Underwater Dream Machine

A Lifelong Dream

A half century ago, a teenage boy named Peter Robbins looked out over the choppy surface of the Atlantic Ocean and envisioned diving to its more tranquil and mysterious depths. He yearned to have a submarine of his very own, and decades later, following a successful career as an engineer and entrepreneur, Robbins had the wherewithal to try to build one. Never did he imagine, however, that his quest would turn into a 10-year odyssey testing both his financial resources and his usually tireless good humor. In the following interview, Robbins describes the bumpy journey.


Q: How old were you when you first dreamt of having your own submarine?

Peter Robbins: I was about 15 years old. I'd flunked out of a whole bunch of schools, and my father had sent me to Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts. It was an honor naval school. During my time there, I got a summer job at Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institution], and I just got fascinated with the ocean. When I graduated from Tabor, I wanted to go into a program where you started in the navy as an enlisted man and then went to Annapolis to become a submarine officer. But I didn't get a chance to do that. Life didn't give it to me that way. So I said, "Someday when I retire, if I have enough funding, I'll get a submarine going." That's what started the whole idea.

Q: Did science fiction books or movies also spur you on?

Robbins: As a young person I read a lot of Tom Swift [a series of adventure books]. I'm not sure it did me any good! But Swift had airplanes and jet rockets and submarines and all kinds of wonderful things. I said, "When I grow up I kind of want to be a Tom Swift," and I guess I got as close to that as I could.

Q: Tell us about your first fantastic machine, the Sierra Madre Express.

Robbins: Well, I started a small train that over 25 years grew to be a rather large train, larger than most. It started about 1975, when I was very, very poor. I bought a rusty old railroad car for $3,500, and I borrowed $1,500 of that. I moved into it, and I lived in downtown Boston in it for a couple of years.

I brought that one train car out to Arizona and then, over a 25-year period, I basically hand-built the Sierra Madre Express, car by car. Starve, get a little money, starve again, build it up a little more. The train is now a small version of the Orient Express. It's a complete classic World War II vintage Pullman train with sleeper beds and porters with their white uniforms and brass buttons. We carry between 50 and 75 people and run 30 trips a year down into the Copper Canyon of Mexico.

That train has done very well, and it's opened up a whole new world for me. I think the fun in life is pushing the barrier and looking for new ideas and new things to do.


Q: When did you first dive in a submarine?

Robbins: I had my very first dive around 1988 or '89 in the Grand Caymans. I went down in a Perry Boat. Mr. Perry about 25 years ago built 20-some small, deep-diving submarines to support the then burgeoning business of underwater oil exploration. They hold one or two people and go to a few thousand feet, and they have portholes. Atlantis Submarines, a great submarine company, operates two Perry Boats in the Cayman Islands for tourism. It's really the only way a tourist can get into the water beyond a couple of hundred feet.

Q: So that spurred you on to want to have your own submarine?

Robbins: Yes, it did. And then I was very fortunate through a wonderful friend of mine, Dr. Don Walsh, to get invited to participate with the Russians in the search for the Bismarck when James Cameron started filming The Hunt for the Bismarck. Don's a retired navy submarine captain and has the world's record for the deepest dive. He went down in the Trieste in the early 1960s to 35,850 feet in the Marianas Trench. Don's been advising me for a number of years, and through him I was able to go down on one of the very first dives on the Bismarck. I believe our dive was to 16,400 feet.

Q: It must have been quite an adventure.

Robbins: It was an amazing 14-hour round-trip experience. Four hours sinking, six hours on the bottom, and four hours coming back up. By the time it was over there was no doubt: I wanted my own submarine.

“You’ve got your fingers crossed because if the thing goes crack, bang, boom, you're out of the submarine business.”

Q: Why did you want your sub, Alicia, to have a transparent passenger section?

Robbins: Normally, the deeper you go, the smaller the submarine and the smaller the portholes, because the pressure increases so much. At 1,000 feet, you have about 500 pounds of pressure per square inch. And the view through small portholes is so limited.

Several people came to me hearing about the project—[marine biologist] Dr. Sylvia Earle, [submarine designer] Paul Moorehouse—a variety of people saying, "What we really need is a clear acrylic hull so you don't need portholes." With that, you can look up, down, left, right, forward, and your view is not restricted. In other subs, you put a little rubber pad up on the porthole to rest your head on, and you can only see a very narrow view. In the case of the Bismarck, if we had had an all-acrylic hull it would have just been phenomenal.

