Vickie: One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about working on both the website and the book DEEP, DARK & DANGEROUS is the number of connections that have come out of it…and that continue to surface. This was especially true when I heard from River Dolfi recently. He’s the young electronics tech that I first met when he and Scott Waters (founder of Pisces VI Submarine Group) brought the partially-reconfigured Pisces VI to North Vancouver, pre-Covid, hoping finish the work and get piloting instruction with Aquatica Submarines. Alas, they arrived only to find the company had closed its doors. However, it was fun to set up a meeting for them at ISE with Pisces veterans Al Trice and Tom Roberts. As well, I got to photograph the PVI crew working at Mosquito Creek Marina, getting this remarkable, record-setting submersible back into working condition.
Eventually, River left the group and headed back to the States, not sure what the next step in his career might be. He certainly landed on his feet, getting a job working for Phoenix International in their ROV division. He explained that Phoenix holds a contract with the US Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving to maintain and operate a small fleet of ROV’s and AUV’s for global deep ocean search and salvage missions. “Occasionally we are called to go and find things in an emergency, but more on that later.”
River also provided this bit of background: Phoenix International was formed in the 1990’s by a group of Oceaneering employees who secretly assembled a 6000m ROV, Remora 6000, out of parts scrounged from the Oceaneering dumpster, and then assembled in a garage. Various reincarnations of that ROV discovered the wreck of the Israeli submarine INS Dakar, raised the black boxes from Air France 447, visited the wreck of the RMS Titanic on three separate expeditions, and salvaged several hundred tons of silver bars from the 5000m deep wreck of the SS Gairsoppa.
Until very recently, Phoenix also held the contract to maintain and operate the Oceanworks-built remotely-operated submarine rescue system for the US Navy. Two of the BC-built Oceanworks ADS suits are still regularly operated in the Gulf of Mexico by Phoenix’s diving department, mainly performing inspections of oil-rigs.
Vickie: Recently, when River and I emailed, he was unhappily quarantined in a hotel room in Guam after a frustrated attempt by Phoenix to help out with the search for the Indonesian submarine KRI Nanggala that had disappeared off Bali. But he kindly offered to write up that experience once he got back home. Here is his account:
One rainy Tuesday, I was running a few minutes late, and as I went through my caffeine routine, I couldn’t help but notice a rather bizarre lack of water-cooler chit-chat. I sat back at my desk in the corner of the electronics workshop, and thought nothing of it. Just as I opened my laptop, a coworker barged into the workshop. I looked up, “Keith, you look troubled. What’s up?” His normal smile was replaced with a grim frown. “Another submarine’s gone missing, like Argentina.” Phoenix had been involved with the search for the ARA San Juan in 2017. “Well then what am I doing here?” I slammed my laptop shut, stood-up, and grabbed my hard-hat off the shelf.
We packed up an ROV, an AUV, their LARS, spare parts, operations vans, tools, rigging, and communications gear; well over 100 tons of stuff in total. With our equipment, we couldn’t take the crew off a submarine, but we could locate it and prepare it for someone who could. We also brought pods that could be shoved into a standard torpedo tube, supplying a stranded crew with precious oxygen, buying time for rescue. As soon as one flatbed trailer was loaded, another pulled in and a flurry of forklifts and cranes descended on it. There was no time to waste, seconds counted. Only when we finished did we stop to learn what we were looking for, the KRI Nanggala, and where we were looking for it, Bali, Indonesia.
Our departure from the Air Force base was delayed several times. Hurry up and wait. We were delayed again and again. At the time, we didn’t know the reason for any of the delays. The President had to be briefed. The Secretary of the Defense had to call his Indonesian counterpart to formally offer assistance. The State Department was still working on how to get us legally into the country, without a COVID-19 quarantine. Turns out, the only way was by getting us diplomatic visas, with, I assume, full diplomatic immunity. And one of our chartered trucks had been pulled over and hassled by police because the trailer had an expired registration. Every minute of delay was painful, we knew the odds were already against us and every red-tape delay meant losing valuable time we had worked so hard not to waste. One last insult came on the way across the runway when our shuttle bus broke down, and we had to wait patiently to be picked up by another one.
Flying in the cargo hold of a massive military transport aircraft is the way to fly. Despite the lack of in-flight movie, no drink service, the need for earplugs to block out the roar of the massive engines, and the freezing cold due to the cabin heater being turned off to save fuel, it was still more comfortable than any commercial flight. We hung hammocks between our gear and snoozed, waking up to refuel in Alaska, and for a flight crew change in Guam.
