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Odd craft with an odder tale to tell

New London - Even on the Thames River - where submarines are built at Electric Boat and berthed at the Naval Submarine Base - a submarine-looking vessel moored off Custom House Pier can draw attention.

"Well, that's not something you see every day,'' Antoinette Molinari said Tuesday, looking at Uss Deep Quest, sitting a few hundred feet from the city's Waterfront Park.

Deep Quest, described by its owner John Re as a submersible boat with a machine gun mounted on the bow, was towed into the harbor Monday night by the Coast Guard. Re said he and his wife and two daughters, of East Hampton, N.Y., were heading back to Long Island from Block Island when he lost his seawater pump.

Re, who described himself as a Navy buff, search-and-rescue diver and art dealer, started to tow the ship with a personal watercraft, which he usually pulls along behind the vessel.

"Not a good idea,'' he said.

He said he hit a riptide and fell off the personal watercraft. The 50-year-old Re said he was struck by the forward fins of the vessel just as the Coast Guard came along. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance after the Coast Guard towed his craft into New London.

Barbara Neff, who is in charge of moorings at the pier, couldn't believe a message from the Coast Guard on her answering machine Tuesday morning.

"They said they left a submarine at my mooring,'' she said.

By late Wednesday morning, Re had repaired the water pump and set off for home in Long Island, but not before leaving a wake of questions about his so-called submersible boat.

He claimed the ship was the submersible Deep Quest built in 1967 by Lockheed Corp. and used for scientific and technical testing for the Navy. He said it held the submersible record for 20 years for deepest dive at 8,310 feet and was used in the 1980 movie "Raise the Titanic."

He said he found it rusting on a back lot at Universal Studios in California in 2003. It had been advertised on the Internet on eBay or craigslist.

"One of those,'' he said.

He said he paid too much for it - $70,000 - and shipped it to Galveston, Texas, where he spent three years and nearly $1 million retrofitting it. He sailed it, at a top speed of six knots, from Texas to Long Island. It is no longer a submersible, he said.

He also named the ship the Uss Deep Quest, although the it has nothing to do with commissioned Navy vessels, which all carry the USS prefix, which stands for United States Ship.

But Re's ship is not the real Deep Quest, which holds the depth record. The original is on display at the Navy Undersea Museum in Keyport, Wash.

"This gentleman bought himself a movie prop,'' said Ron Roehmholdt, exhibits chief for Navy Museums Northwest. "He's called us four or five times over the years to ask if we wanted to buy it.''

Newspaper stories have followed Re from Texas to Florida and up the eastern seaboard. In each one, Re says his ship is the one built by Lockheed in 1967.

Roehmholdt said Lockheed could have built the look-alike for the movie, but "it's a not the original. It's a fake.''

But Roehmholdt has no problem with Re's adventure. He said Re's enthusiasm can spur interest in underwater exploration and may point people toward Clive Cussler, an American novelist who has written more than 45 adventures books, which are fictionalized but fascinating accounts of maritime history. One of those books is Raise the Titanic, which was made into the movie.

"Bless his heart. I think it's great someone has such fascination and interest in Deep Quest,'' Roehmholdt said.

"People will ask questions. I think he's a wonderful point of departure for people to learn more."

Even on Wednesday, as he prepared to set out from New London Harbor, Re maintained his ship was built by Lockheed, and he said he has a certificate of authenticity to prove it. He said he had it inspected, and Lockheed told him the welds were by Lockheed and the steel was Navy grade.

"So they want to call it a movie prop, go ahead, call it a movie prop,'' he said. "Can I prove it was the ship that made the historic dives? No. But it's all good."

Oh, and the M1919 Browning .30-caliber machine gun that Re said is a working weapon? The Coast Guard said otherwise.

"It's non-operational,'' said a spokesman for the Coast Guard, whose personnel got a close look at the gun on Monday.

Neff, who is also in charge of the city's annual Sailfest celebration, has invited Re back to New London for the 2011 three-day event. Re said he'll come back and give tours.

"It is what it is. It's a novelty,'' Neff said. "He obviously likes to tell his story, and he likes talking about himself. ... It will be cool to have it here.''

More information on the ship and Re can be found on Re's Web site: www.ussdeepquest.kk5.org.

For information about the real RV Deep Quest and its display see www.hnsa.org/ships/deep.htm and www.history.navy.mil/museums/keyport/index1.htm

k.edgecomb@theday.com

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