News & Politics

Just What Exactly Are Human Submarine Races? (Photos)

We go to a competition in Carderock and find out.

A Navy diver readies a sealed submarine for the race. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

The dark, cavernous space is fascinating enough, but this week what’s going on inside
of it only compounds the intrigue. The 3,000-foot-long watery model basin of the Naval
Surface Warfare Center in Carderock is hosting the International Human-Powered Submarine
Races, which are exactly what the name suggests: small, deep-diving submarines that
are moved through the water only by human power. The humans, one or two to a vessel,
are encapsulated inside for the duration of the race, which goes quickly—still, this
is not a sport for the claustrophobic.

The races began in 1988 in the open sea off the coast of Florida and then California.
But weather and sea conditions were an impediment, so organizers moved the event inside.
The first race at Carderock happened in 1995, and the competition has remained there
because the conditions of the David Taylor Model Basin are considered ideal. The 20
teams, composed of mostly high school and college students, come from all over the
world—as near as Accokeek, Maryland, and as far as Oman. The Accokeek team, according
to organizers, are two families “that got together to design and build a sub. The
15-year-old daughter did the mathematical equations for the design, and her eight-year-old
sister helped build it. Their 16-year-old brother is driving it.”

For all teams, the “challenge,” according to the rule book, is for them to “design,
build, and race a one-or-two-person, human-powered submersible on an underwater course.”
The “mission,” also according to guidelines, is to inspire engineering students, “foster
advances in subsea vehicle hydrodynamic, propulsion, and life-support systems,” and
boost public interest in the challenges of deep-sea exploration.

We visited on Wednesday, and it was, as you might expect, highly techy, spirited,
and compelling. Young people in wetsuits, some wearing or carrying SCUBA equipment,
were both in and on the banks of the basin. Those in the water were helping pilots
climb in and be sealed inside a sub, or positioning a sealed sub for the starting
line. They dive down about 20 to 25 feet and speed—propelled by human-powered propeller
or flippers—to the finish line, where a crew of Navy divers free them from the vessel.
The race course uses only part of the 3,000-foot canal; midway down the course is
a row of tables and computers, monitor screens, judges and officials from the Foundation
for Underwater Research and Education and the International Submarine Races Organization.
The screens broadcast images from underwater cameras and data from underwater sensors.

It’s all very purposeful and intense. Every racer is watched for every second of his
or her race against the clock. Safety is a primary concern, which is why US Navy divers
not only meet each boat at the finish line but also ride above on a large dinghy as
the subs travel the course. The pilots have an air supply from a small SCUBA tank
that is calculated to have enough air for a minimum of one run plus a reserve capacity.
The water, which is tap water, not river water, is quite clear but also cold, about
62 degrees.

How fast do they go? On Wednesday the Canadian team, consistent winners in the competition,
set a new speed record of 7.28 knots, which is substantially higher than the speeds
of a decade ago. The subs are built with funds from private donations and sponsors,
which include a range of ocean and tech corporations who buy in at silver, gold, and
platinum levels. The awards come in eight categories and include best overall performance,
most intelligent innovation, absolute speed, best use of composites, best design,
and “best spirit of the races.” The winners receive plaques and photos and, most important,
bragging rights among an elite corps of student engineers. We would expect that participation
is a strong résumé builder, too, in preparation for the post-grad job hunt.

For more about the David Taylor Model Basin, check out “Behind the Scenes” in the
July issue of The Washingtonian.