Juan Almeida's Submarine

By Juan Almeida

It was a bright sunny day when Jeff Soffer and his personal assistant Wayne appeared at the Fort. It wasn’t unusual for Jeff to visit Fort Apache Marina given Champion Marine’s proximity to the waterfront landmark.

Jeff was an avid boater, as was his father, Don Soffer and Champion Marine seemed to be a perfect fit for their pastime endeavors. Just prior to this period, Don's family name had been all over national news with his megayacht ‘Monkey Business’ featuring Donna Rice and Gary Hart’s affair. It was the early '90s and business was rocking post-Gulf War.

Jeff used the marina's launching facilities routinely to support his sales business, so it wasn’t unusual for Jeff to appear at the Fort. Except on this occasion Jeff was at the Fort to fill me in on an interesting opportunity involving a character he met at Turnberry Isles, a landmark property that they co-owned with the Rafael Hotel Group.

Jeff wanted me to know that he had met a distinguished gentleman who claimed he owned an 18-passenger Swiss submarine he was looking to off. For whatever reason, Jeff felt that I might be interested. So, soon after providing me with his contact info, I dashed off to Winterthur, Switzerland to tour the facility where the SPT-16 was being completed. Back in those days, I made routine trips to Moscow as part of my business interests with the former Soviet Republic, and making a layover in Zurich was really no trouble at all for me.

Codenamed SPT 16 (Sulzer, Picard, Tourismus –16), it was conceptually developed by the principals of Deep Line AG, a Swiss company formed in or about June 1987, specifically to promote operations of deep-line panoramic views of the great lakes of Switzerland, carrying passengers to lake Lucerne, Geneva and all the others. However, cost overruns as well as time constraints forced the small start-up into bankruptcy. Problem was their ambitious Tour De Lacs project had pre-sold tickets for the dives and were consequently forced to refund ticket purchases following the delays, being that they were unable to deliver on their promises. I quickly sensed an opportunity and began negotiations to purchase the submersible. Given my proximity to the Atlantic Ocean i.e., the Bahamas and the Florida Keys as well as my ownership of Fort Apache Marina, I figured it was a perfect fit. Months later after numerous failed negotiations, I purchased the 33-ton Rolex for a song and a dance and brought it to the US.

The submarine had some design flaws that required attention. One of which was its failed ABS inspection and classification in Europe. To overcome this design flaw, the submarine required a retrofit of its ballast tanks to cure the deficiency. Trouble would appear when, in the case of emergency/evacuation where all passengers might be forced to rush out the rear hatch, a buoyancy deficiency would trigger water to rush down the rear entry compartment and hence into the passenger area.

Shortly after its arrival to the United States, I received a phone call from Bruce Jones of US Submarines on the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state. Bruce Jones was the listing broker for the Swiss conglomerate and had a vested interest in bringing the deep-dive submarine to market. However, unbeknownst to Bruce Jones, Sulzer sold the submarine to Juan Almeida.

Subsequently, feeling obliged, Sulzer communicated the name of its new owner to US Submarines. Bruce then contacted me and explained the deficiencies in detail. He then offered his services to make the necessary corrections. That’s how I came to meet Patrick Lahey and Bruce Jones of US Submarines. Many years later, as in the present, they co-own the prestigious Triton Submarine company just north of Vero Beach, Florida. Patrick Lahey and Bruce Jones are two formidable and world-class gentlemen.

A couple of months after our initial contact and just over a quarter of a million dollars later, the SPT-16 was fully ABS certified and ready to dive off US coastal waters or anywhere else for that matter. And that we did, having lots of fun in the process.

All together, this particular experience introduced me to the realm of underwater adventure. It also became the conduit to my indictment. A novel business idea involving setting up a deep-dive operation in and around US coastal waters contributed to my indictment, no doubt. The submarine in it of itself brought me undue attention. Yet it was not the SPT-16 that was mentioned in the indictment, but rather a Russian military submarine that was at the heart of the multi-count racketeering indictment. Truth be told, it was an old Russian Juliett-class submarine that went from a vodka bar in Helsinki, to a federal task force and then on to film a series of movie productions.

First came the sub-caper indictment followed by Operation Odessa’s documentary film. Then it was the ‘K19: Widow Maker’, starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. The Juliett 484 as she is known, was launched in 1968 by the Russian military. A submarine that inspired fear and envy with the US and its allies. The long, black, cigar-shaped vessel was once powered by gargantuan diesel engines and armed with an arsenal of nuclear missiles pointed towards American shores. But after long periods of deployment, when she surfaced, she found her country torn apart and its once mighty, powerful navy peddling warships as if they there were giant logs of worthless steel/scrap. Needless to say 484 was de-militarized as well as powerless and could only move about by extra-large tow barges. Get the drift? Go figure it out for yourself.

The SPT-16 on the other hand is a contemporary tourist submarine intended to carry 16 passengers on undersea tours to depths as great as 100 meters. The vehicle was built to meet the classification requirements of the American Bureau of Shipping. It was designed by the late oceanographer Dr. Jacques Picard in association with engineers from Sulzer Thermtec and was constructed by Sulzer in Winterthur, Switzerland.

The submersible was completed in late 1990, went to sea trails in February 1991 and subsequently shipped to Fort Lauderdale, Florida where I transferred it to Fort Apache Marina immediately upon its arrival for its refit requirement.

Eventually she would be moored at Safe Harbor’s Marina in Stock Island, Florida where she remained for a great many years pending Coast Guard approval for dives in and around Key West. Citing the Jones Act, the US Coast Guard requested an act of Congress to allow the SPT-16 to operate. An exercise in futility. A beautiful 33-ton Rolex sat in Key West for a number of years before I transferred her back to Boca Raton, Florida where she lives today. Efforts to restore her to her original luster are underway.

Read more about Juan Almeida in our upcoming issue of Véhicule, order here!