November 2019

The Nation Reviewed

Yellow submarine

By Patrick Lau
A former Russian athlete’s plan for Australia’s first commercial sub

Three decades after he represented the Soviet Union as a hurdler, Andrey Alexeenko retains the wiry frame of a track athlete. Except for his shoulder muscles, which bulge alarmingly. Alexeenko has the shoulders of a man who’s spent years reaching upwards to hammer away at something over his head.

As Alexeenko shows off his big yellow submarine, he points out where its refit has been particularly painful or expensive – not in complaint, but as points of interest. Nearly two years after he found a suitable shell and brought it to this Brisbane shipyard, his customisations are almost complete.

This will be the first commercial submarine operating in Australia, accessible to children and centenarians alike. There are a few pretenders – a couple of three­person, unpressurised quasi-subs up on the Great Barrier Reef, and some private vehicles that get rented out as yacht toys – but no true submarines, and nothing on this scale.

Two Volvo Penta engines drive the 65-tonne, 20-metre-long vessel at 8 nautical miles per hour on the surface. Modifications to prevent the diesel from aerating were required, “then we had to go back for a new fuel pan”. The porthole windows for the 28 passengers and two crew, designed to flex 3 to 5 millimetres underwater, cost $160,000 and arrived with their own installation crew from Finland. Two battery packs ($130,000) power the electric thrusters for travel at depths down to 30 metres. An industrial air compressor ($130,000), kept in a shipping container on the jetty, will recharge the tanks after every few dives.

There were expenses for welding crews, electricians, gas sensors, depth sensors, and a freshly calibrated sonar (“you can find these in Australia, but it’s better to go off-the-shelf”). There are three mechanical fail-safes, including a drop weight and ballast valves manually operable by a scuba diver. There was the laser scanning of the hull silhouette. Ultrasonic testing of the ballast tank walls. A small blue cable that cost $2000.

Back in the Soviet Union, Alexeenko hadn’t ever dreamt about a submarine, and to this day he doesn’t hold a scuba-diving certification. His status as a military hurdler (international athletics meets were classified as operations “behind enemy lines”) meant he avoided the Soviet–Afghan War, although he did spend six months training as an artilleryman.

Alexeenko retains the lessons of his athletic coaching. “When you race,” he says, “you don’t actually race against someone, because you’re so focused on execution, on how you take a step, technical parts of the run. You don’t think about anyone, you just focus on execution. And then it gives you results. If you will focus on who’s running next to you, you never will get those things out.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Alexeenko did a few seasons on fishing boats out of Alaska and worked in an auto shop elsewhere in America before moving to Brisbane. Since then he’s been a teacher, a taxi driver and a track coach, and run a small whale-watching business on the Gold Coast – often all at the same time – as well as raising a family. He’s too grounded, despite an adventurous résumé, for a midlife crisis, and neither wealthy nor whimsical enough to indulge in multimillion-dollar follies.

But one day, he says, “I was driving my wife to work and I said, ‘Listen, I haven’t heard about any commercial submarines in Australia.’” And that seemed to be the start and the end of the discussion.

Through his subsequent research, Alexeenko learnt that most commercial passenger submarines, of which there are a few dozen globally, are built to operate in sheltered waters with swells under 1.5 metres – unsuitable for Australia. But he found a unique model built by a similarly quixotic figure, a Basque nobleman who’d spent 20 years and an immense fortune creating a submarine/catamaran hybrid that could travel both above and below water in more challenging conditions.

Only three of these “Subcats” have ever been made, and Alexeenko located one in Vanuatu. He flew to meet the owners: French construction magnates who’d used it as a private pleasure craft but hadn’t kept up ­maintenance.

“Actually, they were planning to ditch it – put it in the bottom of the sea and just make an attraction,” Alexeenko says. But instead he negotiated terms that allowed him to take ownership of the vessel at no up-front cost.

When he first took delivery of it, Alexeenko launched into the refurbishment project alone. He hunched in the ballast tanks until 2am, sandblasting and cutting half a tonne of metal off the interior in shifts as long as 16 hours. “And after two weeks I came to the conclusion that I needed help.”

The project has since swallowed two mortgages. “There are no banks in the submarine”, he says, and a crowdfunding effort “was no help at all”, but a handful of private international investors have enabled the work to continue.

Although Alexeenko laments regulation as much as any small business owner, a few quirks have gone his way. Commercial submarine certification is handled globally by the American Bureau of Shipping, which in turn is recognised by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. 

“As a novelty craft, you are allowed certain lenience,” Alexeenko explains, which means extensive safety planning rather than building to specific codes.

“None of the tourist submarines in the world have toilets on board. From the point of view of Maritime Safety, this is not a problem.” An emergency protocol has been developed – the rear of the passenger compartment will offer passengers with poor timing a degree of privacy and a small, portable comfort station.

A pair of Spanish engineers-cum-pilots – a substantial proportion of the “six or eight people in the world who have operated a Subcat before” – have been brought in to help launch the business. With their expertise, the submarine is entering the final stages of preparation: rudder configuration, engine checks, on-water testing.

There’s still plenty left to do, but barring any more setbacks Down Under Submarines will finally begin running cruises this summer. Alexeenko has been looking at a few jetties in Mooloolaba, about an hour and a half north of Brisbane on the Sunshine Coast. In the meantime there’s office space to let, promotional partnerships with Chinese tour operators to sign, cruise lines to coordinate with. Wrangling an access agreement to the wreck of the HMAS Brisbane is a future project, and Alexeenko’s been discussing an underwater sculpture park with the local council.

“When you have opportunities, some support, you take advantage of it,” he says.

“Basically, every day – chasing achievement. Every training, every competition, every day – completing one more run, doing one more lift. [Every] project is just the pathway for another justification of your life, or your time, or your skills.”

Patrick Lau

Patrick Lau is a Sydney-based journalist who covers business, the environment and culture.

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