FROM ESCAPE TO ESCAPISM
by M.L.Jones and John Donovan
SOLDER OF FORTUNE Magazine June 1980
The scuba diver surfaced a mile offshore in the icy North
Sea waters. As his eyes swept the horizon, searching for his beacon of freedom
- twin flashes from the Danish lightship, Gedser- a violent cramp doubled him
over helplessly. He clung to the makeshift machine he had created, then turned
in what he hoped was the right direction.
As the cramp eased up, he let the machine carry him silently
across the choppy sea. He looked up, navigating by the North Star. finally,
shivering despite his wet suit and the heavy sweater he wore beneath it, he
spotted the Gedser's two flashes winking in the far distance. When the
lightship's crew dragged him and his water-machine aboard, he had been afloat
for nearly five hours. Bernd Boettger's prototype AquaScooter had completed its
first successful test run.
Boettger, a chemical technician, had escaped form East
Germany. his first attempt was unsuccessful. While visiting the beach at
Mecklenburg he noticed the Gedser 15 miles off nearby Gral-Mueritz. the
lightship rides permanent anchor in the North Sea. An excellent swimmer and
former lifeguard, he decided to swim to it. He soon leaned that escaping under
his own power was impossible. The sea was too rough, the water too cold and the
distance too great.
He decided to make a machine that would pull him through the
sea. For eight months Boettger worked, building his prototype but on his first
attempt to test the machine, he was spotted by marine border guards at
Batterhagen, arrested and jailed for three months. Although he was convicted of
an illegal attempt at border crossing, his employment in an essential industry
resulted in a suspended sentence - and he was allowed to remain by the seaside.
Boettger, armed with a fierce set of requirements, began
work on a second machine: the vehicle had to be quiet; it had to pull him under
water; it had to hold enough fuel for the 15-mile journey; it had to work the
The machine took a year to build. After purchasing its 1
1/2-HP scooter motor, he built his water-scooter from scratch. The 22-pound
mini-sub consisted of a fiberglass tank, an engine, a propeller and a
snorkel-equipped breathing unit. The tank had two compartments. One held
approximately seven quarts of fuel, the other the flotation unit and air for
the engine, a muffler for the exhaust and the breathing unit. When the machine
was ready, with a full tank he could count on five hours of movement at
approximately three miles per hour.
Boettger entered the sea at 11:30 p.m. on a starry night in
September 1968 from the beach at Bad Warnemuende, not far from Gral-Mueritz. He
immediately sank to the 1 1/2-foot depth that would allow him to pass marine
border guards manning the coastal watchtower only 1, 000 feet form his entry
point. For an hour he let his machine drag him under the sea. When he saw no
sign of pursuit, he cautiously broke the surface, dropped the 12 1/2 pound
leaded belt he had used for ballast and skimmed across the surface.
Boettger also carried a second belt for provisions. It
contained Vitamin C and a plastic bottle holding a mixture of sugar, chocolate
and milk. A small rubber balloon held 10 ounces of drinking water. On his back,
he carried safety equipment: a rolled-up air mattress and tools for repairs at
For the first hour he remained submerged, occasionally
lifting his head out of the water looking for pursuit - but his departure went
unnoticed and the snorkel was too small to be spotted with searchlights. During
the voyage, he held onto the bottom part of the pipe beneath the scooter, the
propeller screw rotating just in front of his nose.
He swam in total darkness for two hours before spotting the
Gedser's signal. It took him nearly three more hours before he was spotted by
the ship's watch.
"Man's head in water!"
Boettger had made it.
When the news of his successful escape broke in the European
pres, an executive of Rockwell International read about it and became interest
in Boettger's water machine. He contacted a Wet German subsidiary of the
company which gave Boettger the opportunity to begin work on a commercial
version of his AquaScooter.
In 1974, Rockwell halted development and production of the
AquaScooter but the ingenious machine refuses to die. James Taylor brought it
to the United States where he formed AquaScooter Inc. for its distribution and
by the end of January 1978, the first commercial AquaScooter prototype was
successfully tested.AquaScooter's inventor was not so fortunate: in the early
1970s Bernd Boettger died in a diving accident off the coast of Spain.
- M.L. Jones