With an acrylic hull, you also get another benefit. As you go deep, the water gets very cold. It can get near 0ºC at 1,000 feet deep, almost liquid ice. And an acrylic hull keeps you very warm compared to a steel hull. When we were diving on the Bismarck, you didn't want to touch the side of the steel vessel because you'd practically get hypothermia from it. And you had to be all bundled up. Alicia's acrylic hull is about four and a half inches thick. It gives you a great deal of insulation.

My thinking with Alicia was, "Let's try to get out on the leading edge and see if we can build what has turned out to be the world's largest acrylic window."

Q: What other aspects of Alicia make it unique?

Robbins: We want to develop a submarine that, when it's finished, makes the ocean available to institutions, to tourism, to a variety of applications at a low cost and with a great deal of flexibility.

The Mir I and Mir II, which we took down on the Bismarck, are submersibles, not true submarines. You have to be a little careful with terminology. A true submarine is self-supporting—it has its own propulsion unit. We built a diesel engine into Alicia. You can tie it up to the dock, go down at 8 o'clock in the morning, open up the hatch, start up the motors, motor out to your dive site 15 or 20 miles, close the hatch, do your dive, come back up to the surface, and motor back in.

For safety's sake, you'll always want to have some kind of small escort vessel on the surface. But you won't need a 200- or 300-foot oceangoing vessel with cranes and heavy-lifting equipment like you need with the Mir I or Mir II. So your overhead goes way, way down.

Q: Do you think the public—the average Joe or Jane—should have access to deep-sea adventures that are usually reserved for a lucky few?

Robbins: Absolutely. As people become more aware of the ocean and how dependent we are on it, we'll take better care of it. My hat's off to Atlantis Submarines. Atlantis has around 15 submarines in Hawaii, the Grand Caymans, all over the world, that dive to roughly 200 feet. They've taken around a million passengers underwater for a very nominal price. But having a submarine like Alicia that can go to 1,000 feet will get people to the next step in the ocean.


Q: Alicia has had to pass a number of tests so far. One test in particular must have been nerve-wracking—the pressure test of the hull. How did you feel as your precious sub was being squeezed?

Robbins: It was nerve-wracking. The hull was put inside a high-pressure chamber in cold water to replicate what we would find in the ocean, and the pressure was pumped up. You equip the hull with little sensors, cemented around the hull in numerous places, and you watch to see if the metal starts to collapse. You've got your fingers crossed because if the thing goes crack, bang, boom, you're out of the submarine business.

It's kind of a one-shot deal for me on the submarine. They're extremely expensive to build, particularly when you're building one for the first time and you don't have all the bugs worked out. It probably would have killed me if that thing had imploded. So yes, I was very nervous. But we were aiming to be rated for 305 meters, or roughly 1,000 feet, and we actually took it down to 410 meters [1,350 feet] in the test.

Q: What was it like for you to dive in Alicia for the first time?

Robbins: That was pretty exciting. It was in Plymouth Harbor [on the southwest coast of England]. We started off by doing what's called tea bagging—just putting the submarine alongside the docks and going up and down like a tea bag. You do that to open and close all the valves and take a look at your oxygen level and your CO2 level and understand what the system is doing. Then you take the sub out into the open water.

It was a beautiful, bright, sunny afternoon, and I was just thrilled hearing the sub's motor. We made our way out to our assigned position. You have to have very specific authorization to dive in almost any port, because ports have big ships coming in and out, and the last thing they want is a submarine coming up underneath a ship or any kind of a collision.

The first time I went down, it was really, really a knockout experience. In this harbor, particularly during the summer, there's a lot of algae, so our visibility was only about 10 to 15 feet. But you felt you could lean over and just pick a scallop right up off the bottom. The curvature of Alicia's clear round hull magnifies the view tremendously. It was just a terrific deal.

“My recommendation to anybody who wants to build a submarine is don’t build one.”

Q: What needs to happen now for Alicia to start taking dives with tourists and other passengers?

Robbins: Well, first she has to finish her certification. In order to get insurance for a submarine you have to be certified, and there is, thank goodness, a very rigid certification system. You have to perform numerous tests and provide engineering data on the electrical systems, the hull design, the type of paint you use, the fire flammability of the interior of the submarine, etc. We're now working with the American Bureau of Shipping for the certification, and we're also working with the U.S. Coast Guard. If you want to use a submarine in the jurisdictional areas of the Coast Guard, they have their own rules and regulations.

We've had three years of development time, so we're now doing a three-year mandatory teardown of the sub to pick up anything that doesn't meet current standards. Between the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping standards, we're going right down through the submarine and cleaning up any defects that need fixing.

