Graham Hawkes and the Race to the Bottom of the Sea
Credit: Balint Porneczi / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Graham Hawkes, who is by turns taciturn and didactic, and who speaks in an accent so warped by decades of living in California that a BBC film crew recently asked him where he was from, did not come to submarine engineering out of a romantic attachment to the deep. As a teenager growing up in a colorless London suburb, what he really wanted to do was design aircraft. "I was enamored by the romance of the early days of flight," he says. "When one person in their backyard could build a plane out of string and canvas with two wings and go and fly faster than anybody else."

But without the grades to pursue an aerospace degree, Hawkes settled for engineering and, at 21, took a job making antitank warheads for the British army. It wasn't until he began engineering torpedoes for the Royal Navy that he became interested in subs. "It looked to me like the aerospace industry was years and years ago," Hawkes says, "when one person could make a big difference."

His new enthusiasm coincided with a boom in offshore oil and gas exploration in the early 1970s, and he quickly found a job engineering the Jim suit: a giant magnesium alloy diving suit with articulated joints and hydraulic claws designed for work on deep-sea drilling rigs. Hawkes was charged with improving Jim's depth rating, but when his suggestions to radically overhaul it were rejected, he quit to build a suit of his own. Painted bright yellow, with bulbous arms that resembled mandibles, the Wasp sold well at £500,000 a piece, and in the small world of commercial diving, Hawkes was a success.

Yet from the beginning, he found that world to be a wild frontier where enormous financial stakes and a buccaneering spirit often trumped business ethics. Before the Wasp even went into production, Hawkes' competitors seized a prototype and locked it in a warehouse, where they tried, unsuccessfully, to copy the design. It took two years of legal action to get it back. "I nearly had a nervous breakdown," Hawkes says.

Early on, Hawkes learned to cope with designing around a lack of cash. Unable to afford the glass viewing dome designed for the prototype Wasp, he improvised by using a Pyrex salad bowl he found in a local market. In a Royal Navy testing facility, Hawkes took the Wasp – and its supermarket dome – into a pressure chamber where sea­water was pumped in to reproduce conditions 2,000 feet beneath the surface. As the water pressure slowly increased to 60 atmospheres, the suit and the bowl held up well. But as the test wound down and pressure eased, Hawkes saw the glass crack. Then a piece fell off the inside. It was the kind of failure no diver ever wants to see: If the bowl had failed, Hawkes would have died instantly. But the outer skin held – and he set a record. "I don't remember being that scared about it," he says. "I was just a kid. You do that stuff when you're young."

The risks of piloting a submersible into the ocean's extreme depths are bracingly absolute. Science writer William Broad once compared the water pressure that bears down on a submarine visiting the wreck of the 'Titanic' to the weight of the Empire State Building – if the skyscraper were constructed entirely of lead. But that represents only a fraction of the water pressure at the bottom of the Mariana Trench: The 'Titanic' lies two and a half miles down, less than halfway to Challenger Deep. The submariner whose vessel fails at these depths will have no warning that anything has gone wrong; he and his craft will simply wink out of existence, abruptly crushed into a cloud of sinking debris. "Pressure hulls collapse at the speed of sound. Once that starts, you're inside your own little imploding atomic bomb, and you're gone. You've never said, 'Oh, shit.' Never got the 'oh' out. Your body's jelly before the signal's ever got from the eyes to the brain. Everything's fine, and then you're dead," Hawkes says, and smiles. "Great way to go."