In­ter­na­tional bat­tle of hu­man- pow­ered subs

Schools race for un­der­wa­ter glory in the ob­scure event

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By David S. Cloud

CARDE­ROCK, Md. — The sleek black mini- sub­ma­rine ac­cel­er­ated through the wa­ter as the two pilots crammed in­side ped­aled hard, spin­ning the rear pro­pel­ler faster and faster.

“Allez! Allez!” urged Philippe Dupuis, a 25- year- old French­man, who watched on a tele­vi­sion mon­i­tor as un­der­wa­ter cam­eras showed the 14- foot sub he had helped build dis­ap­pear­ing into the murky depths, a trail of bub­bles in its wake.

It was day two of the bi­en­nial In­ter­na­tional Sub­ma­rine Races, the Olympic Games of the ob­scure and some­what geeky sport of hu­man- pow­ered sub rac­ing. Dupuis and his 12- mem­ber stu­dent team from Ecole de Tech­nolo­gie Su­perieure, an en­gi­neer­ing univer­sity in Mon­treal, were gun­ning for the world speed record.

Their sub­ma­rine, Omer 9, hur­tled down the 300- yard course, a dark blur be­neath the emer­ald- green wa­ter un­til it crossed the f in­ish line and bobbed to the sur­face, the pilots pant­ing in ex­haus­tion.

Dupuis’ tan face frowned when their speed ap­peared on the leader board — 6.5 knots, well short of the 8.03knot ( about 9.2 mph) record set in 2007 by a pre­vi­ous team from their school.

A record would have to wait for another run.

“Some chal­lengers are com­ing,” he mut­tered, see­ing one of their big­gest ri­vals, the team from Florida At­lantic Univer­sity, pre­par­ing for its first run.

For a week in June, a mile­long in­door pool the Navy nor­mally uses to test war­ship de­signs be­came a race course for 25 univer­sity and high school teams from Bri­tain, the Nether­lands, New Zealand, Oman, Abu Dhabi and Canada, as well as a dozen from the U. S., com­pet­ing for glory in self- de­signed sub­marines.

The rac­ing subs aren’t wa­ter­proof, so the pilots breathe us­ing scuba tanks while ped­al­ing, usu­ally on bi­cy­cle- like gear sys­tems, down a 300- yard straight­away marked by un­der­wa­ter rope lights.

The one- and two- per­son crafts come in mul­ti­ple shapes and sizes. Some re­sem­ble mis­siles, stream­lined and glossy, bristling with f ins and cov­ered with space- age poly­mers to min­i­mize drag. Some look like gi­gan­tic light­bulbs.

The ves­sel from RheinWaal Univer­sity of Ap­plied Sciences in Ger­many was fit­ted with hor­i­zon­tal fins that moved up and down like a scis­sor- kick­ing swim­mer. Sus­sex Tech­ni­cal En­gi­neer­ing School, a high school in New Jersey, pow­ered its 11foot sub by “wa­ter jet pulse,” like the squid painted in red on its side.

An un­der­wa­ter tim­ing sys­tem recorded the top speed for each run dur­ing a 10- yard seg­ment mid­way down the course. The goal was to get the sub mov­ing at max­i­mum ve­loc­ity en­ter­ing this “speed trap” and then make it to the f in­ish line with­out los­ing con­trol.

That’s con­sid­er­ably harder than it sounds.

Most runs ended with the sub veer­ing wildly off course — hit­ting the bot­tom, bang­ing into the pool walls, or sud­denly go­ing ver­ti­cal and breach­ing the sur­face. Navy divers stood ready to ren­der as­sis­tance.

The com­pe­ti­tion be­gan in 1989 in Riviera Beach, Fla., spon­sored by Florida At­lantic Univer­sity’s depart­ment of ocean en­gi­neer­ing. That first race was won by the U. S. Naval Academy. But ma­neu­ver­ing pedal- pow­ered subs in the open ocean proved diff icult, and bad weather some­times made the task im­pos­si­ble.

So in 1995, the con­test was moved in­doors to the Navy’s David Tay­lor Model Basin, up the Po­tomac River from Washington, where a dim, bar­rel- roofed tun­nel with a chan­nel down the mid­dle holds 51 mil­lion gal­lons of fresh wa­ter. With no cur­rent and no waves rock­ing the subs, top speeds im­me­di­ately jumped.

In ad­di­tion to its 2007 speed record for two- seater subs, Ecole de Tech­nolo­gie Su­perieure set the one- seater mark of 7.28 knots in 2013. It has dom­i­nated the race in re­cent years with tech­nol­ogy that is, well, su­pe­rior.

Omer 9 — so named be­cause it was the ninth sub made by stu­dents from the school — was molded of light­weight basalt f ibers strength­ened with a layer of fiber­glass. It cost more than $ 30,000. A gleam­ing black with blue and white rac­ing stripes, it reeked of speed.

