In Rhode Island: Rapture of the Shallows
THE AQUATIC, a noisy, diesel-driven 40-ft. private sub tender chugs out of Warwick Cove into a gray Rhode Island day. Past rows of boats with names like Many-Ha-Ha's, Daddy's Girl, Lucy M and Gyp Sea. Past a dock where burlap sacks of clams are bought and sold—the seller getting 55¢ per lb. for littlenecks, as high as 80¢ for big quahogs. Past a sandbar where a tourist drowned yesterday clamming in 3 ft. of water. Past the big shingled mansions that trim the shoreline at fashionable Warwick Neck. And so into Narragansett Bay, a body of water variously ravished by long-handled rakes, progress and history.
Just up the bay at Gaspee Point, Rhode Islanders each year burn a vessel in effigy to celebrate the burning, in 1772, of the revenue schooner Gaspee, an early warning about Yankee distaste for King and custom's duties. Last year the rusty old fishing boat Dorchester turned up in the bay with six tons of marijuana hidden aboard, then departed leaving a web of mystery, gangland murder and suicide that narcotics agents have yet to unravel. Westward, the old naval air station at Quonset Point is now the sprawling headquarters for oil-drill teams working the Baltimore Canyon.
It is perfectly fitting, then, that Warwick Cove is the only place in the world where the man who has everything can get lessons in how to handle America's latest aquatic tool (or toy). Sitting on a special launching ramp at the back end of Aquatic, the machine in question suggests a curious cross between a wind-up bathtub toy and a James Bond movie. It is a lemon-hued, one-man submarine, the S 250, a 12-ft.-long, 2,250-lb. vessel that can be run by just about anybody, dive safely to 250 ft., stay submerged for an hour at a time and costs (at $12,000 without extras) less than a Cadillac Seville. The man to see about lessons in the S 250 is Harold Jacobson, a balding but still visibly ginger-haired professional diver based in Warwick. He got the sub, and the Aquatic too, from Designer-Builder George Kittredge, a retired Navy sub commander who produces the world's only line of cheap simple-to-operate baby subs in Warren, Me. Last summer Kittredge did the teaching himself. But the success of his subs took so much of his time that this year he turned the schooling over to Jacobson.
Undersea exploration and oil searches go on apace. Oceanographers, environmental experts and futurists freely predict that man will not only soon put vast tracts of seabed under cultivation but may eventually be commuting back and forth to shallow, Atlantis-like undersea apartment clusters. It is tempting to see the baby sub not just as a prototype toy for the rich in Florida and California but as a seagoing Model T Ford, a future flivver of the deep, or like the Curtiss Jenny biplane, some kind of ur-machine that may usher in a new age of travel. In that perspective Kittredge and Jacobson, like early aviation nuts who paid for their rickety planes by giving flying lessons or built them on a financial shoestring in barns and attics, can be regarded as American visionaries, gambling on the hope that history will catch up with their private enthusiasm.
Jacobson's new training school is called Sub-Sea, Inc. His course runs two days, costs $150, begins with instruction in his home, where the student studies the S 250 on paper and is likely to be plied with splendid zucchini bread and coffee by Jacobson's wife, Georgia May, a schoolteacher at Warwick's Gorton Junior High School. On paper, operating the sub seems, well, child's play. Merely a matter of opening a few valves to let water into the ballast tanks until the S 250 has achieved "neutral buoyancy," then directing the thrust of two exterior electrical pod engines by manipulating two handles inside the hull, placed below and forward of the seated driver like the handle bars of a racing bike.
But on day two, when the waters of Narragansett Bay finally begin lapping over the bubble-topped conning tower of the S 250 at Jacobson's practice site in the lee of Prudence Island, all common sense and lessons learned temporarily flee. The student has just bolted himself in with four screw bolts that clamp the bubble to the conning tower.
