The Homemade Submarine

At 350 feet down in a two-man, homemade submarine on our way to 700 feet, the pilot quietly whispered, "Oh, no!" under his breath. It was just loud enough for me to hear from my perch in the aft tower. I paused to gather my composure, which seemingly took several minutes after comprehending the consequences of what he had just said.

"What’s wrong?" I asked within just a few seconds.

"We lost an engine," the sub’s pilot, designer and builder, Karl Stanley, responded from the front tower.

With a calmness that seemed inappropriate given the circumstances and Stanley’s 24 years, he practically bubbled with the exuberance that can come only from an inventor. "We don’t need both propellers – or even one – to rise to the surface," he explained. That reassurance reminded me of his pre-dive lecture and the "eight ways to the surface" segment. One method included flooding the sub and swimming to the surface. This was not my idea of fun from 350 feet below the ocean surface. For that matter, it was not an option as we continued well on the way to depths deeper than the existing free-diving and scuba world depth records. Especially in a sub that was less than two years old and had not yet completed even 70 dives, and only one dive to our intended depth, at that.

A half an hour later, we reached 700 feet in this bright yellow submarine just off the coast of Roatan, Honduras. At that point, the clear blue Carribean turquoise light from the surface practically disappeared into the black nothingness of the deep. We looked out the two-inch thick Lexan starboard porthole (one of seven) into the darkness. We spotted three, motionless pale white crinoid fans (relatives of ancient atars) that inhabit these lonely depths. These five-foot tall plants anchored themselves to the floor with five legs and stood alone in the dingy sand, their stems hoisting thin, lacy fans off the sea floor. The strange-looking sea plants were the only life visible, in stark contrast to the abundant life just under the surface waves. Not much life could be seen this deep.

On the way down, visible life lessened. The teeming Carribean schools of fish disappeared after the first thirty feet or so. Then the multitudes of brightly colored red, orange, green and yellow sponges hanging from the wall through the next sixty feet gradually disappeared, practically at the same rate as the light diminished. At 400 feet, we spotted a fifteen-foot grey bull shark, shockingly longer than our small, two-man submarine. Without any lights outside (or inside) the sub, my eyes adjusted rapidly. At the bottom, we saw bioluminescent fish blinking their lights, looking for mates and food.

Before I got my ride, Stanley had completed just seven dives in the Carribean. He is based out of a new location at the aptly named "Last Chance Resort" in the west end of the island of Roatan, Honduras. Stanley had first started to build his five-and one-half foot wide, 12-foot long sub at age fifteen. Eight years and $18,000 later, Stanley had fulfilled his childhood dream of gliding down through the depths in a submarine. Somehow not surprisingly, he first conceived the idea at age nine while reading a book about Scottish children who saved their town from the Loch Ness monster by chasing the serpent away, using a submarine built out of parts scavenged from a junkyard.

A child prodigy, Stanley built his steel sub without the benefit of math, engineering or physics classes, let alone formal training in welding. "I’d go to bed dreaming of gliding under the surface of the water," he said. "Being there is magical, even though it’s cold and dark." He took only three casual lessons in welding from the supplier of the steel used in the construction of the sub. Other than that, Stanley has no formal education related to construction, or for that matter, design of the sub. Nonetheless, he controls the yaw, pitch and roll of his sub by moving air in and out of six ballast tanks through 18 different valves. He came up with his design after inspecting about 20 other submarines. Stanley has dubbed his sub the "C-Bug," which is short for "Controlled Buoyancy Underwater Glider."

His degree in American Studies from Eckerd College in Saint Petersburg, Florida has no practical relationship to his dream. His only "formal" training came from scuba courses – he is a certified PADI advanced open water diver. Stanley has only had extensive conversations with other sub designers. Otherwise, he is entirely self-taught. Throughout the eight years of his life it took him to build the sub, which he has done entirely by himself, he has painstakingly researched every single aspect of his sub. He carried his devotion so far as to find the brightest color available (to allow rescuers to find him, if necessary). He settled on "sun miracle yellow," a mixture of five parts epoxy to one part yellow, over a primer white, which he effusively tells anyone who will listen.

Stanley finished building his dream in mid-1997 in St. Petersburg, Florida, and took the first few dives alone, true to his entrepreneurial style. When we dove, he had completed just 69 dives overall. Most of his previous dives came after enduring an hour long, five-mile tow on the top of the water off the Florida coast, just to reach the depths his sub could handle. Tired of these long trips on the surface, Stanley found his own paradise in Roatan’s famous undersea walls. These walls reach depths greater than 2,000 feet less than 100 yards off the tropical beaches.

Stanley reports that scientists who have examined his sub estimate that the its "crush depth" is 1,500 feet deep. Will Forman, who designed and tested submersibles for the Navy, thinks Stanley is the first ever to build a gliding sub. "I think it’s a great thing, especially if he survives," said Forman. Forman speaks from experience as a member of the Deep Submersible Pilots Association in San Diego, California. According to Forman, the sub has military applications because it is silent. In addition, Stanley’s depth achievements earned a nod from Forman. "That’s a significant depth," Forman said. "He must be doing something right."

