Time-sharing condos on the high seas

Future Tense for Feb. 05, 2007

Want to get away from it all? How about an ocean cruise? Oh, you say you're worried about catching a sea sickness? Just this month, Holland America's Volendam cut short a 10-day cruise after 112 passengers shared a less-than-fun-filled vacation and symptoms that included diarrhea and vomiting.

Perhaps you and up to four friends would prefer a solo cruise in your own floating condo.

In May 2002, on PBS Television's Scientific American Frontiers, Dr. Robert “Bob” Ballard briefly floated the idea of creating free-roaming ocean-going condos. He may have talked about the same idea during a “Talk of the Nation/Science Friday” interview in 2004, but I don't have free access to that program's transcript. Anyway, I'm certain Ballard planted the idea in my friend Robin's memory. She still dreams about it five years later.

Living and working underwater is a dream that has tantalized ocean explorers since before Aristotle described a Greek diving bell in the 4th century B.C. Leonardo da Vinci toyed around with the idea, too, and sketched a diving bell that Guglielmo de Lorena actually fabricated and used in 1535. In 1690, Edmund Halley (for whom Halley's comet is named) completed plans for a diving bell capable of remaining submerged for extended periods of time (weighted barrels of air sent down from the surface replenished the oxygen). It even had a window so undersea explorers could look outside.

Self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) appeared in the 1930s, freeing divers from surface air pumps and tethers. Military needs encouraged refinements during World War II, when Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan invented the Aqualung. In the 1950s, Cousteau's film and TV programs, movies like “Frogman” and the old “Sea Hunt” television series all spurred public interest in living on or under the sea. After the International Geophysical Year in 1957, and through the 1960s, many people (both academic and in private industry) tried creating underwater habitats You can read about many of those projects at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Underwater_habitat.

The problem with fixed habitats is that they're stuck in place. After you've gone around the neighborhood once or twice, you've seen it all. Submarines have the opposite problem. You can ride a submarine around the world, but without windows there isn't much to see.

In 1959, Disneyland produced a compromise with “Captain Nemo's Submarine Voyage.” Tourists boarded one of eight “submarines” that drove around a lagoon stocked with live fish, mermaids and other exciting features. I vaguely remember going on this ride. The portholes were very small, but I could see the sub wasn't really under water. The riders were below the surface, but the top third of the sub remained above. These vehicles were what now are called “semi-submersibles.”

(Sad to say, Disneyland shut down this ride in 1998. You can see pictures from one of the last cruises at http://www.perry.com/disney/subs/subs.html.)

Today, tourist submersibles have been around long enough that some now gather rust in shipyards. (See attached photo, rr2_semisubmersible.JPG.) Tourists can book coral-reef cruises on semi-submersibles all around the world. Some schools regularly use them for students' field trips (see attached photo, rr4_home-schooling.jpg). The technology is well understood, but there are two problems with semi-submersibles. First, they tend to be costly because of the propulsion systems. And second, with the center of flotation close to water level, they bob, bounce and rock easily. Seasick passengers aren't likely to book another trip.

Well aware of that problem, shipbuilders improve stability with heavy keels to lower a vessel's vertical center of buoyancy. The streamlined keels also help ship handling.

Oil drillers don't care about streamlining, but they do desire stability. So floating rigs ride on long, mostly submerged, bottom-loaded columns (called spars)..

In 2001, F. Marc de Piolenc suggested using a “spar buoy” design for a free-roaming, floating habitat. At its simplest, this is a vertical cylinder with a lot of ballast loaded in one end. Essentially, the structure is all spar and nothing else.(See the spar buoy habitat floating next to a ship on the attached graphic, rr1_ocean-observatories.jpg.) In fact, a handy builder probably could fashion one out of a 40-foot long shipping container.

“There are some disadvantages to this system, however,” Wayne C. Gramlich, Patri Friedman, and Andrew Houser write at their fascinating website, http://www.seastead.org. “Solar area is very important for PV panels, growing food, heating water, etc, and the tip of the spar doesn't give us much. “We don't have much living volume either, just what's inside the spar. So it's natural to stick a platform on top of the spar, to get a lot more solar area, and make that platform several levels high to get more volume.

“Unfortunately, this makes the structure a little more top-heavy. Now we need more flotation and ballast to compensate. As we add them to the bottom of the spar, it begins to get very long. The point of the spar is to present a thin front to the waves. This means that once you get below the bottom of the waves, it's not really necessary to use a spar shape. We can simply widen out into a larger flotation chamber.

“Combine these observations, and you get our preferred seastead design, which looks somewhat like a dumbbell, possibly with multiple spars:

“Having several pillars is necessary for large seasteads, since you can only project the platform out so far. But for smaller platforms, its easier to just have one spar, since the cantilevering is not as expensive as the multiple spars and connections. This also allows for more modularity. We can build multiple single-spar platforms, and assemble them together to get a multi-spar system.”

You can see multi- and single-sparred designs in the attached graphic, rr5_spar_platforms.jpg

Bob Ballard (of finding the Titanic fame) proposed building a modest ocean habitat that has similarities to De Piolenc's spar buoy idea. Ballard's plan starts with a ballasted spar and then places a somewhat larger habitat on top. Thus, the difference is that the living quarters are on top of the spar rather than on the inside of the spar.

After Ballard mentioned this idea on Scientific American Frontiers, one listener asked, “What is to be gained by living at sea? What about waste and pollution issues at sea? How will the sea condo work? Will it bob up and down, making everyone inside seasick? Is there a mechanism to counter this? What happens to this complex in a major storm?”

Ballard responded: “Living at sea gives people an opportunity to get away from the ever increasing noise and crowding on land which will only get worse with time. Waste and pollution are stored within the floating structure and removed on a regular basis for processing ashore. The floating condo experiences little motion. This is a proven technology that has been used by the oil companies for their offshore platforms for many years now. It is called the 'spar buoy' technology. When a 30-foot wave passes by the structure it will only rise 3 feet.”

Since then, conceptual designers have elaborated on De Piolenc's and Ballard's ideas. More than one has suggested creating “pods” for various functions. They could be linked to create custom-built habitats. You can see one designer's floating conference room in the attached file, rr3_office_pod.jpg, The lower section incorporates a membrane-based water filtration system, waste disposal and Ballard (no relation to Dr. Bob) power cells.

If you have your eye on more luxury, check out Giancarlo Zema Design Group's Jelly-fish 45 at http://www.giancarlozema.com/jelly-page.htm and the Trilobis 65 at http://www.giancarlozema.com/trilobis-page.htm.

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