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Homemade Sub Makes Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea a Reality

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Times Staff Writer

In this land of custom jeeps and stretch limos, personal spas and home computers, Don Siverts’ toy puts everything else to shame.

Siverts, a Torrance illustrator, has his own private, two-man submarine.

Affectionately dubbed Snooper, the bright yellow sub is powered by golf-cart batteries. A cartoon-like concoction of airplane parts and Plexiglas windows, the sub looks like a James Bond getaway vehicle--the wacky sort of contraption that, with a flick of a switch, transforms from a submarine to a jet plane and zips handily over the horizon. It was featured in the 1978 movie “Gray Lady Down,” where it performed an underwater rescue before being crushed to bits, an illusion achieved using a model of the submarine.

But this submarine is no phony movie prop.

Made From Scratch

Siverts, an illustrator who specializes in technical drawing, uses Snooper to help him out with his part-time business as a deep-sea diver. Constructed from scratch in Siverts’ Torrance garage in 1969, Snooper is capable of withstanding ocean pressure at depths up to 1,000 feet. Snooper can dive like a fish and putter on the bottom like a crab. It has made more than 2,000 dives off the West Coast, and is widely used by industry and government agencies to handle risky underwater inspections and searches.

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From duties videotaping the condition of oil pipelines beneath the treacherous waters of Monterey Bay, to searching for a sunken race boat last fall in the black depths of Nevada’s Lake Mead, Snooper has become one of the most recognizable fixtures of Southern California’s underwater world.

Siverts rents out the sub a few times a month through his side business, Undersea Graphics Inc.

“We’ve never advertised,” Siverts said. “Divers, scientists, they just seem to know we’re here.”

Several corporations own mini-submarines, and the Navy has several, including the Sea Cliff and the Turtle, both based near San Diego. But

Siverts owns one of only a handful of homemade subs in the country, diving experts say.

“He’s unique, really one of a kind,” said Don Keach, of International Maritime Inc. in San Pedro.

Keach, who rents Snooper from Siverts for pipeline inspections, said the vessel “is a Model-T in that it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles that some newer submersibles do, but it works.

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“We like Don because he’s capable and there aren’t many submersibles out there that you can get for just $3,000 a day,” he said.

Siverts and his partners, dive shop operators Bob and Bill Meistrell, berth Snooper at the Port Royal Marina in Redondo Beach’s King Harbor. Snooper’s mother ship, the 41-foot vessel Mother Goose, was custom-made with a launching bay to set Snooper in the water.

Unique Adventure

Although Siverts and Bob Meistrell are both lifelong divers, they say that taking a whirl in Snooper is an adventure unlike any other.

“You know that saying, ‘He who dies with the most toys wins?’ ” Meistrell asked. “Well, that’s Siverts and me.”

Squeezed cozily into the 84-inch high vessel, they have heard the click-clicking of friendly dolphins as they frolic with the sub off the coast of Malibu. They have seen beds of colorful lobsters “stretching as far as the Snooper’s lights can illuminate them” off the richly populated reefs of Santa Catalina Island. They have spotted and recovered bodies from boating and diving accidents, a grim chore that Snooper is occasionally called on to perform.

“You can’t believe how much stuff is out there to investigate,” Meistrell said. One of his favorite sights is a natural gas seep in 75 feet of water off Redondo Beach that creates a giant geyser of sparkling bubbles beneath the sea.

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“It is spectacular magic to see it up close,” Meistrell said. “It’s like swimming through a forest of air bubbles, really quite a sight.”

Still Fun

When the crew returns from a job on a clear day at sea, “somebody in the crew will say, ‘And we’re getting paid for this too?’ ” Siverts said with a laugh. “It’s still as fun as the first time we tried her out.”

From a viewing porthole six feet high in the vessel’s snug tower, the sub’s driver usually cannot see the sea floor below him because of cloudy water. The driver relies instead on a partner, who lies on his stomach just inches below the driver’s chair, peering through portholes along the bottom and calling out commands.

“The bottom guy is the eyes, the top guy is the driver,” Siverts said. “We rely on teamwork, but we still run smack into things all the time. We find a lot of stuff we’re looking for by barging right into it.”

But no matter to the Snooper. Siverts has protected the vessel’s bow with metal bumpers that look something like roll bars. The bars hit objects in front of the sub, and Snooper’s portholes are spared the direct impact.

Snooper’s maneuvering abilities allow it to tackle jobs that might otherwise be impossible, Siverts said.

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Airplane Recovered

Several years ago, Siverts was hired by an insurance company to find and help recover a sunken airplane off Catalina. Using a giant lasso attached to Snooper, Siverts snared the plane’s tail, and a powerful barge above the wreck hauled it out of the sea.

One of the sub’s most unusual jobs took place far from its ocean haunts, at the bottom of Nevada’s 462-foot-deep Lake Mead. Siverts was hired by a racing boat owner to find a costly vessel that sank during a race. After two days of searching the lake’s eerie, tree-covered bottom last fall, he gave up.

“We were hunting in a haystack, the first sub ever to explore Lake Mead, we were told,” Siverts said.

“The owners were even reviewing videotapes of the accident, trying to match the shadows along the beach that day with the place they thought it went down. We went to the deepest spot in the lake, but that thing could have drifted for miles since the accident.”

The sub has never had an accident, though it has become entangled in kelp and old buoy lines a few times. By maneuvering the sub back and forth, the crew has always been able to work it free, Siverts said.