Not all of Stanley’s design, though, has worked. In an early stage, he used two long PVC cylinders to aid the buoyancy of his sub. However, at 200 feet, the cylinders imploded. "The noise was so loud, my first thought was why am I still alive and why is my sub not filling up with water," Stanley said. "The sub was fine, and the cylinders were just an aid, not necessary to bring the sub back to the surface." Stanley no longer uses the cylinders. Stanley comes by this spirit honestly.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut and from a family of Scottish, German and Austrian descent, he personally financed the parts for his sub from part-time jobs while attending Ridgewood High School in New Jersey and then Eckerd College in Florida. Despite his utter lack of training, he used books from his town library to come up with the design.

Stanley built the sub to glide up and down from the depths not using the typical design of a Navy sub. Instead, he attached wings to the sides of the sub that include baffles that alternately hold air and water to help it rise and sink. At the edge of the wings, six scuba tanks (three to each side) provide air to the baffles through stainless steel medical grade tubing. Two electrically powered propellers drive the sub, but they are recent additions (between dives 50 and 60) to the stern portion of the wings. And as I learned from Stanley during the 70th dive, the props are not necessary for the trip.

Nonetheless, when the motor stopped working, I suddenly wished the sub contained a radio or had some other form of contact with the surface. Stanley was nonplused. "We can still descend, and if we want to go faster, we’ll just go in circles with one propeller working," he said calmly.

Stanley’s 3,000-pound steel creation arose from his own perseverance, and he endured not only skeptical looks of his classmates, but also good-natured ribbing from his family. His parents Bill, a management consultant, and Viola, an elementary school teacher, called it "the pipe in the yard." But only his mother has gone for a ride with her son. "My Dad is so claustrophobic that he won’t even look inside it," says Stanley. The small sub makes a sewer drain pipe look big.

The sub is not constructed with luxury in mind, and it takes a contortion-like effort to get inside. Intending it to carry only two passengers, the sub has two, almost three-foot high towers for its occupants with seven, two-inch thick portholes for viewing the sights on the way down. The first tower is situated in the middle of the sub, and the second is well aft, almost at the back. Once you wiggle in, you must lay flat to pull yourself to the rear of the sub and then sit up into the second tower.

However, the back tower was not wide enough to accommodate my shoulders, which were wedged tightly against the sides throughout the one-and-a-half hour dive. With nothing more than a polyester camp chair, the sub is far from comfortable. For good measure to add to the discomfort, once the hatch is bolted, the sub has plenty of humidity (given the tropical temperatures) at the beginning of the dive. Later, the moisture condenses during the dive and drips inside the sub as the outside temperature drops 20 degrees or so upon reaching 700 feet.

What it lacks in comfort, it makes up in wondrous views and a thrilling experience few ever have. At these depths, only a select club of world scientists have had similar opportunities. This club includes members from Scripps Oceanographic Institute in San Diego, California and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Cape Cod, Massachusetts (and, of course, world-famous Jacques Cousteau and Richard Ballard, the discoverer of the Titanic’s resting place)

Being a member of that club is not without its disadvantages, though. As we descended, we bottomed out on the sand and rocks at 650 feet several times, scraping the sea floor. Those sounds alone, amplified by the otherworldly quiet, is enough to strike fear in the stout of heart. As I listened to the noise, it conjured up visions of old submarine movies with subs listing sideways, marooned at the bottom of the ocean as the submariners resign themselves to running out of air. Sensing my fear, Stanley reminded me that the sub is 900 pounds buoyant when the baffles are filled with air from the six tanks on the wings. Just like divers, he can also drop two weights from the sub to aid in ascent. As we continued our dive, he added and vented air from the baffles to control the position of the sub with 700 feet of water overhead. Despite his efforts, we hit a rock outcropping on the ocean floor.

I wondered out loud about the strength of the sub’s quarter-inch steel skin. Stanley quickly explained that it is stiffened by seven three-and-three-quarter inch ribs and there was no reason to worry. During the predive orientation, Stanley proudly showed off a photo of his sub on the night of its departure from Florida to Roatan. The sub had an untimely meeting with the front end of a car that smashed into the trailer carrying it on the way to its shipping port. Stanley beamed like a proud papa bragging about his son’s first bruiser fight while pointing to the picture that showed the sub had won that battle. As I viewed it, the sub bore just a few scratches on its paint, and the front end of a late-model Lincoln Mercury was totaled, almost beyond recognition.

Stanley has much more to brag about. His sub carries a three-and-a-half day supply of oxygen. The sub uses a carbon dioxide rebreather scrubber (using Soda Sorb) to remove the gas created as we breathed. In its totally enclosed environment, the air inside the sub at 700 feet remained the same – one atmosphere – as at the surface. The only pressure change came from the air compression caused by the drop in temperature as the sub went down to 700 feet deep. "Coming up from the depth is the same atmospheric change in terms of pressure as climbing a 150 foot high hill," Stanley reports. For divers, that means that you can still "dive" (in the sub) the day that you leave Roatan. You will not need to worry about absorbing more nitrogen, which would otherwise prevent you from flying if you were diving with a tank.

For $100, you can get the ride of your life to a depth only a few scientists have seen. More than likely given Stanley’s genius, you’ll come back up, too.

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