The Submersible Ben Franklin

by John M. MacFarlane 2013

Submersible Ben Franklin

The Submersible Ben Franklin as it appeared newly refurbished outside the Vancouver Maritime Museum. (Photo from the John MacFarlane collection. )

On July 14, 1969, Don Kazimir and five other crew members took a custom–built submersible off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida and set off on a historic underwater mission. On their 30–day expedition, which is believed to still rank as the longest underwater research dive, they drifted silently in the Gulf Stream. The submersible was named the Ben Franklin, for Franklin’s study of the Gulf Stream. In addition to Kazimir, as captain after leaving the Navy, were oceanographers from the British and U.S. navies, a NASA scientist, a Swiss engineer and celebrated inventor Jacques Piccard, who conceived the mission. The team studied the currents and ocean life in the raging underwater river, while inside, they themselves were the experiment. With its eye on space exploration, NASA wanted to test what would happen to mind and body when civilians were confined for a month.

The Ben Franklin was built between 1966 and 1968 at the Giovanola fabrication plant in Monthey, Switzerland by Jacques Piccard and the Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation, then disassembled and shipped to Florida. The vessel was the first submarine to be built to American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) standards. With a design crush depth of 4000 feet (1220 m), it was designed to drift along at neutral buoyancy at depths between 600 and 2000 feet (180–610 m). The 130–ton ship had four external electric propulsion pods, primarily used for attitude trimming. It was powered by lead batteries stored outside the hull. Its length is 48 feet 9 inches (14.9 m), with a beam of 21 feet 6 inches (6.6 m) and a height of 20 feet (6.1 m).

It began its voyage on July 14, 1969, off Palm Beach, Florida, with Piccard as the mission leader. Accompanied by surface support vessels, it resurfaced on August 14, 1,444 miles (2,324 km) away, 300 miles (480 km) south of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

After running aground on a reef in 1971, the Ben Franklin was sold to John Horton, a Vancouver businessman, who was rumored to be preparing it for Arctic Ocean research. The submersible was put in storage in a yard in North Vancouver BC and in December 1999, it was transferred to the Vancouver Maritime Museum. After refurbishment the submersible was placed on display in front of the Museum.

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