SEARCH FOR CHILE’S FIRST SUBMARINE TO CONTINUE
140-Year-Old Letter Offers New Clues To Flach’s Whereabouts
(March 17, 2007) Three months ago documentary filmmaker Juan Enrique Benítez, working with a team of scientists, historians and Navy divers, took to the waters of Valparaiso Bay in a bid to make history – or at least to uncover it. Their mission: locate the missing Flach, an early submarine prototype (considered Latin America’s first) that in 1866 sank to the harbor floor with 11 crewmembers on board (ST, Dec. 15, 2006).
Going into the five-day, mid-December search Benítez, the driving force behind the odd endeavor, had already dedicated more than a year to the quest. Critics called it a wild goose chase. Nevertheless, the eccentric filmmaker was convinced that the end of his search was finally near. He and his collaborators were finally going to find the elusive Flach.
“I went through a whole series of very, very strong emotions,” Benítez recently told the Santiago Times. “Several times we thought we’d found it. All that adrenaline, thinking ‘I can’t believe it. This is incredible. We’re finally going to find this thing that’s been lost for so long, forgotten by history. We’re going to rescue it and give it the place it deserves in history.’”
For nearly a week the team attempted to do just that. Working in pairs, divers descended over and over again into the Bay’s dark, frigid waters. They made some interesting finds. Six times the divers stumbled upon previously unregistered shipwrecks, among them an ornate the relatively well-preserved 19th century clipper. Aware that the clock was ticking, however, Benítez urged the divers not to waste too much time on the accidental finds. Instead he pleaded with the team to stay focused, to keep looking.
In the end, though, the divers weren’t able to locate the Flach. And, as the fifth and final day of the expensive search came to a close, Benítez was forced to admit defeat.
“When we didn’t find it,” the eccentric sub seeker explained, “I felt a huge sense of frustration, of deep sadness. Alone in my car, at about 6 p.m., I headed back (to Santiago). The last dive had come to an end. All the reporters were calling me, asking me how I was, how I felt. I didn’t want to answer. I wanted time to reflect on it all.”
It was then, during that moment of reflection, that Benítez experienced something of a revelation. Driving alone along Route 68, the gray-haired filmmaker received what he now describes as a direct message from the very man who created the one-of-a-kind submarine: Karl Flach himself.
“The idea (of the message) was that there was no way it would only take me five days to find something so important, in which 11 people died, something that involved such an enormous effort (to build). This search was going to be difficult. Our effort was going to have to somehow measure up to all that... And so I said to myself, ‘go for it. Keep going for it. Stay with it. We’re getting closer.’”
Between 1864 and 1866 Chile and Peru were embroiled in a 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 had 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 11-year-old 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 for nearly a century-and-a-half to Davy Jones’ proverbial locker.
It wasn’t until about a year-and-a-half ago that Benítez first learned about the tragedy – through a man called Salvador Villanueva, a Chilean inventor he met while working on a television program called “De Mentes Geniales” (Ed. note: the title of the program is a Spanish play on words, meaning both ‘Mad Geniuses’ or ‘Of Brilliant Minds’).
“He seemed to me to be a demente genial (a mad genius), someone who would be perfect for the show,” according to Benítez. “Then (Villanueva) said to me, ‘No, there’s something even crazier, even more brilliant that’s located in the middle of Valparaiso Bay. It’s Latin America’s first submarine, which sank 140 years 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 – to set out in search of the sub. The result has been months and months of research, fundraising, 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.”
Now, despite his disappointment over the failed December search, Benítez is ready to try again. With the assured cooperation of the Navy, the Santiago-based Universidad Internacional SEK – which happens to have a department dedicated exclusively to sub-aquatic archeology – and the continued support of its corporate sponsors, the team is preparing to resume the search starting in early April.
This time around Benítez is even more confident they’ll finally locate the missing Flach. For starters, the team will be using twice the number of divers and spending twice the number of days out on the water. They’ve also, through trial and error, improved their search techniques, according to Benítez.
“We’re now going to make corrections, improve and optimize our search,” he said. “First off, the divers are very motivated. Their instructions usually involve things like going down and removing a mine, things that aren’t all that exciting. Now they’re moved by this very historic, very (Jaques) Cousteau-like spirit. They’re hungry.”
The team also comes armed with some new – and potentially valuable – historical clues. Benítez was recently able to acquire a copy of a letter written by the commander of the HMS Leander, a British naval ship that was anchored in Valparaiso Bay on the day the Flach sank. The commander, a man named Michael de Courcy, witnessed the tragedy and, in the letter now in Benítez’ possession, details the exact location the Flach went down.
“This letter is incredible. Incredible,” said Benítez. “I have three pages. There are more. Everything’s written here. The inches, the position, it has everything... and the letter comes with a map and a drawing of the submarine.”
“We’re absolutely convinced,” he added. “The likelihood of finding it now is very high.”
By Benjamin Witte (firstname.lastname@example.org)