Design & Construction of the Nautilus Explorer
Our dream was to build a brand new SOLAS ship specifically designed as a long range luxury diveboat for the discerning and experienced diver. We wanted to provide greatest comfort with the most seakindliness possible. After two years of design work, construction started in earnest in the fall of 1999.
We were extremely fortunate to secure both construction and term financing from the fine folks at Case Credit and Cummins Engines. A building contract for steel fabrication, pipe fitting and mechanical installation was signed with Sylte Shipyard in Maple Ridge, British Columbia and we settled in for what would be 8 months of umm, interesting times.
Our design started out as an 85' aluminum vessel that would be very similar to a west coast seiner (fish boat). At one time, the ship was as big as 122' before being scaled back to 116' with all steel construction. I considered all sorts of different options including a fiberglass 'Westport' hull, high speed catamaran and the refit of a converted aluminum crew boat. In the end, after almost 110 design revisions, we had the plans for the Nautilus Explorer. Dave Fernie, our naval architect deserves huge credit for converting my ideas into one great looking good sea boat (as well as for putting up with all of the design changes).
Our original concept was to accommodate 46 guests in dorm bunk accommodation similar to that found on the overnight boats operating in California. However, after a series of 'twists and turns' we settled on the idea of 24 divers in three different types of staterooms with multiple public areas as well as a hot tub, helideck and places for folks to hide and have their own space. Seakindliness, ventilation, heat, large picture windows and soundproofing were critical concepts throughout the design phase.
In an effort to reduce pitching and rolling as much as possible, a number of different ideas were considered including hydraulic fin stabilizers, 'fish' on stabilizer poles, and an active ride control system. In the end, we decided on a bulbous bow for greater efficiency as well as a reduction in pitch, bilge keels, and a European-designed stability tank mounted on the top deck in lieu of hydraulic fins a.k.a. 'log catchers' (while not often seen in North America, transverse stability tanks are extremely common in Europe and reduce roll by up to 75%).
The construction process involved drawing out the transverse frames (the ones going from side to side) on the floor of the assembly shop and then building them up from steel plate and angles. The frames were then erected on the longitudinal keel (CVK) and held in position while steel plate was attached. I was very surprised to learn how flexible and wobbly steel is until the steel stiffeners are welded on — the welders were able to bend huge steel plates just like 'cheese'. The vessel uses longitudinal stiffening for strength. While classification rules required 3/16 inch plate, I upgraded that to 1/4 inch and later to 5/16 inch for additional fairness and strength — it may not sound like much, but going to 5/16 increased the weight of the hull by 2/3!
A great deal of thought and effort went into making the Nautilus as low maintenance and 'long life' as possible. It's my hope that the vessel will still be going strong 100 years from now (which isn't unreasonable when you see century-old wooden boats still steaming up and down the coast)! All of the steel was wheel abraded (sort of like sandblasting) and primed before delivery to the shipyard. After fabrication, the entire exterior and parts of the interior were then sandblasted to SSPC-6 which gives a kind of a sawtooth profile to the steel surface and then reprimed with a high-zinc paint. Welds were then striped with epoxy paint before the whole vessel received at least 2 coats of epoxy to a thickness of 12 mil. One more tie coat of primer and then 2 coats of topcoat were sprayed on. You can bet that the painters were getting pretty tired by this point! 2 years later, during our most recent refit, the entire exterior received a final sanding and fairing, one more coat of epoxy and then 2 coats of super high gloss urethane — which should get us through at least one more season!
Construction was not without its drama! A fitter working on another boat was thrown to the ground when a steel guard under tension that he was working on let go and whacked him off his scaffolding. Small fires were common at the shipyard as flying sparks from cutting torches landed on oxygen lines with a wee bit of excitement resulting. I became quite concerned at the lack of charged extinguishers at the yard and installed a 'fire station' on the aft deck of the Nautilus. I had no idea how timely this decision was! After launching, an unsupervised welder noticed a pinhole leak on a socket welded pipe connection in the deckhead (a.k.a. ceiling) of a stateroom on the lower deck. Not realizing that the line was charged with diesel fuel and had 30' of head pressure, he fired up his stick welder and was literally blown across the hallway in the resulting bang. He was lucky that he only broke 2 ribs as I would have broken a lot more given the chance. The yard superintendent and I came roaring down the companionway with fire extinguishers to find flames blowing out the doorway of the cabin. We were very lucky that fire seal had been installed in that cabin the day before and helped contain the damage to one burnt-out stateroom. The bad news was the damage to the crew's morale and a 2-week delay in sea trials.
I was kept pretty darned busy throughout the whole project. The shipyard had a crew of between 10 and 20 men working on the boat. To keep our costs down, I acted as the general contractor and worked with the subtrades. I was extremely lucky to have a very tolerant and patient wife given that I would disappear from our apartment early every morning only to reappear late that night covered in grinding dust, paint and assorted muck — and usually juggling at least 3 cell phones! I can say with a certainty that building a boat is not for the faint of heart!
An ocean-going passenger certificate with full ISM, which is the same licence that is issued to the largest cruise ships with all sorts of additional stability, fire and safety requirements needing to be met. A sweet ship that our guests love and one of the highest client repeat ratios in the industry.