The Mermaid Experience – Chapter 17

July 9

Allen put his swimming suit on under his pants on Thursday morning, the day they planned to test Sub 12. When he arrived at Orca’s plant, the big doors at the back of the building were open and Sub 12 was already being lowered into the water. Allen walked over and stood next to Phil as he directed the crane operator. It seemed like a long time to Allen, but before long everything was checked out and ready to go. Allen and Phil changed into swimming suits and T-shirts, then took turns climbing down into the sub. Allen had a laptop with him, and once he was seated he plugged a cable from the laptop into the diagnostic port on the sub’s control panel. He brought up a checklist on the screen and read off each item as Phil activated a switch or took a reading from the control panel. The pre-launch list was relatively short, as the sub had been thoroughly checked out in the shop. The last item on the list was the champagne bottle strapped into some netting near the hatch. Orca tradition was to carry the champagne in the sub for the first underwater trials, then present it to the customer for the christening. After finishing the checklist, the hatch was closed and the crane was disconnected, and they were ready to pull out into the bay. Allen latched the laptop down to a temporary holder they had placed in front of the cockpit. Then he watched through the window as Phil pressed the throttle forward and moved the sub out into Galveston Bay. For the first part of the trip there was little to see as they traveled down the marked shipping lanes. An occasional fish darted by, but the heavily traveled area was devoid of most sea life. After they passed the end of Galveston Island, Phil guided the sub out of the shipping lane and headed almost directly south. He double-checked the hatch and then dove, leveling out when they approached the bottom. Here along the coast the water was not very deep, so they were cruising at about 20 feet down.

Now that they had left the shipping lane, Allen could see more signs of life on the sea floor. Sea grasses and sponges grew up from the bottom, and fish darted in and out of hiding. Colorful gobies hovered above the sea floor and darted back into their burrows as the submarine passed over. It was a struggle for Allen to pay attention to the data being gathered by the laptop. Luckily, most of the data collection happened automatically. At specific times, Allen would press a key to capture a snapshot of some of the key parameters they were tracking—battery charge, CO2 levels, engine power, etc. All of the parameters held nicely within the specified ranges, indicating a successful test so far. They motored along for a half hour or so, and then Phil asked Allen if he wanted to pilot the sub for a while. He happily agreed, taking over the controls while Phil watched the data collection. From time to time, Phil told Allen to turn or gave him suggestions for keeping the sub level and on course. Eventually, they passed a few large rocky outcroppings on the bottom and Phil took back over the piloting duties. He took them around the rocks and Allen could see that they marked the edge of an underwater ravine or canyon. Phil expertly guided them down into the canyon, following it down as it got wider and deeper. Allen started paying closer attention to the laptop and the gauges on the control panel as they dropped below 50 feet deep. The light from above grew dim and Allen turned on the lights, illuminating the ghostly specks of floating plankton around them.

They continued their descent into the canyon, and the depth gage passed 100 feet before they leveled out close to the bottom. All the readings on the laptop looked good, and Allen pressed the save key to capture the data. A few moments later, he heard a short hissing sound from the back of the sub.

“Phil, did you hear that?” He asked.

“Yeah, I heard something. Are all the readings OK?”

Allen checked the gages and the data on the laptop. Everything looked normal. Then he noticed a wobble on the battery gage.

“It looks like the battery is starting to lose power.”

He looked back toward the engine and started to notice the smell of smoke and melting plastic.

“Phil, I think we might have a fire in the battery.” He said, trying to keep his voice calm.

Phil was beginning to smell it as well, and he cut the power to the engines and turned the nose of the sub up, pressing the button that released the ballast. The lights flickered and Allen watched as the battery charge indicator dropped increasingly fast. They could see a red glow coming from the battery compartment below the engine now, and the smoke was growing thicker. Allen grabbed the fire extinguisher from its bracket on the wall and opened the access door to the battery compartment. Flames licked up one side of the battery, trying to find fuel in the metal compartment. Allen aimed the fire extinguisher at the base of the fire and pressed the trigger. Nothing happened. Allen was stunned for a moment. He shook the extinguisher and felt nothing. It was empty! He dropped the useless extinguisher and tried to close the compartment door. The door was now too hot to touch, so Allen pushed it closed with his foot, but he couldn’t close the latch. He felt a tickle in his belly as the sub reached the surface and bobbed on the water. Phil opened the hatch, allowing fresh air to mix with the toxic smoke that was rapidly filling the small cabin.

