Manned submersibles are very popular on superyachts these days, but how often do they get used? If they complete 50 dives a year, that’s a lot, says Charles Kohnen. At SEAmagine, Kohnen counters, “50 dives is a Tuesday.”

Charles Kohnen, Co-Founder and Chairman at Seamagine Hydrospace Corporation in Upland, CA, the world’s oldest manned submersible manufacturer, is thrilled that the revival of undersea exploration is beginning to get the attention it deserves. After all, the earth’s surface is about 71 percent water. Yet, compared to outer space, we know comparatively little about what lies below the waterline.

Kohnen believes that giving owners support in planning interesting and exciting dives is of prime importance. “Just having a sub on a yacht is not enough. If you don’t bring the true value of the subs to their owners, you’re missing the big picture.” A little follow up with help in planning dives goes a long way.

Kohnen adds, “We support our clients to make sure long-term value is brought forward,” making sure every “baby” has growth and every single one of them brings the maximum value. Kohnen maintains he isn’t just about selling subs. He’s in this for mankind at large.

28 Years Of Experience With Thousands And Thousands Of Dives

In the 1990s, Kohnen says, subs had all but been abandoned, with just a few government vessels still in operation. In 1995, Kohnen and his brother William, wondered why subs were so complicated, requiring something like a space shuttle launch in preparation for every dive. They considered use of a manned platform that would launch like a tender, and the modern submersible was born.

Their first consultant was Don Walsh, an American oceanographer, explorer, and marine expert. Walsh was in the bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960 as it made history diving to the Challenger Deep. The story of the Trieste is one in itself, but the story of SEAmagine and its lists of firsts had just begun.

SEAmagine Was First In … Well, Just About Everything

In trying to encourage underwater astronauts to explore the ocean depths, SEAmagine set about simplifying subs. They were the first to redefine the basic concept of what a small, manned sub looked like, as well as what it could do. They were the first to adopt the acrylic sphere as a cabin design, which eventually became the industry standard. They also elevated the style and finish of subs, giving them a more polished appearance.

Historically, subs had been boarded prior to launch, but SEAmagine introduced a stable surface platform that allowed passengers to board once the sub was put in the water. That became another industry standard.

SEAmagine was the first to supply the Coast Guard and defense sectors with robust subs required for their demanding schedules. The company also created a training program for professional submersible pilots in the 1990s, developed with the US Coast Guard.

With all these firsts, one might question why they are not as well-known as some other brands. Kohnen responds with a hearty laugh, “Because we are better engineers than marketing people.”

The 6th Generation Of Design

By 2005, as yachts became bigger and subs became simpler, several competitors in the small submersible industry had surfaced. SEAmagine’s supply of subs to the yachting sector amounted to about half of their business. The other half served science, defense, and industry. Regardless, they wanted their subs to be rugged, reliable, simple to operate, and comfortable to dive in.

SEAmagine set about refining and simplifying, creating elegant, robust designs that would not break at sea and would work, without fail, every day. It meant examining not just what’s possible, but empirically, sifting through what is important, what is critical, what is nice to have. In the end, Kohnen says, efficiency and simplicity are top goals.

With regard to priorities, Kohnen says, “It’s all about compromise of space, weight, and cost,” noting that the physics are the same.

Kohnen explains, “The weight of a sub is more determined by the water displacement of volume, not the acrylic or metal. A bigger space equals more weight, more displacement. Better engineering that resulted in a change in battery technology saved a lot of water displacement, a lot of weight. We added these savings to the passenger experience to increase space in the bubble.”

Improving visibility with a larger field of view in the Aurora series, SEAmagine moved the hatch to the back and added a hall structure for the pilot, while making the pontoons less prominent in front. Removing the obstructions contributed to an improved panoramic and overhead view with more personal space for passengers. SEAmagine also worked hard on making the sub quiet, inside and out. It did not happen by accident but as a design objective, trading gear boxes for direct drives.

To fine tune the sub’s agility, SEAmagine installed the powerful propulsion used by navy seals. Heavy and expensive, they opted to install six propulsion motors for precision mobility so that pilots could get up close and personal with flora, fauna, and sea floor, in perfect control without making contact.

The Importance Of Citizen Scientists

Kohnen explains that there are two types of sub owners in the citizen arena. Their passion lies either with discovery of new life or discovery of shipwrecks, “Never both,” he notes. Either way, there is a long list of yacht owners making history simply by “being there and making a discovery.”

One owner, on a sub dive off the coast of Sicily, found a 2000-year-old Roman amphora, which was promptly photographed and the coordinates sent to the authorities for retrieval. On a training dive for the crew of the expedition yacht Hodor, a prickly shark was spotted, which, in French Polynesia, was, “Like finding a zebra in Alaska,” Kohnen joked.

“Dives are sometimes mud, and sometimes, it blows your mind away,” Kohnen sighs. Once, in a pure exploration dive, he recalled diving down a 200-meter-deep wall in Costa Rica with lava caves full of fish. At the bottom, a creature with a big head, big green eyes, a tail like an eel, and translucent tentacles writhing from its belly appeared. All on board were wondering what in the world they had just seen.

Hopefully, someday, we’ll know.

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