Q: When do you expect Alicia will be fully certified?

Robbins: That's a very difficult question. It's something that's been so elusive. We have to draw everything on paper to make sure it meets standard engineering practices, then submit that document to both the Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping. Then we wait for the two groups to come back and stamp it and say, "Yes, we approve it." Then we can go ahead and build it. So it's hard to give a date. But I hope we'll be through with this in 12 months.


Q: You say it's been three years. Looking back on the budget you originally slated—I believe it was about $1.5 million—do you think that was realistic?

Robbins: No, it's substantially over that. And actually, from the day we started really thinking about building this sub, it's been almost 10 years.

Q: Does the odyssey that you've been through with Alicia—the redesigns, going over budget—make you wish you hadn't embarked on the journey?

Robbins: Well, I've said it in the past: my recommendation to anybody who wants to build a submarine is don't build one. You've got to have a lot of spirit and a lot of gumption to do it. I'm hoping that I'll come out on top after this, with a well-designed submarine, and one that will be of credit to the submarine community as well as being a service to science.

Q: Has this been the most difficult, pie-in-the-sky project you've ever launched?

Robbins: Absolutely.

Q: When Alicia is certified and up and running, as I'm sure she will be, what dream dives do you want to take with her?

Robbins: I have a number of dream dives. I would like to circumnavigate England. England is one of the oldest seafaring countries in the world. And even though the visibility is poor, there are thousands and thousands of vessels on the bottom all around the coast of England.

Two years ago, when we were diving in Plymouth Harbor, we took a look at one of the last Liberty ships [cargo ships used by the Allies in World War II] that was sunk, and we looked at a U-boat wreck. We took along a veteran who was a German U-boat Warrant Officer who'd escaped from the sinking submarine when he was 19 years old; he'd opened the hatch and floated up. It was quite exciting for him to have a chance to see the last ship that his U-boat torpedoed and recollect those past times.

I'd like to do something similar with other wrecks. There are some ships that were sunk in a practice exercise that generals Eisenhower and Montgomery set up, a secret operation to test whether the Normandy invasion would work. Unfortunately, the Germans got word of it and came in and torpedoed three LSTs [Landing Ship Tanks] and killed almost 1,000 American servicemen. Those vessels are now in about 300 feet of water off the coast of England. I'd like to take a look at those vessels and bring some of the men who are still alive from that operation out to take a look at their ships.

Those are some of the things I'd like to do with Alicia.

Q: I imagine, given the panoramic view and the fact that your view is actually magnified through Alicia's hull, that taking the sub near marine life would be awesome.

Robbins: Wouldn't it be fun to pull up next to a whale and look him in the eye and take a dive with him?

Q: It would be great. Last question: You obviously have had a number of dreams in your life. Do you have any general advice for fellow dreamers with lofty ambitions?

Robbins: I'd say go for it—even if you're going to have to fight and the odds are going to be enormous. You don't live life fully if you don't dream.

Enlarge this image
Peter Robbins inside underwater

Peter Robbins named his submarine Alicia after his daughter, and like a child, the sub has brought him both great joy and more than a few restless nights of worrying.

Enlarge this image

The many adventures of Tom Swift captivated Robbins as a boy. In addition to having an "ultrasonic cycloplane" and "atomic earth blaster," Swift possessed a "jetmarine" that bears an uncanny resemblance to Alicia.

Enlarge this image
Sierra Madre X

Robbins resurrected and pieced together classic railcars of the 1940s and '50s to create the Sierra Madre Express, which takes tourists through some of the most majestic scenery of Arizona and northern Mexico.

Enlarge this image
Perry Deep Explorer

Diving in a submarine like this one in the Cayman Islands rekindled Robbins' boyhood dream, but he wanted his own sub to have a more panoramic view.

Enlarge this image
Alicia over water

A diesel engine allows Alicia to motor out to dive locations, and as in a hybrid car, this propulsion recharges the sub's batteries for diving.

Enlarge this image
Alicia test run

Alicia is launched for a trial run in Plymouth Harbor on the southwest coast of England.

Enlarge this image
Robbins and Rudi Wieser

Robbins and Alicia gave German U-boat veteran Rudi Wieser (right) a chance to visit the remains of his sunken wartime vessel.

Interview conducted on September 25, 2006 and edited by Susan K. Lewis, editor of NOVA online

Underwater Dream Machine Home | Send Feedback | Image Credits | Support NOVA

© | Created October 2006