interested but none committed.


All they need is one


U.S. Submarines is in the same position: They have yet to hear from a buyer ready to commit.


“They deserve better than they’ve got,” Walsh said of the company, which he has followed for years.


If someone does place an order, U.S. Submarines will act as a clearinghouse and project manager. It would subcontract construction to a firm such as Marlin Submarines, a British-based company that built the S-101, the sub I rode in.


“We’ve seen a lot of wealthy Arabs who are interested in doing this,” said Adams, who said U.S. Submarines receives something like 10,000 hits a month at its Web site. “We’ve seen wealthy U.S. people, everybody. It’s across the board.


“But the biggest problem that we’ve seen so far is nobody wants to buy one without test-driving one first, without seeing it. That’s been a major, major obstacle.”


The S-101 is intended to fill that gap. Adams bought the sub for an undisclosed price in 1999 from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which briefly owned it with plans to foil the Makah Tribe’s gray-whale hunt. The society painted it to look like an orca and scare gray whales away from the Makah hunters. They never got to see if it would work.


Adams had planned to get the sub up and running in about six months, but it soon took on the shape of so many Puget Sound project boats, right down to the blue tarp. It sat in Adams’ back yard in Shoreline. Six months became four years. The grass died into the outline of a submarine. Adams started hearing his sweetheart utter a familiar refrain: “When’s this flippin’ lawn ornament going to be out of my yard?”


Helping move the project along was a volunteer crew of about five friends, almost all with experience in the aircraft industry.


“What’s intrigued me is it’s kind of the anti-airplane,” said Pagenkopf, an airline mechanic. “One goes up, the other goes down.”


Finally, early last month, they got the sub into Lake Washington for some dives, then headed out past staring tourists at the Ballard Locks to dive in Puget Sound.


Among the boaters on Shilshole Bay, the sub looks like a toy — the aquatic version of a Barbie mini-car, only black and submersible. Adams’ head and shoulders seem to fill the conning tower.


But as a proof-of-concept, Adams said, it’s perfectly adequate.


It works like any other sub. To sink, the crew brings water into the main ballast tank and discharges air. To resurface, the water is pumped back out.


And to satisfy the American Bureau of Shipping — the Federal Aviation Administration of submarines — it has four ways to surface in an emergency, including the quick release of a 400-pound keel.


“You release that, you’re going up like a cork underwater,” said Adams. “But you ain’t getting it back, so that is a last resort.”


It’s crowded in here


On board, Adams sits in the conning tower, leaving me barely enough room to sit on a pad in the bow. The hull sweats with condensation. Bags of Container Dri, a humidity absorber, lie by my feet.


It’s obvious that safety is a priority, if not something of a psychological hurdle for newcomers.


The hull echoes with strange noises. The pump for the ballast tank sounds like a truck laboring uphill. The carbon-dioxide filter sounds like a loud computer fan. A gas monitor beeps intermittently.


“We get alarms like that all the time,” said Adams. “And that’s very OK.”


Clearly, he doesn’t want his one-man crew freaking out. So I find it odd when he points to the spare air bottles.


“These give you a good 10 breaths or so,” he said. “The biggest worry probably is smoke in the cabin or something like that.”


A math word problem creeps into my head: If I take one breath every five seconds, how much time would I have to get to the surface?


We start taking water into the ballast tank. My ears plug up in the compressed air of the hull.


Adams hits a valve and my ears clear with a whoosh. It quickly becomes obvious we are sinking.


I glance back and notice that Adams’ hands, moving from one control to another, are shaking. I see a haze in the air.


“You have a little fog in here or something,” I observe. I’m hoping it isn’t smoke.


“Yeah, a little bit,” Adams says.


Adams has me read off the depth gauge as we approach the bottom.


“Five, four, three — and wow.”


There at my feet, outside the 1 ¾-inch-thick acrylic viewing port, I see a mottled and dimpled bed of sand. We drop onto it with a bump, like the Eagle landing at Tranquility Base.


Adams directs me to the control stick in front of me. The label says “steering thingy.”


“Go ahead and give it a little gas and see if we can’t move forward a bit.”


The sub whirs like a golf cart and we creep ahead, moving slowly with our visibility limited to just a few green-tinged feet. Tiny fish swirl about. A flounder shakes loose from the bottom and flutters away, leaving a cloud of camouflage in its wake.


Up above, Randy Hessen, captain of the surface boat, reports it has started to rain. He’s wondering if we are coming up.


Sixty feet down, we’re dry and quite comfortable. We keep cruising, just another happy craft under Shilshole.


Eric Sorensen is a freelance writer and former Seattle Times staff reporter; svwhim@yahoo.com.