Issue 11.5: October/November 2008

The Mind of the Ancient Mariner

story by Blade Stabwell
photos by Chris McDonough

1966: the height of the Cold War. A B-52 bomber collides with a refueling airplane off the southern coast of Spain, showering debris into the Mediterranean—debris that includes a hydrogen bomb.

1968: the Cold War is as hot as ever. An American submarine carrying critical intelligence coveted by the Soviets goes missing. Months later a Soviet sub carrying critical intelligence coveted by the Americans vanishes. Tensions are high. Answers are needed. At some point in each crisis, some voice of authority must have urgently shouted, “Get me Craven!”

John Piña Craven, that is. The former chief scientist for the Navy’s Special Projects Office, Craven is now 85, and he has lived with his wife, Dorothy, in East Honolulu since 1970. He did indeed locate the sunken hydrogen bomb, and he found the American sub and the Soviet sub, too. But despite his Bond-ish knack for defusing international crises, Craven was actually more engineer than espionage expert during the Cold War; the most critical task he took on was project manager for the development of the Polaris Fleet ballistic missile system. He twice received the US Department of Defense’s highest honor for a civilian, and his accomplishments were detailed in Sherry Sontag’s 1998 book, Blind Man’s Bluff.

But Craven’s mind is restless, and his desire to produce and serve borders on the fanatical. After a career with the military, he helped found the Natural Energy Laboratory on the Big Island, switched to law, became a professor, ran the Law of the Sea Institute and ran for Congress. Today, in his ninth decade, he is bringing together all of his skills, schemes and savvy in service of one of his biggest ideas to date: meeting mankind’s insatiable demand for energy, food and water by pumping cold water from the deep ocean to the surface. It’s a grand and grandiose scheme. His Common Heritage Corp., he tells me, has already done some tests in the Northern Mariana Islands. And then, passionate and a little wild-eyed, his patrician voice even more commanding, he leans in to confide that he thinks he has even
discovered a way to extend life itself.

“Get me Craven!”

        The Sun came up upon the left,
        Out of the sea came he!
        And he shone bright, and on the right
        Went down into the sea.

        — From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,
        by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“I am an ancient mariner,” Craven declares. In this time of global warming, fuel crises and myriad other natural and man-made disasters, Craven interprets Coleridge’s poem not merely as a morality tale of a sailor forced to wear the carcass of the albatross he has killed. For Craven the poem is a cautionary tale entirely relevant to our times: When the albatross is killed, nature wreaks its revenge. Like the ancient mariner, Craven has a warning for mankind—and, he likes to think, a way out.

A quick glance at Craven’s bookshelf turns up copies of The New Yorker and Foreign Affairs; Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth; books on Vietnam, the Roosevelts and Lord Mountbatten; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago; histories by Barbara Tuchman and plays by William Shakespeare. If we are what we read, John Craven is history and adversity, poetry and politics, science and truth, hubris and humility, destiny and fate. And water. Lots of water.

“I am a marine mammal,” Craven confirms, and his life is the proof. He comes from a long line of naval officers, though he can actually trace his Scottish and Protestant roots further back than that, all the way to Oliver Cromwell and the 17th-century English Civil War. Craven was born in Brooklyn in 1924, to James McDougal Craven—the Scot—and Mabel Consuelo Pinna, a Spaniard. It was a coupling that effectively cursed young John in the eyes of his paternal grandfather: For a family that embraced predestination and the Holy Trinity, being anything other than white Anglo-Saxon Protestant was unacceptable. Craven, who is proud of both lineages, notes that the Pinna side (actually Piña; it was Anglicized at Ellis Island) descended from a seafaring clan—“pirates of Moorish blood” who settled in Gibraltar. Craven’s maternal great-grandfather fought with Giuseppe Garibaldi, the famed Italian revolutionary, and his maternal grandfather worked with American labor leader Samuel Gompers.

Craven’s Spanish ancestry, however, kept him from the Naval Academy, which, as he puts it in his 2001 book, The Silent War, did not consider him to have an “Academy-worthy pedigree.” Craven did make it into the Navy, serving as an enlisted man on the battleship USS New Mexico in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He was later commissioned to work as an ensign on nuclear submarines. And he began what would become a lengthy and varied educational career, earning a bachelor’s degree from Cornell, a master’s from Cal-Tech, a doctorate from the University of Iowa and, eventually, a juris doctorate from George Washington University.

