36,000 Feet Under the Sea

The strange quest of San Anselmo's Graham Hawkes, who will dive a two-man submarine to the deepest point in the ocean. If someone gives him $7 million.

It's a Thursday afternoon in an unremarkable garage workshop in Point Richmond, where some of the world's most advanced underwater technology is parked, as if it were a weekend boat on a trailer. The proprietor of the garage, Graham Hawkes, is hot on the trail of Magellan, his aptly named Portuguese water dog, who has gone exploring. Again. There's a fair amount of commotion in and around the garage; a couple of people who were previously fixated on a computer screen are now trying to piece together the dog situation.

Something that looks like a little white spaceship with wings is parked on one side of the garage; a craft that resembles a race car is on the other side. Tools and mechanical parts sit here and there near a tool chest and along the walls. An office has been configured in the back. Sitting on the floor there is an ominous black contraption with a gun barrel sticking out of it. Only a few feet tall, it looks like an industrial praying mantis. Very military. Very futuristic. On one side hangs a bright pink airline baggage tag marked "WEAPON."

A big color photo of a man sitting inside something that looks like a fishbowl with a joystick in the center of it hangs on the wall between the garage and the office.

Magellan, having completed his journey, comes padding into this James Bond scene, followed by a semi-disheveled man who peers out from behind little, round, professorlike glasses. Graham Hawkes offers an unmistakably British "Hello," then promptly picks up a paintbrush and meticulously fusses with the back of the spaceship with wings, ignoring the rest of the world.

The longer one lingers in the workshop, the stronger the sense of being in a James Bond film grows. Any minute, it seems, Bond will come through the back door, grab the praying mantis weapon, jump in the spaceship, and take off -- while Hawkes begs the playboy spy not to trash the inventions that took years to create. But if Hawkes has the talents necessary to be a real-world Agent Q, he has a different forte -- submarines.

Graham Hawkes has designed 70 percent of all the manned submersibles produced during the past two decades.

For half of that time, Hawkes tinkered and toiled to create a series of crafts that culminated with the construction of Deep Flight, a one-man submersible. Last year, he proved Deep Flight can swim with the fish in a way that made the fish accept it as one of their own. But Deep Flight was merely a test of a design for another craft -- one meant for a titanic quest.

Graham Hawkes wants to build a new submersible and pilot it to the deepest point in the ocean -- the Mariana Trench.

In some ways, Hawkes is among the last of the gentlemen explorers, the pioneers who push the frontiers of the physical world so scientists can follow. And he is without competition. No one else on Earth is seriously trying to send a manned craft to the bottom of the sea. Unmanned robots -- many of them designed by Hawkes and run via artificial intelligence -- are almost always the choice for exploration in deep waters.

The craft that Hawkes believes will take him seven miles beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean -- Deep Flight 2 -- is now just a design sitting inside a computer, waiting to be built. There are no significant technological barriers to construction. But right now, a journey to the ocean floor costs about $7 million, and despite years of trying, Hawkes hasn't been able to raise anywhere near that amount of money.

There is new interest in ocean research. Congress passed the National Oceans Act last year, creating a national policy on exploration and coastal resources. The United Nations has declared 1998 the Year of the Ocean. And the White House is holding its first National Conference on the Ocean in Monterey Bay this week.

But the government isn't about to directly fund a trip into the Mariana Trench. So Graham Hawkes has built a gun. How he's going to use it to get 36,198 feet under the sea is a story as unusual as any Jules Verne ever told.

Somewhere outside of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, near the island of San Benedicto, Graham Hawkes and his crew are on a ship headed directly into his dream. After nearly 10 years of design and construction that cost about $1 million (Hawkes sold his prized collection of Jaguar automobiles to help fund the project), Deep Flight is set to make its open-ocean debut.

Hawkes climbs into the craft. A crane lifts it off the deck, where it swings awkwardly -- the crane is almost flailing -- and the sub drops in the water with a splash. Critique Point No. 1: need a better launch. Nonetheless, the dive continues.

Deep Flight looks like a cross between a race car and a jet. Surprisingly small, it's just the size to accommodate one person. The craft is configured in such a way that the pilot lies down on his stomach, shoulders against a curved metal harness, and his head surrounded by the clear acrylic nose. The nose is Hawkes' favorite feature. It extends far enough to the rear that even in his peripheral vision, a pilot sees nothing but clear. And the nose bubble is optically compatible with the water -- meaning that, underwater, you don't know it's there unless you reach out and touch it.

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