Workin’ for the Man

Part of my Bold Moments series of articles. Easily my most satisfying article of the lot as so little was untouched. That and it was a fun process even if the final client was a bit “soft” in the hands.

Growing up in rural Northern California, you would probably best describe me as a “hickie”: a country boy raised by hippie “back-to-the-land” parents from San Francisco. It wasn’t the easiest of cultural divides to bridge. Discussing why Reagan’s Trickle-down economics were a failure for the middle class while you were tossing bales of hay with your neighbors didn’t win any friends and is large part of the reason why I repatriated back to San Francisco.

The one thing I really do miss about my bucolic upbringing was working with my hands and that if something needed fixin’ you fixed it yourself whether it was mending a fence or re-forging a support bracket for the tractor. Lately, I had been feeling a need to get my hands dirty again and in looking around for a project to be part of, I was put in contact with the gang at Five Ton Crane who were building their latest natural wonder: The Nautilus.

If the name Five Ton Crane doesn’t immediately ring a bell, take a stroll down Market Street and hang a right at the Embarcadero. You see that giant silver “Gothic Rocket Ship” parked there? That’s theirs. Also theirs was the “Steampunk Treehouse” from a couple of years back. These two projects that saluted all that was awesome in metalworking were both funded by the Black Rock Arts Foundation to enjoy at Burning Man.

This year, while the number of projects funded was increased, the budget for each was decreased and so massive installations like these just weren’t possible. It appeared that Five Ton Crane would not have a towering piece of art on the Playa. This was until Chris and Amber-Marie Bently (of downtown’s Bently Reserve as well as longtime Burners) heard about it and decided that it was about time that they had a personal land-based version of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus submarine from “10,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. This was something I could get behind and put my shoulder in to.

Staring Down The Beast

As I come in to their industrial wasteland warehouse space, I’m immediately confronted by the hulking mass of the Nautilus. At 25 feet long, 8 feet wide and 12 feet tall, it’s striking, shining like the beached metallic crustacean that it is. Only having heard about the project a short time ago, I missed out on the early planning as well as a “test drive” the day before I arrived.

I talk to Sean Orlando, the project’s artistic lead and he places me under the care of production manager, Cate Boadway. She immediately puts me to work drilling holes for rivets, which are actually just decorative. The entire hull gives off a 19th century appearance of being riveted together, although this magical creature is being assembled with 21st welding—yes, the freakin’ laser beam kind of welding.

The smell of hot, burning metal fills the air as others work to form various parts and smooth the spot welds in the skin as I finish up my session forming two small pieces of metal for the sides.

Unnatural Evolution

Like going back to your hometown after a Walmart moves in, my next trip out to the studio shows me many new changes. While taking photos to document the updates, I go up to the top deck and encounter Sean outfitted in his welding leathers, trying to put the captain’s chair in which I give him a hand setting in place. Once everything is partially in set, Sean sends me back to the tail to hand sand the spot welds so that once the skin is painted, everything will have an even, lustrous yet aged glow.

After some time of sanding, I rest to rebuild my elbow grease reserves and chat with David Shulman who is in charge of operations and electrical design. He explains to me that all of the controls of drivetrain (electronic, pneumatic, mechanical, etc.) need to be moved up top to connect with the steering components and other elements that I had just been helping Sean to put in place.

The kid in a candy shop in David comes out as he tells me what’s going to be making the Nautilus roll. In researching what to build it on, they came across an aircraft tow tractor. You know those four-wheeled things you see dragging jet airplanes around the airport on the tarmac? This is one of those.

  • Tow rating: Airbus A319 (aka 100,000 pounds)
  • Top Speed: 13 mph
  • Fuel: Diesel, but they’re working to convert this over to bio diesel.

With the four wheel drive and copious amounts of slow, lumbering power, they’re of the opinion that it will wheel the Nautilus body around with power to spare. There’s just a lot of work in converting an aircraft tug in to a land-based submarine.

And the Bangs Go On

The canopy is built, controls are fully moved up top, the doors and “iris” bulkheads go in to place, as well as any number of other items with Burning Man approaching. I’m eyeing all the progress while caulking in the welds and seams, so that the Nautilus can be painted. A clear coat is applied to the interior and the exterior gets a coat of rugged gunmetal blue. We wait for the paint to dry.

With the paint set, it’s time for the interior to go in. I work with the interior designer, Bree Hylkema who, with others has been building all the innards for the Nautilus while the metal work has been going on. Her team’s work is amazing as we mount the “library”, the “map room” and the bar. The latter of which is actually set up to work as a fully-functional bar. A variety of mock gauges are placed to fill out the interior and give it that truly submarine-y look as naturally the days get more and more busy.

We test out the sound system nodding in approval at the surround sound in both the interior as well as the exterior. I can only wait to see how well the periscope will work with its night vision abilities for when the driver feels like going stealth and turning off the lights lining the outside of the hull that looks as if Jules Verne and Tron got involved in an intimate relationship.

On my last day at the studio, I walk around and take in the nearly finished Nautilus that is just about to be loaded on to a trailer that they bought especially for terrestrial submarine transportation. What a glorious beast this is going to be as it cruises across the Playa in search of battles and adventures. While I’m a little let down that they didn’t enable the ability to electrify the hull, the end result is ready to take on the world, or at least the desert outside of Reno. The Captain, is in.

Do it Yourself

For those ditching San Francisco to get in a week of partying on the alkali sands of Burning Man, you will most definitely see this bad boy cruising around. Fear not if you’ve missed out on being part of this project as making crazy ideas reality are what gives Burning Man its pulse. Once the decompression parties are over, the planning for the next Burn gets underway. Talk to the Black Rock Arts Foundation if you want to lend a hand to some fun art project bound for Nevada in 2012.