Triton Submarines Races to the Bottom of the Ocean for Fame and Fortune

Page 2 of 6

When Patrick was 7, an American submarine docked in Holetown. His father took the family to see the metal leviathan. Patrick was transfixed. Vowing to become a marine biologist, he spent hours after school snorkeling or practicing scuba diving in the family pool using his older brothers' equipment. "That's when my love affair with the ocean really began," he remembers.

When he was 19, he headed to a professional dive school in San Pedro, California. It was a dream come true, but it was also brutal. Lahey was the youngest person there, surrounded by grizzled, fully grown men with scars, tattoos, and years of experience. Instructors would randomly shut off divers' oxygen or ensnare them underwater just to see how they would react.

"Patrick was this young, innocent guy with a big ol' smile. He didn't even cuss yet," dive school buddy Jim Kuenzi recalls. The two rented a tiny room near the beach and did nothing but dive, swim, and sleep on bare mattresses they salvaged from a nearby alley. "Everyone else was in it to make a living, but he was in it for something else. The ocean."

By the end of the six-month stint, Lahey was top in his class and the fittest diver around, thanks to his maniacal diet and early-morning ocean swims.

Lahey's instructors introduced him to Lad Handelman, a former Bronx gang member who had turned his life around on the ocean and now owned the largest commercial dive company in the world. Lahey drove Handelman to the Los Angeles airport in his ancient Oldsmobile 442, and though the jalopy broke down en route, the two became good friends, and Handelman helped the young diver get his first job.

"You find a lot of mavericks and gnarly characters in the offshore world," Handelman says. "It's a special breed of men who work hard and play hard — drinking, womanizing, avoiding irate husbands, things like that." Lahey was different. "Patrick could get the job done as well as anyone," Handelman recalls, "but he also had integrity and principles."

Lahey started out sweeping the floor for $3.75 an hour at a small diving company. But what really caught his eye were the company's Mantis diving machines: one-person submarines built like bulky space suits.

One day a sub operator left the manual lying around. Patrick took it home and memorized it. When a corroded part perplexed the mechanics, they left the dive suit sitting out and went to lunch. After Lahey fixed it alone, his boss let him take the suit for a test run; for the first time in his life, Lahey was behind the wheel of a submarine, looking out at crystal-clear waters. He rode an oil well guide wire down to 1,400 feet before reluctantly returning to the surface.

"I felt like I had won the Super Bowl," Lahey says. "I fucking ate it up."

More than two decades before Lahey's maiden sub dive, two men had already blazed a treacherous path to the bottom of the ocean. Their harrowing journey foreshadows the deadly risks behind today's high-tech-submarine sprint to the Mariana Trench.

On January 23, 1960, Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh squeezed into a narrow hatch aboard a blimp-like bathyscaphe called the Trieste. They climbed 20 feet down a ladder, past giant tanks of highly combustible aviation gasoline, and into a tiny spherical cabin with walls of seven-inch-thick steel.

As the Trieste and a support boat bobbed on the waves 300 miles southwest of the Pacific island of Guam, Walsh grabbed the underwater telephone and gave the go-ahead. He and Piccard had tested the submersible to 24,000 feet — about 4.5 miles down — but neither man knew how deep the Mariana Trench was, nor if the bathyscaphe could endure the skull-shattering pressure.

Walsh flipped a series of switches and the Trieste hissed like an angry snake as air escaped its two ballast tanks. While the 50-foot-long steel drum sank steadily into the brine, Walsh and Piccard took turns gazing out the sphere's six-inch window. By 500 feet, the sun was gone. Strange shrimp and jellyfish swirled in the light from floodlights aimed down into the deep.

Hundreds of pounds of metal shot pushed the primitive sub toward the ocean floor. The two men stared at pressure, depth, and oxygen gauges for hours as the cabin grew colder. Then, at nearly 15,000 feet, the sonar-powered telephone cut out.

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael E. Miller