Saturday, May 5, 2007

Flachback

Under the heading "obscure submarine news" comes word in this week's Santiago Times that the wreck of Latin America's first submarine (and the world's fifth), the Flach, may have been found in the depths of Valparaiso Bay.

The sub was built at the request of Chile's president over 140 years ago to defend the harbour at Valparaiso from the Spanish, with whom Chile was then at war. Perpetuating the stereotype of the eccentric German inventor was Karl Flach, an immigrant to Chile, who answered his new government's call. The twelve-metre-long craft he designed had two cannons on top and one in the front, and was pedal powered. (How the crew dealt with the recoil of a forward interior cannon in what was essentially a submerged tube is something I'd love to know the answer to.)

The Flach performed well during its sea trials, and looked to have a bright future ahead of it. Until 1866, that is, when she sank under mysterious circumstances, taking her crew of eleven, including Flach and his eleven-year-old son, to what was undoubtedly a horrible death at the bottom of the harbour.

Over the following century, the Flach story degraded into nothing more than a quirky footnote of Chilean history, and the location of the sub itself was essentially forgotten. That began to change in 2005, when Chilean documentary filmmaker Juan Enrique Benitez stumbled across the story and decided to spend the next two years of his life scouring Valparaiso Harbour for signs of the Flach. Last week, he and his crew hit what appears to be paydirt when they ran across a submerged metallic object matching the dimensions of the long-lost sub. The next step? Positively identify the wreck and then hopefully bring her to the surface.

What will happen to the remains of her crew, which are expected to be found inside, is less clear.

For the full Santiago Times article on the Flach, click here.

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