Navy Commander Patricio Valenzuela and documentary filmmaker Juan Enrique Benitez
Photo and story by Benjamin Witte
(May 6, 2007) Throughout their year-and-a-half-long quest to find the missing Flach, Chileâ€™s long-lost first submarine, documentary filmmaker Juan Enrique BenÃtez and his collaborators have had to follow just one simple rule: you can look, but you just canâ€™t touch.
Until last week the â€œdonâ€™t touchâ€ rule, mandated by the countryâ€™s National Monuments Council (CMN), was fairly easy to live by. Since first learning about the mysterious submarine â€“ missing since 1866 when it sank in ValparaÃso bay with 11 crew members on board â€“ Benitezâ€™ goal was simply to locate the vessel; to prove to the world that the elusive submarine is more than just a tall tale.
Now, though, the CMN stipulation is proving more than a little uncomfortable for the sub-aquatic explorers. Thatâ€™s because last week Benitez and his team of scientists, academics and Navy divers came across an object that by all accounts promises to be the elusive Flach (ST, April 27).
The only problem is that the apparently cylindrical, metallic object is, unfortunately, buried under approximately 2.5 meters of sediment. Until divers can start digging through that muck, thereâ€™s no way of being absolutely certain what the object may be.
â€œWeâ€™ve come to some conclusions that have us very excited,â€ said Dean Pedro Pujante of the Santiago-based Universidad Internacional SEK. â€œThe shape matches up, the direction itâ€™s facing matches, the depth matches up. All of this leads us to believe that the submarine really is down there. Still, we havenâ€™t been able to confirm it.â€
Pujante, head of the universityâ€™s sub-aquatic archaeology department, joined Benitez and two Navy officials during a press conference held Thursday in Santiago. The event â€“ which happened to mark the 141st anniversary of the Flachâ€™s disappearance â€“ gave the sub seekers an opportunity not only to remark on their recent find, but also to outline their next steps.
â€œIt was exactly on this date â€“ May 3, 1866 â€“ a Thursday just like today, that Karl Flach, his 14-year-old son Heinrich, plus nine additional crew members boarded a cylindrical, metallic ship that was 12.5 meters long and 2.5 meters wide,â€ said Benitez. â€œIt was a notable invention that even Jules Verne, in his famous book â€˜20,000 Leagues under the Sea,â€™ couldnâ€™t have imagined. It was, in other words, an astonishing technological advance for the time.â€
The submarine was commissioned by then-President JosÃ© JoaquÃn PÃ©rez and constructed by a German immigrant to Chile named Karl Flach. Designed to protect ValaparÃso harbor from attack (Chile was at that time engaged in war with Spain) Flachâ€™s pedal-powered submarine was equipped with two cannons, one built right into the nose (ST, Dec. 15, 2006).
The presidentâ€™s request actually resulted in two submarine prototypes. The other was designed and built by a man named Gustavo Heyermann, whose vessel, unfortunately, sank on its maiden voyage. Flachâ€™s sub, in contrast, seemed to work quite well â€“ at least during several days of initial testing.
Then, 141 years ago to the day, Flach, his son and nine other 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, condemning all 11 people to Davey Jonesâ€™ proverbial locker.
BenÃtez stumbled onto the all-but-forgotten story of the Flach in 2005, while working on a documentary television series. Immediately intrigued, the quirky filmmaker began researching the tempting tale. He then teamed up with Pujante and other academics, brought scientists on board and eventually recruited the Chilean Navy to join the search.
Convincing the latter to participate, it turns out, wasnâ€™t such a hard sell â€“ particularly given the historic significance of the war-commissioned vessel.
â€œEverything that happens in the sea if of top interest to us,â€ said Navy Commander Patricio Valenzuela. â€œThe Navy immediately felt the need and obligation to contribute to this project, since in some ways, the Navy owes (Karl Flach). This was a real thing, a historic fact. Historical records tell us that this really took place, that the submarine existed and sank in ValparaÃso Bay.â€
Last December the team took to the waters of ValaparaÃso Bay for their first hands-on search. Navy divers spent five days scouring the harbor floor, all to no avail. Disappointed yet determined to carry on, the team then went back to the drawing board, collected more historic evidence â€“ including a 140-year-old letter written by a British sea captain who witnessed the Flachâ€™s demise (ST, March 17) â€“ and, last month, returned to the Bay.
That second effort appears to have paid off as Benitez, for one, is certain theyâ€™ve finally located the missing sub.
â€œIt meets all the conditions,â€ BenÃtez told the Valparaiso Times last week. â€œItâ€™s at the depth that we expected, it has the width and breadth we believed it to have, itâ€™s metal, cylindrical, and itâ€™s in the area where the submarine (is reported to have) traveledâ€¦ Iâ€™m totally convinced that we found it.â€
The team now begins yet another phase in their ongoing quest. Benitez and his colleagues must next apply to the CMN for permission to actually touch the promising object. They plan to submit their request within the next week. From there the CMN will likely take three-to-four months to process the application, according to Pedro Pujante.
Assuming theyâ€™re given a green light to continue the search, the team â€“ which in this upcoming phase will rely heavily on Pujante and other sub-aquatic archeologists â€“ will then clear off a portion of the sediment using a huge underwater vacuum cleaner.
Benitez can hardly wait. â€œItâ€™s really been just torture, having worked a year-and-half on this, feeling the presence of this notable submarine, and not being able to move even a little bit of sediment in order to figure out with certainty that whatâ€™s down there is this extraordinary technological invention,â€ he said.
By Benjamin WitteÂ email@example.com