Saturday, December 16, 2006



The Santiago Times
By Benjamin Witte
December 15, 2006

Juan Enrique Benítez shows where he believes
the submarine to be.

Sub Seekers Narrow In On Lost 1866 Prototype
Somewhere below the surface of Valapariso Bay, hidden in the harbor’s dark, frigid waters and half-buried in murky sludge, is a unique 140-year-old object that, for more than a year now, has been filmmaker Juan Enrique Benítez’ consuming obsession.

“I’ve put everything else aside,” said Benítez, a wild-haired, middle-aged man with a real flair for story telling. “It’s been like an addiction. A drug. I feel like this is something very important, although since it’s been there so long, 140 years, nobody believed me at first.”

The addiction, Benitez’ “drug,” is a one-of-a-kind submarine, the first ever designed and built in Latin America. In 1866, just days after its unveiling, the prototypical sub sank precipitously to the ocean floor. Aboard the vessel were its designer, a German immigrant to Chile named Karl Flach, his 11-year-old son and nine other crew members – all of whom were condemned for nearly a century-and-a-half to Davey Jones’ proverbial locker.

For the past year Benítez has worked feverishly with one clear goal in mind, to find the lost submarine and rescue it not only from the depths of Valparaiso Bay, but also, as he claims, from historical obscurity. It appears he’s now closing in on that goal.
Earlier this month, after spending more than a year on detailed preparations, Benítez and his collaborators finally took their search to the water. Those collaborators include maritime historians, a group of highly trained Navy divers and academics from the Santiago-based Universidad Internacional SEK, which happens to have a department dedicated exclusively to sub-aquatic archeology.

Over the course of four days the team scoured Valparaiso harbor using state-of-the-art equipment: high-frequency sonar to detect objects above the ocean floor, a low-frequency depth profiler used to locate objects buried below the muck, and an electromagnetic scanner used for identifying metallic objects. Based on that survey, according to Dean Pedro Pujante of the Unversidad Internacional SEK, the team was able to narrow its search down to 12 specific points of interest.

Among the dozen hot spots is one particularly interesting find, something that shows up in computer-generated images as a type of cone or obelisk, protruding from the harbor floor at a slightly inclined angle. The image, if it in fact turns out to be the missing submarine, corresponds nicely with historical information about how exactly the vessel sank – lodged at an angle, nose first, in the ocean floor.

Between 1864 and 1866 Chile and Peru were embroiled in war with Spain that began when the later seized Peru’s guano-rich Chincha Islands. As part of the war effort, then Chilean President José Joaquín Pérez commissioned the construction of a submarine, only a few of which had ever been built anywhere in the world.
The president’s request actually resulted in two submarine prototypes--one designed and built by a man named Gustavo Heyermann, the other by Flach. Heyermann’s vessel, unfortunately, sank on its maiden voyage. Flach’s sub, however, seemed to work quite well – at least during several days of initial testing.

Designed to protect Valapariso harbor from attack (the Spanish fleet in fact bombarded and leveled the city on Jan. 31, 1866), Flach’s pedal-powered submarine was equipped with two cannons, one built right into the nose of the vessel. Constructed entirely of steel, it was 12.5 meters long, 1.5 meters wide and weighed an estimated 100 tons.

Then, on May 3, 1866, Flach, his son and nine crewmembers boarded the doomed submarine for what would be its final voyage.
Something went horribly wrong, and the heavy machine sank to the ocean floor. Two days later, a diver from the English frigate HSM Leander successfully located Flach’s submarine, reporting that in its fall the vessel had buried itself nose-first in the sediment below. The diver, a man named John Wallace, later drew a picture of the sunken submarine, a picture that in many ways resembles the enigmatic computer image that now has Benítez and his colleagues so excited.

It wasn’t until nearly 140 years, while working on a program called “De Mentes Geniales” (From Brilliant Minds) that Benítez first learned about the tragedy.

“There you have a play on words. Spanish wordplay,” said Benítez. “Dementes (demented people) means crazy. But de mentes geniales means something else. It’s an interesting play on words, because what interested me was looking at Chilean creativity, and new, non-traditional businesses that people here are coming up with.”

While working on the program Benítez met a man named Salvador Villanueva, a Chilean inventor who had constructed a submarine of his own, a sort of winged vehicle used for underwater exploration.
“He seemed to me to be a demente genial (a cool mad man), someone who would be perfect for the show, and I told him so,” said Benítez. “Then he said to me, ‘no, there’s something every crazier, even more brilliant that’s located in the middle of Valparaiso Bay. It’s Latin America’s first submarine, which sank 140 years ago with 11 people on board, and no one has ever looked for it.’”

Benítez, attracted in large part to the sheer madness of it all, decided to do just that – set out in search of the sub. The result has been months and months of research, fund raising, filming, interviewing and, most recently, actual exploration of the bay. He convinced companies like Subaru and Lider to invest. He brought the Chilean Navy on board. At one point he even visited a psychic, to bring in, he said, a paranormal angle to the story.

“The psychic corroborated everything,” said Benítez. “She said to me, ‘I don’t look for objects. I don’t have that ability. I don’t look for trucks, or cargo containers. I don’t look for treasure. And I don’t look for submarines. Because I can’t perceive objects, only people.’ And I said, ‘Inside this submarine there are 11 people who have been dead for 140 years.’ Then she was able to corroborate exactly the same information that we also had; that it was located 50 meters down, that it was near the coastline, etc.”
Next up is what Benítez and his colleagues are calling the visual identification phase, which begins Friday – today. For the next four days, the team – equipped with video cameras – will investigate targeted spots in an attempt to finally locate the missing submarine.

If they do find the sub, Benítez, Pujante and the others are under strict orders from Chile’s Council of National Monuments not to touch or move anything. So far there’s no consensus about what actually will be done with the sub once and if it’s located. Raising it from the ocean floor, furthermore, would be no easy task.
And finally there’s the very delicate question of what should be done with whatever human remains may be found inside. “It’s not an easy subject to deal with,” said Dean Pujante.

No matter what happens, though, Benítez is convinced he and his colleagues have already accomplished an important feat, not only in bringing public attention to this fascinating bit of Chilean history, but also in encouraging a collaboration between the military, civil society, intellectuals and artists. The Flach submarine, after all, is a symbol of Chile, according to Benítez.

“Since Chile was founded it’s boasted certain characteristics, all of which are represented by the Flach submarine,” he said. “First, that immigrants are accepted. Immigrants have been integrated in this country. Second, that this is a country that since the beginning didn’t allow others to step all over it. And third, that we care about creativity and the importance of technological development.”



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