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Do-it-yourself ahoogah

The deep sea is as mysterious as Mars, as dangerous as Everest, and so seductive, writes Kimberly Lisagor, that tinkerers build submarines to probe it.

April 06, 2004|Kimberly Lisagor

Hundreds of feet beneath the Caribbean's aquamarine surface, self-appointed submarine captain Karl Stanley counts the particles in a beam of light.

If he looks up, he'll see the dark silhouettes of hammerheads circling. If he follows the spotlight to its end, he'll see psychedelic tube sponges gripping the sea wall. Instead, the 29-year-old focuses on particles because they help quantify the lifelong fascination with submarines that landed him on this island off the coast of Honduras.

Down there, the water is so clear that his particle count is close to zero. Down there, a man in a submarine feels as if he can see forever.

Not that many are willing to risk the view. This planet's 330 million cubic miles of water remain almost entirely unexplored. And that drives people like Stanley batty -- some so batty that they go into the garage, pull out the wrenches and hacksaws and take matters into their own hands.

Water and Mars

Submarines were invented by a Dutchman in the 1620s, but they had their heyday in the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. It was an era of exploration motivated in no small part by the Cold War. Then-President Lyndon Johnson pushed submarines almost as vigorously as he promoted spacecraft. Between 1965 and 1970, the U.S. built 35 deep submersibles. "The ocean community finally felt as though government was going to provide them with nearly the same level of commitment as it lavished on NASA," says L. Bruce Jones, co-founder of a submarine design and engineering firm in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But by 1970, half the existing submersibles were inactive. Now less than a dozen subs remain in research use, their duties largely taken over by unmanned vehicles.

Tracy Gregg, a University at Buffalo geology professor, says the sub that carried her on her most recent expedition was commissioned by the Navy in 1964. Every component of the original craft has been replaced over the years. Indeed, the U.S. government has not financed a new research submarine in more than 30 years.

Business also has retreated. "The bread and butter of the whole industry used to be offshore oil stuff, and that's been largely replaced by robots," says Stanley. Very few manned oil subs remain, he says. "You can count them on one hand."

Most underwater work, in fact, is now done by remote-operated vehicles that can stay underwater longer and are generally a lot cheaper to use than manned subs. Gone are the days when researchers could work in submarines simply because they enjoyed it, says Peter Auster, science director at the University of Connecticut's National Undersea Research Center. "It's got to be justified to spend the taxpayer's dollar," he says. "You're not doing this for the gee whiz factor."

But the quest for gee whiz remains a powerful motivator.

"If you say you're building a submarine and you're going 300 feet under the ocean, people will look at you very strange," says Jon Wallace, a New Jersey dad and Hewlett-Packard software engineer who studies underwater craft in his spare time. "Down the road there could be a guy building an airplane that he plans to take 20,000 feet in the air, and no one will think anything of it."

For years Wallace poked around New England's waters, breathing with scuba gear and insulated by a wetsuit. Then he started wondering if there might not be a warmer approach.

Research led him to a group of boaters pondering the same question. In 1996, he co-founded PSUBS.org, an online site for people to indulge their fascination with "personal submersibles."

The site archives references, photos, sketches and news about homemade subs, which typically cost about $15,000, are made of high-strength steel and acrylic and carry one or two people to a depth of up to 300 feet. Driven by an electric motor, with a battery propulsion system, they use compressed air tanks to supply enough air to keep someone alive for up to three days.

The FAQ page on the website addresses such common queries as, "Can I use fiberglass as a pressure hull material?" and, "I was wondering how you cut and weld a propane tank."

"Anyone can build a sub to go down in, but if you want to come back up alive, you have to put some thought into it," says Wallace.

About half the discussions on the website have to do with safety, says Pierre Poulin, 32, a process technician for a Canadian plastics finishing company. Poulin started building his own one-man craft early last year and plans to debut it in summer 2005.

"It's very dangerous to build your own sub," he says. "You never know what is going to happen."

After extensive conversations with his online cohorts, Poulin compiled a list of everything that could possibly go wrong and designed his backup systems accordingly. He will carry scuba gear in the cockpit, limit his depth to 30 feet and will not dive without a companion in the water. "If any two things happen, I can still resurface," he says.

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