But some years ago, for a few frightening minutes, the two-man crew on Mother Goose lost sight of Snooper after it surfaced in a sea of turbulent whitecaps off Point Conception.

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Painted Yellow

“We couldn’t see it in the froth, because back then it was painted white,” said Siverts’ 23-year-old son, Curt, a member of the crew. “It got pretty scary. After that, we painted it bright yellow.”

While Snooper has racked up an impressive list of adventures, it is the ingenious creation itself that awes most people.

“This guy’s a genius,” Bob Meistrell said of Siverts. “He’s got a photographic memory. . . . And if he needs to invent a part or come up with a new way to do something, he just does it.”

Siverts’ original partners, Glen Kapaun and Paul Gamrot, spent two years building the sub with Siverts. Welding of the airtight hull was done by an outside company, but the three men did most of the other work. They designed the sub, working out its shape and size so that it would “just fit” two occupants. They constructed the windows from Plexiglas, and formed the sub’s overhanging bow and stern from fiberglass, which was then attached to the tubular steel hull.

Kapaun, an engineer who still owns shares in the company, said the design and construction “took a great deal of effort.

Professional Workmanship

“Everything about it was totally from scratch,” he said. “People who hear you have a homemade submarine think it’s held together with baling wire. Without trying to pat myself on the back, I have to say the workmanship was pretty professional. It’s quite a piece of equipment.”

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Comparing Snooper to any other vessel is difficult because naval and corporate mini-subs, several of which are operated in California, are all equipped with different instruments, have different capabilities, and were commercially constructed.

Steve Etchemendy of Deep Ocean Engineering in San Leandro said the company’s Deep Rover, a spherical, one-man, sonar-equipped submarine capable of reaching depths to 3,000 feet, cost about $1 million. The company also has a television-equipped robot submarine, which does not carry a human, that can reach depths to 500 feet, and cost about $28,000.

Siverts said he has no idea what Snooper is worth, because most of the expense was in labor.

“You couldn’t afford to have anyone else make it for you,” he said. “We’d sit down and figure out how to make something, and if it turned out later that it wasn’t perfect, we’d just live with it. You can’t take this thing to the dealer and get a spare part.”

One-of-a-Kind Propeller

In fact, Snooper is powered with a one-of-a-kind propeller designed and built by Gene Miller, a Torrance neighbor of Siverts who is a retired North American Rockwell mechanical engineer.

Miller constructed Snooper’s gracefully curving propeller in his basement workshop, which is outfitted with a metal lathe, milling machine, band saw, drill press and belt sander. Miller is now working on a second propeller that is expected to nearly double Snooper’s speed, from 1.7 to 3.2 m.p.h. The increased power will help the sub fight troublesome ocean currents.

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“We’ve done a lot of research and used whatever we could get our hands on, and applied it to the sub,” Miller said. “It’s worked pretty well so far.”

Miller also dreamed up a hydraulically operated mechanical arm and claw that were recently added to Snooper, replacing an electrical manipulator arm that had been fraught with problems. The new arm, capable of hoisting objects of up to 100 pounds from the ocean floor, so far has been used only to collect coral.

But Curt Siverts said he wishes the arm had been ready a few months ago, when Snooper stumbled upon a tantalizing discovery on a local reef.

“We spotted some really old vases on the bottom,” he said. “You know, the kind with the long necks that come way up to the mouth. I would have liked to pick them up, but that was before we got the arm.”

Recirculate Air

Another friend gave Siverts the idea for installing a system in the sub that can recirculate air for up to 48 hours, using a “scrubber” that removes carbon dioxide while pure oxygen is pumped in. The system is usually used for only three or four hours at a time, the duration of a typical dive.

Snooper’s ability to stay on the bottom for long periods is one reason for its commercial popularity, Siverts said. Before Snooper was built, he was often hired as a free-lance diver to inspect the Los Angeles County Sanitation District’s sewage discharge line in 220 feet of water off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

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“We could only stay down 13 minutes and had to decompress for an hour and 45 minutes after that so we wouldn’t get the bends,” Siverts recalled. “As time went on, they wanted us to go down deeper and stay longer, and we were getting older. Now the Snooper does all the work.”

Keenly aware of the sub’s abilities, Siverts and Meistrell are readying Snooper for a new adventure. They hope to explore the Southern California coast for sunken treasure.

Meistrell, who has invested in several treasure-hunting expeditions in the Bahamas, Ecuador and Colombia in the past, said that little treasure has been recovered off Southern California.

“That’s because it’s too deep here--divers can only stay down a few minutes and they don’t get a real good look. The Snooper could change all that.”

Large Safe

Indeed, an old diving buddy who has since died told Meistrell of a large, locked, walk-in safe that he discovered submerged in 140 feet of water off Santa Catalina Island some years ago.

The friend wasn’t interested in salvaging the safe and its possible contents, but passed the location along to Meistrell, who guards the information carefully. Meistrell and Siverts are getting ready to launch a meticulous search of the area where the safe was spotted.

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But even if nothing turns up, the search will be far from a total loss, according to Meistrell. “The biggest treasure is just going down and being in the world underwater,” he said.

“Gold may not be out there, but what we’ve got is really beautiful.”

FACTS ABOUT SNOOPER

Length 14 feet, 6 inches Height 84 inches Depth Capability 1,000 feet Oxygen Emergency Support 48 hours Battery Power Capability 8 hours Mechanical Arm Capability 100 lbs.

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