When we landed in Guam, we learned that the wreck of the submarine had been located on the seafloor, likely lost with all hands before we even knew about the incident. The plane with the other half of our crew had to land in Japan, as their plane was running dangerously low on fuel. Our half of the crew was immediately shuffled into a windowless room and briefed that we would be subject to ROM, Restriction of Movement, and would be confined to quarantine in a resort hotel typically frequented by Japanese tourists. For several days, we sat in limbo in the hotel in Guam. Nobody knew if we would assist with the investigation and salvage effort, whether we would return home, or whether they had just forgotten about us. Even worse, the food was abysmal. American comfort food, presented for a Japanese audience, interpreted by Guamanian cooks. For a week we subsisted off limp, wilted BLTs, and the saddest pancake breakfast I’ve ever had.
Eventually they called the whole thing off, and we got back onto our airplanes and flew across the Pacific Ocean. Had we landed in Indonesia, I’m sure it would have been some of the toughest working conditions imaginable: high heat and humidity, mosquitos, remote location, lack of available infrastructure, the barrage of unwanted media attention, and the panic and confusion. We most likely would have worked 24 hours a day to install our high tech equipment onto whatever leaky tugboat or rusty barge was available, taking turns sleeping whenever and wherever we could. The search in Argentina was the same way. Submarine search and rescue has to be one of the most difficult endeavours in the world. I offer my condolences to the loved-ones of the crew of the KRI Nanggala.
I’ve since been on a few other subsea adventures with Phoenix. Everywhere there is equipment made in BC, often by people who splintered off from HYCO. I’m still working on designing my own deep-diving manned submersible, inspired largely by the ones built and used in BC, and soon I’ll have enough space and money to build it. Maybe someday I’ll return to Vancouver and dive with it in Indian Arm.
Vickie: If you’d like to be in touch with River Dolfi, his email is firstname.lastname@example.org. In our most recent email correspondence, I’m grateful that although River had just gotten back from helping someone else test their homebuilt submarine, he took the time to detail his recent thwarted rescue experience with the Indonesian submarine that was lost with all hands. His saga brought to mind various rescue encounters and vehicles highlighted in Deep, Dark & Dangerous. These range from detailed accounts of building Phil Nuytten’s Remora and OceanWork’s PRMS, to the Pisces III rescue stories I heard from Al Trice, Mike Macdonald and others. That successful rescue in 1973 at a still record-breaking depth of 1,575 feet, twice as deep as any previous submarine rescue, was detailed in the well-known classic No Time on Our Side by Pisces III co-pilot Roger Chapman, recently deceased (January 2020).
And to add yet one more coincidence, this week Al Trice, Mike Macdonald, Jim McBeth and I received a copy of the just-off-the-press book The Dive: The Untold Story of the World’s Deepest Submarine Rescue by British author Stephen McGinty. I’m only partway through this new account of the Pisces III rescue, but it’s a keeper, for sure, with interesting sub-sections on the early history of Transatlantic cable attempts and the evolution of Vickers Oceanics, along with a colourful cast of characters.
I confess that when writing this article, I skipped to the book’s Epilogue and was surprised to read that Roger Chapman, author and co-pilot, went on to launch both a successful subsea rescue business and save lives. He developed the LR5, a manned miniature submarine capable of rescuing 16 men at a time from a stricken vessel. Chapman encountered his own frustration with red tape and its tragic consequences during the Russian Kursk disaster; but he also knew the joy of subsequently rescuing the seven crew members of the 44-foot Russian rescue submersible AS-28. The publisher of The Dive is Pegasus Books of New York and London. If you want to place an order from your local bookstore, the ISBN number is 978-1-64313-746-9.
And lastly an update on Deep, Dark & Dangerous: I’m delighted to report the book is in the process of layout. There’s a tentative launch date for the end of October, hopefully at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. I’ll keep you posted as we nail down those details.
There’s also word from Harbour Publishing of a generous discount offer for any company interested in a bulk purchase of Deep, Dark & Dangerous for their employees. What a great Christmas gift or bonus! Let me know if you’re interested.
Please do keep in touch and share the website address deepdarkanddangerous.ca with anyone who might be interested. As you know well, B.C.’s subsea history has remained hidden for far too long!