Locally built submarine surfaces in McIntosh


Tom Fire's submarine was modeled after the Nautilus sub piloted by Capt. Nemo in the 1954 Walt Disney film, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

Dave Schlenker/Staff
Published: Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 at 10:15 a.m.

Land-locked McIntosh is likely one of the last places on Earth anyone would look to find a submarine. Heck, even nearby Orange Lake is more prairie than pond nowadays.

Yet here it is: Nautilus — all 14 feet and 2,000 pounds of her — alongside busy U.S. 441 in front of Marshall Roddy's McIntosh Village Antiques.

"It's unique like McIntosh is unique," notes Beverly Dodder, a member of the town's Historic Preservation Board and a coordinator of its annual 1890s Festival. "I gave directions to someone how to get to McIntosh the other day … I tell them to turn right where the submarine is."

While the two-person submersible — "I call it the Capt. Nemo," said Town Manager/Clerk Debbie Gonano — is fast cruising into the iconic lore of this historic burg, it's been on display here since shortly before Christmas.

Its mission: To replace the long-missed red TARDIS-like British police box that stood outside the antique store for years.

"A lot of people remember the store from the old phone box," Roddy said. But the previous shop owner kept it, and Roddy wanted something similar, a novelty landmark that draws attention to the store and sparks chatter in the community.

"When I saw Tom's sub, I knew it was going to be my phone booth."

Tom is Tom Fire, who built the sub a dozen years ago with the idea of beginning an underwater tour company.

"But it would cost me $50,000 to get it certified to go underwater," he said. The process, he adds, involves sinking the vessel until water pressure begins to crush it.

"So I had to pay them, plus give them another sub that they were going to destroy," Fire said.

So instead of ferrying folks to the depths of local lakes, Fire's Nautilus sat unused for years in the yard of his home near Lowell, dampened only by rain — until Roddy showed up to look at a collection of antique tools and other items in Fire's barn.

"As I pulled up I saw this, this machine," Roddy said. "It caught my interest right away. I knew it was going to be a fun day of pickin'."

An idea is born

Fire, 67, hails from western New York near Buffalo, on the shores of Lake Erie. He said big waters and sailing always fascinated him.

"I was a sailor, in Sea Scouts," he said. "I was always around water, and that's usually what makes a person want to be a sailor or a ship builder."

Obviously, as boy he saw the Walt Disney film "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." Capt. Nemo's Nautilus captured his imagination.

"It was one of my favorite movies," Fire said. The idea of undersea sailing caught his imagination. Yet it was the elegance, the romance of the multi-masted sailing ships of a century ago that snared his heart and pulled him from under the sea.

Over the years, he taught himself to build small-scale replicas of the great sailing ships; he said he even captained a fully rigged, three-masted Clipper ship for a time in the mid-1980s.

Fire's self-taught expertise brought him to the Bounty, the sailing ship built for the 1962 MGM movie "Mutiny on the Bounty" that, for years, was berthed in St. Petersburg. It was deteriorating and in severe need of some T.L.C.

"It's not like building a yacht," he said. "You cut each piece to its approximate dimension, then you chop it down with adzes and axes to fit. You literally hack that ship into the shape it needs to be."

All the old ship builders who originally built the Bounty in 1960 were gone by then, he said. "All the old-timers were dead. They brought some of these guys out of retirement to build that ship."

He was hired, and he lived aboard the Bounty for a month and a half to supervise the refit. He still has chunks of the ship that were "hacked out" for replacement.

The Bounty sank in heavy seas off North Carolina last October as Hurricane Sandy lumbered up the Eastern Seaboard.

And all of his models have been sold off. "It was restaurants that bought them," Fire said. "They would use them in displays."

After a plan to build a fleet of wooden sail-powered fishing craft fell through in the mid-'80s, Fire abandoned ship building for ornamental ironwork and, later, assisted with a renovation of the Vizcaya Museum in Coral Gables.

And still there was the Nautilus to build.

A sub takes shape

Fire said he began building his submarine about 12 years ago, applying his ship building and ironwork expertise to the task. "I always wanted to build it," he added.

It starts with an LP gas tank, which has the tensile strength to withstand increasing pressure under water. Ballast tanks fore and aft, for vertical control, were welded into place.

Add portholes with 1.5-inch-thick bulletproof glass, a 14-volt electric motor, dive and steering controls, a backup hand-crank for the propeller, a snorkel to vent carbon dioxide, a couple of seats and — voila! — it's a mini-sub.

"I had to engineer and machine every piece in her," Fire said. He crafted it to look like Nemo's Nautilus from "20,000 Leagues" because, well, because he could.

"It still is my favorite movie," he said. "I would love to build a half-scale version and live on it."

On a sunny June day in 2005, Fire and several friends tested its seaworthiness in Lake Kerr in the Ocala National Forest. It proved successful, he said. It was the only time it went into water.

When confronted with the costs of certifying it, the mini-Nautilus quickly shifted from undersea craft to lawn ornament.

Already a landmark

It's an expensive lawn ornament, to be sure.

Construction of the craft cost, Fire said, "about $6,000 to $8,000 in materials. Add in my labor, and it'd be maybe $30,000."

There's no telling how much it would cost today, and Roddy isn't saying how much he paid for it. "It was part of a lot of things I bought from Tom," he said. "I don't talk about what I pay for things, but I will say it was worth my while."

And it could be even more worthwhile for the antiques trader — someday. "I've had several offers to buy it," Roddy said. "But I'm not planning to sell it. I'm going to hold onto it for a while."

Which seems just fine with folks in McIntosh.

"Nobody has complained about it, at least not to me," Gonano said. "It's becoming a McIntosh landmark."

"We're a special place," added Roddy, a council member for this small, north Marion County Victorian-era town known for oak trees and antiques. "And this is a special piece in this special place."

Rick Allen can be reached at rick.allen@starbanner.com.

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