Private subs plumb deep pockets, deeper waters

Forget fancy sports cars and private jets, submarines are the new vessel of choice for the ultra rich.

By Jessica Dickler, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- In the world of 150-foot yachts, private helicopters and lightening fast speedboats, there is a new toy so exclusive that buyers are actually invoking non-disclosure agreements.

Private submarines - from two-seater submersibles to 5,000 square-foot luxury liners - are becoming increasingly popular among the ultra-wealthy. But this is a trend that's tough to track, because few high rollers are willing to admit they own such a hulking extravagance.

Looking to impress? The $80 million Phoenix will rival any mega yacht.
An interior drawing of U.S. Submarine's Phoenix 1000.
A rendering of a Deep Flight Falcon submersible currently in construction.

Still, it has been widely reported that director James Cameron, Microsoft (Charts) co-founder Paul Allen, and Russian oil magnate Roman Abramovich all have subs of their own.

"My clients are not typical people, most of them are very wealthy but you wouldn't recognize any of their names," said Bruce Jones, president and founder of U.S. Submarines, a luxury submarine manufacturer and consulting firm.

"To date everyone has required confidentiality agreements."

Jones will say that he's been building subs for private clients since 1993, although recently interest has spiked as chartered submarine tours have gained in popularity.

In a world of $100-million mega yachts, luxury submarines attract the ultra rich for one of two reasons. Some buyers are just looking for another realm they can conquer with their checkbooks. But many are genuine undersea enthusiasts.

A sub's large acrylic windows can bring a billionaire nose-to-nose with a Blacktip sharks, or let a tycoon tour brilliant tropical coral reefs.

At Hawkes Ocean Technology, chief engineer Graham Hawkes specializes in two-person winged submersibles designed to delve a few hundred feet underwater and cruise at about 4 to 8 knots.

He is currently in the process of building two customized $1-million vessels for clients who Hawkes said "want to push the envelope."

In his Deep Flight Falcon submersible, which is ideal for recreational diving, adventuresome types can do barrel rolls with whales or troll shipwrecks for buried treasures.

For more relaxing underwater escapes, U.S. Submarines will design and engineer a range of submersibles, from a $1-million, two-passenger Explorer 1000, which fits nicely aboard a large yacht, to the $25-million Seattle 1000, which comes with five staterooms on two decks and can remain submerged for up to 20 days - if you can.

The company's crown jewel, however, is the submarine equivalent of a luxury mega yacht: the Phoenix 1000, which has 5,000 square feet of interior space on four levels and can dive up to 1,000 feet.

With all that room, clients can outfit their submarines as elaborately as they would their homes, with Jacuzzis, gyms, wine cellars and up to 10 bedrooms. "You can get whatever you want," Jones said - inside or out.

Indeed, one sharp-shooting buyer had a laser guided spear gun installed on the exterior of a sub in order to hunt sea creatures. Other indulgences, like the basketball courts that are de rigeur for sprawling (above ground) estates, might not be considered a very good use of space. "That would be the world's most expensive basketball court," said Jones.

The price tag for a Phoenix, which will take about 3-1/2 years to build, is a cool $80 million. Jones declined to say how many have actually been purchased.

Although anyone can buy a submarine, operating one involves a lengthy certification process regulated by the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS), similar to the FAA certification required for planes. Plus, the captain must have a Coast Guard Master's license if they intend to carry a crew in U.S. waters.

Some owners just hire crews from the sub manufacturers. But like private jet owners or yachting enthusiasts, others want to be at the helm themselves. Many manufacturers say that the existing sub certification process isn't enough, and mandate that new owners and their crews complete a training program of their own.

But once they're underwater, Hawkes said, "it's every man for himself," . Top of page