The pro­pel­ler was light­weight alu­minum, with elec­tronic sen­sors that ad­justed the an­gle of the blades as the sub moved. If all went well, the prop would churn most pow­er­fully right be­fore the sub en­tered the tim­ing gates.

The two pilots, Guil­laume Fortin- Mo­quin and Ge­of­frey Le Roy, were small and wiry, with close- cropped beards. In the sub, 2 feet wide at its big­gest point, they lay on their stom­achs, fac­ing in op­po­site direc-

tions, their legs ex­tend­ing down into a well in which the ped­als were lo­cated, their bike- rac­ing shoes locked into clips. Fortin- Mo­quin looked out a small plex­i­glass win­dow in the bow, con­trol­ling the rud­der with a joy­stick, Le Roy faced aft.

“I have noth­ing to do ex­cept to pedal,” said Le Roy af­ter one run. “You are al­ways won­der­ing, ‘ What’s hap­pen­ing. Are we at the fin­ish?’ ”

Since last fall, they had been lift­ing weights and do­ing long train­ing rides on their bikes to get ready. Now, wait­ing for their turn to race, they stayed warm in stylish blue- hooded bathrobes bear­ing the Omer sea horse logo on the back.

Af­ter their slug­gish early run, they had con­nected a long ca­ble from the sub to a lap­top to view a graph show­ing how fast the pro­pel­ler shaft had been turn­ing all the way down the track. Train­ing runs had shown 100 rev­o­lu­tions per minute to be op­ti­mum for reach­ing world- record pace, Dupuis said.

The graph re­vealed they were peak­ing too early. Fortin- Mo­quin and Le Roy de­cided to slow their pace at the start, in hopes of build­ing to max­i­mum rpm mid­way down the course.

As the week of rac­ing pro­ceeded, other teams were gain­ing on them. First, a sub from Texas A& M Univer­sity with only one pi­lot and none of Omer 9’ s high- tech gad­getry posted a time of 5.8 knots. The next day, another one- man sub built by Univer­sity of Washington stu­dents logged a speed of 5.57 knots af­ter a hur­ried trip to a nearby Home De­pot for a re­place­ment pro­pel­ler shaft. A few hours later, that team reached 5.9 knots.

But those the Cana­dian team wor­ried most about were yet to come. It was not un­til the third day of com­pe­ti­tion that Florida At­lantic Univer­sity ven­tured into the wa­ter for the f irst time. Un­known to the Omer pilots, FAU had barely made it to the race at all.

The Florida team had suf­fered set­back af­ter set­back since the last race two years ago. A plan to build a new sub was aban­doned this year af­ter con­struc­tion fell be­hind sched­ule, said Daniel Lu­visi, the team cap­tain.

In­stead, the team pulled an old sub, dubbed FAU-Boat II, out of stor­age, stripped out its ad­vanced elec­tron­ics and brought it to the race with­out much time to prac­tice.

At 16 feet, the blue and red sub was two feet longer than Omer 9 and looked like a threat. Its bow was painted with shark eyes and a mouth full of sharp teeth. On the team’s first at­tempt, how­ever, the hatch popped open un­ex­pect­edly. On the sec­ond, the sub fish­tailed off the start­ing line, gy­rated down the track and hit the wall a few yards short of the f in­ish line, knock­ing off the nose cone.

“I didn’t have con­trol of it,” the team’s pi­lot, 20- year- old Brock Dun­lap, said as he emerged from the wa­ter in his drip­ping wet­suit, look­ing shaken. “We suck.”

Other teams strug­gled even more. Delft Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy from the Nether­lands f it­ted its one­seat sub with an auto- pi­lot but was un­able to post fast times. Another peren­ni­ally tough racer, the Naval Academy, didn’t f ield a team this year. UC San Diego, which has com­peted in the past, didn’t fin­ish build­ing its sub in time.

That left the team from Mon­treal es­sen­tially rac­ing against it­self, chas­ing the elu­sive record.

A few hours af­ter FAU’s crash, Omer 9 reached 6.935 knots af­ter the team switched to smaller tail f ins to re­duce drag. On Thurs­day, it hit 7.2 knots.

“That’s what we want to see,” team mem­ber Pas­cal Seguin yelled as the pilots hit their ped­al­ing peak just as the sub reached the tim­ing gates.

That im­prove­ment, how­ever, still left them more than eight- tenths of a knot short of their goal. The quest for the record would come down to the f inal run on the fi­nal day of the race.

When the mo­ment came, Omer 9 scraped the bot­tom half­way down the course. The record would re­main out of reach.

“We were hop­ing for bet­ter,” said Le Roy, ex­hausted af­ter a week of rac­ing. “But it’s part of the game.”

U. S. Navy

A MON­TREAL TEAM with its pedal- pow­ered mini- sub at the mile- long in­door pool in Mary­land that serves as the race­track for the bi­en­nial event be­gun in 1989.

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