The once state-of-the-art O’Brien is surprisingly easy to miss for a nearly 300-foot submarine. It forlornly bobs in the wake of passing pleasure craft in water barely deep enough for it to float, somewhat distant from the markets and floating restaurants that make the city’s waterfront popular with tourists.
Named after John Thomond O’Brien, an Irishman who fought in the Chilean Wars of Independence, this retired Chilean submarine-turned-museum was once home to 70 crew and could submerge to a depth of 650 feet with a range of over 10,000 miles.
The O’Brien was built near Glasgow in 1971. It was one of 27 Oberon Class submarines built in Scotland for the navies of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Brazil, and Chile. After decommissioning from the Chilean Navy in 2001, it began a new life as an unlikely static visitor attraction in the decidedly non-naval city of Valdivia, having been gifted to the municipality by the armed forces. It was hoped that the freshwater of Valdivia’s Calle-Calle River would better protect the ageing hull from corrosion than a more fitting saltwater location would have done.
Daily guided tours of the O’Brien are available for small groups of hard hat-wearing tourists. Led by a guide, visitors are invited to enter the world of the ‘70s submariner via two steep ladders. The tour takes in the torpedo rooms, the unfeasibly cramped accommodation, the galley, and the dark and stuffy control and engine rooms of the sub.
As a reminder of the submarine’s European provenance, space-age dials, gauges, buttons, and instrument panels bearing the markers of defunct British engineering companies stick out of the bulkheads of the claustrophobic craft at jaunty angles. Low ceilings frequently remind the unwary visitor why they were presented with hard hats at the beginning of the 40-minute tour.