Craven’s years working for the Navy echoed the times: They were replete with poker games, cigars and rugged men with names like Lawson “Red” Ramage and Commander “Black Jack” Tomsky. In addition to his work on the Polaris and his investigative projects, Craven had his share of more outlandish projects: work on the construction of underwater habitats called Sea Labs and research on technology that would enable humans to breathe underwater using an oxygen-filled fluid solution.

He worked with legendary men he came to revere, most notably Adm. Hyman Rickover, “the father of the nuclear Navy.” Craven admired Rickover not only for his maritime ingenuity, but also for his maverick personality. Rickover, says Craven, came out of an Orthodox Jewish home and shared a sense of being an outsider. Like Craven, the admiral was “not one of them.”


Craven came to Hawai‘i at the invitation of then-Governor John Burns, another man Craven admired “for his forward-thinking leadership.” He served as Burns’ marine affairs coordinator and later ran marine programs at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa and the Law of the Sea Institute. He even ran for Congress, in the 1976 Democratic primary but lost to businessman Cec Heftel.

In Hawai‘i, Craven again worked on futuristic projects. He experimented with an 85-ton model for a floating city (which was tested in Kane‘ohe Bay with Navy and Air Force support). He was linked to the Glomar Project, a platform ship to be used for deep-sea drilling, and he helped found the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii in 1974. The lab was established just north of Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, with the goal of developing ocean thermal energy conversion, or OTEC, which creates energy by drawing cold water from the bottom of the sea.

The Natural Energy Lab has been a controversial facility, and today Craven expresses frustration that it has not lived up to its promise. The idea was not flawed, he says, just the way it was executed—the promise, he believes, was never truly explored. Failure—system failure—is something that Craven is fascinated and haunted by. He is always looking for it. The hull of an American submarine that imploded in 1963, for example, may well have collapsed, he says, because it had received too much shock testing before deployment. And John F. Kennedy, another Craven hero (they once played bridge together), was ultimately assassinated, Craven believes, because the security guard at the Texas School Book Depository failed to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from getting to the sixth floor.

What of system failures in the world today? Craven is blunt: “We are doing everything wrong.” That includes over-reliance on fossil fuels, probably the largest single reason Craven himself is still a huge believer in using deep-ocean water to create fresh water, irrigate crops, generate electrical energy and air-condition buildings. Very cold and salty water is found deep below the surface, and it comprises most of the volume of the ocean, which covers two-thirds of Earth. Fresh water comes from the condensation created when the cold water travels through pipes in humid climates. That temperature differential can be harnessed to create energy. Air conditioning is fueled by pumping the cold water directly into the systems.

Craven founded the Common Heritage Corp. in 1991 at an age when most people begin settling into retirement. Craven the businessman has not quite had the success of Craven the inventor and oceanographer. But he is as passionate about deep ocean water as he was about submarines. On a four-minute video on YouTube, he explains that water below 600 feet has little biological activity because sunlight cannot reach it. Craven calls this water “an élan vital.” All that humankind needs to harness this inexhaustible life force, he says, is a pipe, a pump and a pond.


Having spent an entire life working with and around water, Craven now believes he may have stumbled on his greatest discovery yet, a true élan vital. He believes he has found a way to extend life through cold-water therapy, and he has become his own test subject. Each night, Craven, who is now 85, applies a cold pack to his stomach for several hours. He drifts into a dreamless sleep, curled into a fetal position. “Next thing you know, I wake up in the morning and feel like Rip Van Winkle,” he says. “My pulse is 65. My blood pressure is 120 over 80. I have no joint pain of any kind. It’s incredible.”

Craven calls the cold-water therapy nothing less than a metamorphosis, a form of hibernation that allows his metabolism to slow the aging process and heal injury. Skeptical? Craven, who usually shuffles slowly around his house, demonstrates that he can instantly convert into purposeful strides. “I’m planning on walking the Honolulu Marathon in December, maybe even running it,” he says.

Craven walks me to the door. Through-out his life, he’s been involved in schemes many would call a little nuts. But perhaps that’s the best thing of all about Craven: He is not afraid to look nuts. He has spent a lifetime coming up with innovative and frequently outlandish ideas, all with a goal to move humanity forward and make the world a saner place. He is not afraid of change—and great change at that—and in the end that could be the most powerful message this ancient mariner has for us.

“Get me Craven!” HH