Man your submarines! Ready, Set, Race!
It’s summertime, and what better way to beat the heat than to take a dip in the pool. Especially if the pool is more than 3,000 feet long. And especially if you can put on a wet suit, don SCUBA gear, strap yourself into a human-powered undersea vehicle and test yourself against some of the world’s best sub-surface racers.
More than 500 contestants gathered last week at a unique event, the International Submarine Races. Held every other year, the ISR offers teams the chance to build a one or two-person submarine, powered only by human muscle, and race in the controlled test tank waters of the U.S. Navy’s David Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Md.
Most teams are formed by educational institutions — universities and high schools from the U.S. and abroad — with the 2013 races including a family-run home school team.
“The experience they get is so much more than a classroom,” said race director Jerry Rovner. “This is wet and dirty.”
This year’s event – the 12th ISR – included 19 teams, and ran from June 24 through the 28th. Held since 1995 at the Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Carderock facility, the event is closed to the public for security reasons. But, Rovner, a former Navy diver who held the world depth record for saturation diving, noted the controlled conditions in the test tank allow each team to perform the best it can without being affected by winds, currents or weather conditions.
Race facilities are constantly being upgraded. In recent years the video setup has greatly improved, allowing judges, contestants and spectators to see the subs speed underwater and monitor safety conditions. Multiple underwater cameras – handheld and fixed – cover the action, visible on flat panel screens around the pool.
The 100-meter course uses only one end of the vast test tanks at Carderock. Teams don SCUBA gear to handle their boats in the 22-foot-deep pool. A team of Navy divers stands by to handle any safety issue.
The boats are powered solely by human feet. The interior is flooded, with the pilots breathing tank air on board each vessel and looking out windows in the front of the craft.
The subs move through the 22-foot depth of the pool trying to avoid the side walls, following a line of lights lain out on the basin’s floor. Side-to-side lights mark timing points and the end of the course. A net is strung across the basin after finish line. “Before we did that some teams would just keep on going,” Rovner said.
Most boats speed underwater at between five and seven knots. While that might not sound fast for a speedboat, the sleek little craft fairly zoom by spectators standing along the test tank.
Asked if there were any military applications, Rovner smiled. “These boats are small, they’re fast and they’re silent. With a fit driver and a rebreather, they can go for quite a while.”
The boats are submerged by the team, the pilot entering while submerged, and the hatch is put on. Most boats are designed for the pilot’s head to be forward in a prone position.
“When you get in the boat at first it’s claustrophobic. Then I get excited,” said Todd Shipman, a co-lead for the team from Texas A&M University. “It’s uncomfortable and exciting at the same time. You push to the limits.”
The Aggies’ sub, the Rowdy Howdy, was built in 2007, Shipman said. “But we’ve updated and redesigned the systems to improve the boat.” When interviewed midway through the week, the team stood in fourth place, with a best speed of about 5.5 knots.
The team from Oman was taking part in their second ISR. Seven students from Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, along with two faculty advisers, were racing their carbon-fiber boat, the Sultanah II.
Although the team in 2011 included two women, this year’s team was all-male. One race official noted that in 2011, the Omanis requested all swimmers to leave the pool while their two women were in the water. “That was a non-starter,” the official said. But the Omanis have persisted. The team is supported by the university and the Public Authority of Civil Defense Unit, said Jamil Abdo, one of the faculty advisers.
“We want to explore this,” Abdo declared. “This is important for Oman. We have a coastline with 1,500 miles of beach.”
Their craft took about a year to build, he said, and was still being modified. “We just changed the gearing and propeller to get more speed. We’re hoping for better results.”
The Carts Family Homeschool team from Accokeek, Maryland won admiration for using a novel propulsion method, a sort of push-push arrangement of thrusting paddles out the stern of their boat, named Il Calamaro.
Although a bit ungainly and difficult to steer, the craft did indeed move. The first race attempt was aborted when the vessel ran into the tank’s wall — about one in five races is aborted for a variety of reasons — but a second run went much better.
The Ecole de Technologie Supéreure from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, is a perennial contender for fastest boat, and this year’s entry, the Omer 8, was no exception. Toward the end of the day June 26, the team set a new world record, 7.22 knots.
Teams are judged not only for speed, but also for overall performance, innovation, best use of composites, fastest speed by category, efficiency, and the best spirit of the races.
Final results should be announced on the ISR web site.
Race organizers are hoping for more teams to make it to the 2015 event.
“We’d like to see more teams come,” Rovner said.
Take a run through the photos below, shot June 26, 2013 at the midway point of the week-long event.
Latest posts by Christopher P. Cavas (see all)
- A closer look at the “Modified LCS” - December 12, 2014
- Sleek, modern and built on a budget – Denmark’s latest frigate - November 21, 2014
- Dropping The Top – Destroyer MICHAEL MONSOOR Gets A Deckhouse - November 18, 2014