Keepin’ it cool with the International Submarine Races

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.

Contestants ready their human-powered submarines on the "beach" June 26 at the southeast end of the huge David Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Md. The orange sub in the foreground is Phantom 6, from Virginia Tech. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)

Teams prepare to be called for a race. Submarines run one at a time, racing against the clock. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

Wasub 3, in the water at left, was entered by a team from the Technical University of Delft, Netherlands. At right, Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, listens to Kurt Yankaskas, an ONR program officer. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)

Among the improvements this year were additional video monitors around the race course, showing images from underwater cameras. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

The team from the University of Bath, England, checks out their sub, named Menrva. When racing, operators are completely enclosed inside the subs, which are flooded, and breathe air from on-board SCUBA systems. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

Menrva is walked back to the marshaling area after a speed run. Notice that the hatch, open in the previous photo, is closed while the pilot is inside. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

The team from Universidad Vercruzana, Veracruz, Mexico, readies their submarine Arcangello IV. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

The team from Texas A&M University rolls their sub Rowdy Howdy to the water. ( U.S. Navy photo by Devin Pisner)

Aggies from Texas A&M back away from Rowdy Howdy as the sub begins to race. Lying prone, the pilot looks out the craft's clear nose. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

Rowdy Howdy during a speed run on June 26. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

Running along a string of lights that marks the race course, Rowdy Howdy approaches a crossing line indicating the location of underwater timing cameras. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

A member of the Florida Atlantic University team from Boca Raton gives the ok sign as their craft Talon 1 prepares to race. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

Team members from the Carts Family Homeschool ready their submarine Il Calamaro. The unusual propulsion method featured a sort of push-push arrangement projecting from the craft's stern. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

Il Calamaro pulls away from a team member as it starts a race run. The novel propulsion arrangement proved difficult to steer. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

While not a high performer, Il Calamaro drew widespread praise from other contestants for originality of design and the team's willingness to try it. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

Team members from the Ecole de Technologie Superieure in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, hug after an announcement was made that their craft Omer 8 had set a new world speed record for a human-powered submarine of 7.22 knots. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

Each team had a tent set up outside the model basin to work on their submarines. (U.S. Navy photo by Devin Pisner)

Members of the Seacoast race team maneuver their craft Leviathan into its maintenance area. Centered on Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the team drew members from Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire high schools. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

The Seacoast team's Leviathan featured the seal of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on its prow - harkening back to the region's long tradition of submarine building. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

A team member from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida explains features of the Fau-Boat II to some visitors. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

The Fau-Boat II was one of the sleeker craft at the competition. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

Klunder talks to members of the Florida Atlantic University. The Navy doesn't pay for the races, but provides support. Race organizers estimate that over the years, more than 200 team members have gone to work directly or indirectly supporting the maritime industry. (U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams)

Archimede VI from the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal reflects the typically strong designs from the two Quebec teams. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

The 3,200-foot expanse of the David Taylor Model Basin stretches into the distance. The lights stretch out to about the halfway point. The submarine races use only a very small portion of the pool. (Photo by Chris Cavas)

The Navy has hosted the ISR at Carderock since 1995. While off-limits to most spectators, the venue provides ideal conditions to measure each team's true performance. ((U.S. Navy photo by Devin Pisner)

Christopher P. Cavas
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Christopher P. Cavas

If it's on, over, under or around the water, I write about it. Ships and aircraft, units, tactics, leadership, strategies, acquisition, politics, industry. In the USA and around the world.
Christopher P. Cavas
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