“Leave the fire, Allen! We’ve got to get out of here before we breathe too much of this smoke!”

Phil climbed up through the hatch, temporarily blocking the flow of fresh air as he passed through the opening. Once he was through, Allen handed the emergency kit up through the hatch. As Phil reached in to grab the handle, it slipped from his grasp, tumbling onto Allen’s head and bouncing into the bottle of champagne. Allen caught it, but not before the bottle shattered, spilling champagne down his legs and into the bottom of the sub. Allen handed the kit out again and started climbing through the hatch, but the spreading fire reached the pooling champagne, expanding with a “Whoosh!” through the cabin and up Allen’s legs. The sudden pain from the burning alcohol almost caused Allen to slip back down inside the sub, but Phil saw him falling backward and quickly grabbed his arms. There was little leverage on the outside of the slippery submarine, so Phil struggled to lift Allen out of the burning cabin. In desperation, Allen grabbed Phil’s shirt and pulled himself up, but his legs still hung down in the flames below. Phil struggled futilely for a moment, and then managed to get his knees underneath him and lift Allen the rest of the way through the hatch. He immediately rolled back, letting Allen’s legs flop down into the sea and putting out the flames that still danced along them. Allen clung weakly to the lifting ring on top of the sub as Phil pulled two life jackets out of the emergency kit and put one on each of them. The emergency kit was in a floating plastic box, and Phil quickly activated the distress beacon in the kit, then pulled out two straps that he used to tie Allen and the emergency kit to the sub. Once they were secure, he closed the hatch so that water would not be able to get into the sub and sink it.

“Don’t worry Allen.” He said. “There is a lot of traffic through this part of the gulf and we should be rescued soon. As long as we stay with the sub we’ll be OK.”

Allen didn’t answer. The trauma to his legs from the fire, followed by the shock of the cold seawater, had caused him to go into shock and fall unconscious. Phil tied himself to the sub and sat back to wait, hoping that rescue would come quickly. He tried his cell-phone, but they were far enough out that there was no service. The radio in the sub could be used to call for help, but they hadn’t had a chance to use it before the fire spread. The distress beacon had a shorter range, but the area saw enough ship traffic that someone should pick it up before long. So all Phil could do was wait and hope Allen would survive until rescue came.


Katherine had just arrived back at the apartment when the phone rang. It was John, Allen’s boss.

“Katherine, I have some bad news for you.”


“Allen and Phil took one of our subs out for a test drive today, and they haven’t come back.”

“What! What do you mean they haven’t come back?”

“Well, they left about 9:00 this morning. Usually they finish by 2:00 or so. We figured they might be spending some extra time since this was Allen’s first test drive, so we didn’t panic right away. But they certainly should have been back by now.”

“Oh, no! What can we do?”

“I just called the coast guard. They are sending out a call to all boats in the area to be on the lookout, and they are sending one of their boats out on a search. And I know the route we usually follow on the test drives, so I will be taking the company’s demo sub out to look for them.”

“Can I come with you?”

“I don’t know. There isn’t a lot of room in our sub for extra people.”

“Please? I can’t just sit here by the phone, not knowing.”

“All right. You can come. We leave in about fifteen minutes.”

“I’ll be there.”

John and Katherine searched along the route usually taken when they tested a submarine, travelling along at a depth of about fifteen feet. They went slowly, and John scanned the bottom while Katherine watched above for the telltale shadow of a hull. John took a zigzag route to cover more ground, in case their path deviated from the path taken by Phil and Allen. Every half hour or so, they would surface so that John could use the radio and check in to see if they had returned or if the coast guard had found anything. As it got dark, they approached the canyon where they generally dove to deeper depths. John turned on the powerful sub lights but concluded that they needed to go back for the night.

“Even with the lights, we might miss something in the dark.” He told Katherine. “We need to go back and get some rest.”

Katherine just nodded, with tears flowing down her cheeks. They surfaced and returned to Orca headquarters. John promised to call if they heard anything, and they both returned home to try and get some sleep.

Link to chapter 18

Link to chapter 16


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