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Submarine Race: Low Drama and Slow Pace

June 19, 1989|STEVE CHAWKINS | Times Staff Writer

It may never gain the mass appeal of, say, celebrity dog paddle or tag-team bird-watching, but there is a certain something about two-person, human-powered submarine racing.

True, it is slow. The fastest of the fast expected at the First Annual International Submarine Races off West Palm Beach, Fla., next weekend will travel perhaps 6 m.p.h. The vessels may be any size or shape and be propelled by any means, as long as it is human-powered and travels submerged.

The sport is, for practical purposes, invisible--a kind of America's Cup for the very shy. But it also inspires a dedication and enthusiasm that goes well below the surface.

"The amount of thrust we got last night astounded us," exclaimed Ben Sheldon, the mastermind of one of three entries from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Sheldon, a 31-year-old ex-commercial diver from Camarillo, has led a team of about a dozen other Cal Poly students in conceiving and building the "Subversion"--a torpedo-shaped gizmo powered by a prone pilot, standard bicycle pedals and a protruding propeller. "Subversion" is one of 19 entries in the Florida race from universities, naval laboratories and ocean engineering firms throughout the country, including six from California.

On a recent gray afternoon, Sheldon and a dozen team members were putting their craft through its paces in the Cal Poly swimming pool. They had worked on it for more than a year, meeting weekly to hash out details of propeller design, fin mechanisms, cost analysis, hull fabrication and more.

Western Instrument, a Ventura offshore engineering company, had put up the bulk of the $25,000 they had spent so far, and offered some consulting services. Meanwhile, Cal Poly psychology majors had advised the group on how to minimize the underwater claustrophobia the pilot and his navigator might suffer. An industrial-engineering major had drawn up a massive project-scheduling chart with hundreds of notations for tasks to be performed. Cyclists from the Cal Poly team had trained with 100-mile rides and underwater workouts, vying for the honor of serving as the ship's pilot--and its engine.

And now, a calm but slightly wavering voice crackled through a pool-side radio hooked to the sub. "I'm not getting any air," it said.

'Real-World' Experience

Sheldon, who like the others had been up all night pondering hydrodynamics, tried to put the best face on the breakdown of his cyclist's elaborate diving mask. "This," he said, "is a lot more real-world than anything we get in school."

Indeed, that's supposed to be the thrill of the exercise, which is sponsored by Florida Atlantic University and the H.A. Perry Foundation, an arm of a Florida-based manufacturer of manned and remotely operated submarines.

Although underwater cameras will chronicle it, the race is meant not as a spectator event but as an opportunity to develop undersea technology, according to Maggie Linskey Merrill, the foundation's director.

Human-powered subs might not be in big demand, but they require an exacting design that might have practical application, she said. For instance, some of the technology created for the race could be used in small, manned subs designed for poking around in shipwrecks or examining the legs of oil rigs. And custom-designed life-support equipment--because the subs are flooded, the crew must wear scuba gear--might also cross new frontiers.

"People think, 'Oh sure, I used to bring my date down to the beach for the submarine races,' but then they really realize that this is very different and very attractive and very challenging, and that it's never been done before," Merrill said. "When we started this, we thought we'd be lucky if we got five vehicles--but we've gotten inquiries from more than 700 people who wanted to compete."

20 Feet Underwater

For a top prize of $5,000, the subs will race head-to-head about 20 feet down over a milelong course shaped like a telephone receiver. One crew member is to steer and monitor scuba gear and air supplies. The other will be working arms, legs or both on whatever mechanism drives the ship. Safety rules require each sub's cockpit to pop open easily, both from within and without.

Entrants range from an individual--a retired fighter pilot named Will Forman, of San Diego--to MIT and the U.S. Naval Academy.

A team from UC Santa Barbara will compete in a 300-gallon aircraft fuel tank donated by the Navy. In contrast to the Cal Poly team, it has spent only $700 on its so-called UCSuB, which is propelled by pedals connected to a drive shaft.

"It doesn't take a lot of expensive equipment to succeed," said Grant Johnson, a visiting lecturer in mechanical engineering who has advised the eight UC Santa Barbara seniors involved in the project.

"Designers always underestimate the torque that can be developed by underwater propulsion systems," he said. "The machine that wins will be the one that holds together."

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