His hot breath is already fogging the bubble dome. Jacobson has been through the safety instructions: "To come to the surface turn the green knob by your right side to let compressed air drive the water out of your variable ballast tank." The bay is less than 20 ft. deep here. S 250 is insured by Lloyd's of London and her seaworthiness has been approved by the U.S. Bureau of Standards. But the student now finds himself plaintively inquiring, over the tiny walkie-talkie set: "Even if I'm submerged, can I still loosen the bubble and swim free?" Jacobson's voice shows nice regret as he replies, "Not unless the whole sub is filled with water."
During a dive, the light recedes above the conning tower. Silver gives way to green as the sub slowly sinks and finally bumps on the bottom of the bay. A kind of breathing silence enshrouds the diver. When the two electric engines are switched on, the first impact is like being caught inside a vacuum cleaner. But noise is soon forgotten as S 250 noses along just above the floor of the bay, a flat, sandy-brown miniature moonscape unrolling beneath the 3-in.-thick, 16-in.-in-diameter window in the bow. Cynically one expects to find old shoes and bottles. But there is nothing except large-grained sand and mud, now and then a stick or stone, crisscrossed by all sorts of hermit and spider crabs that slink out of sight. Only the bigger green crabs show fight. One stands on its hind legs and waves its pincers in the air as the sub passes, the very picture of futile rage. In warmer seas and clearer waters there might be silvery showers of fish outside the conning tower dome. But here there is nothing but specks of algae the color of cornmeal that whirl out of the green water toward the dome like flakes spinning against the windshield of a fast-moving car on a snowy night. There is no sensation of time passing until Jacobson's voice on the radio summons the S 250 to the surface.
Afterward, while Aquatic with S 250 once more aboard heads back to Warwick Cove, it is hard to imagine operating such a sub regularly without being rich, attached to an institution, or, like Jacobson, a combined diver and mechanic. Still, in the six weeks or so he has been in business, he has been approached by people from the Great Lakes, from Tulsa, from Brooklyn, by trained divers, photographers, ad salesmen, all with different notions about what to do with a baby sub of their very own. Jacobson himself is the perfect Kittredge client. At age 45, after 26 years as a commercial diver, he would still rather spend his time under water than anywhere else in the world. It is also evident that he has a rather peculiar view of oceans and estuaries, one which many Americans may begin to share if and when baby subs ever begin flitting about the seas in large numbers. Narragansett Bay, for instance, most people see as a wet, more or less flat surface, dotted with buoys and boats, rimmed with marinas, rocks, resorts and the occasional polluting city. Jacobson thinks of the place as an underwater landscape strewn with potentially profitable and always fascinating wreckage half-buried in submerged hills, valleys and plains.
As a diver he works alone, a rare thing among divers, and thought to be dangerous. As a submariner Jacobson wants to dive alone too. He believes in the future of baby subs for sport and work. He needs the money he gets from his students. Once he is able to buy the new S 600, bigger, deeper diving and four knots faster than the S 250, he expects to hire out to oil drillers, overseas cable companies and the University of Rhode Island's oceanographic department. But what he really longs to do when winter comes and lessons are blocked by cold and ice, is explore more and farther than he has so far. "I'll ride around," he says, as Aquatic plows along. "Locate other vessels and strip 'em. There's lots of things down there."
Brass-rimmed portholes from wrecks, for instance. Propellers from fishing boats sunk in nearby Buzzards Bay, which bring $500 apiece as salvage. Huge tanker props, too, each one ten tons of solid bronze, which produce 35¢ on the pound just as scrap, and $12,000 if they are still usable. A wreck from the early 1800s, filled with china, which only he knows about. "Treasure?" he concludes, sneering at dreams of Caribbean doubloons. "That's just chasing rainbows." On the bottom, it turns out, Jacobson has few fears and only one hatred. "Bottles," he exclaims with passion. "When I'm diving I break every one I find down there. You know why? Little crabs crawl into them. Then they shed their shells and grow and they can't get out. And they have to spend their lives locked up in a bottle. Or die."