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graphic of submarine race

by Thomas Holian

The Naval Surface Warfare Center’s Carderock Division hosted the 9th International Submarine Races (ISR) June 25–29 2007 at the David Taylor Model Basin in Bethesda, Md. The Races, held biannually, feature teams competing in several categories of human-powered submarines including Two Person Propeller, One Person Propeller, and One Person Non-Propeller.

This year’s engineering design and racing competition consisted of 26 human-powered submarines from 22 teams. The teams came from 19 high schools and universities from the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Great Britain, plus three independent teams. The teams raced one at a time as they were ready, combining for more than 250 races down the 100 meter (328 foot) course.

All of the human-powered submarines were “wet” free-flooding designs that required the use of SCUBA (Self-contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) equipment by the pilots. For most of the submarines, the pilot or pilots laid face-forward on their stomachs and provided propulsion with their legs via a cycling motion that drove a transmission attached to shafts and propellers, turbines, or other devices. According to race officials, this year’s races saw an “explosion” of innovative new designs, including “batwing and manta ray-like” power, bird-flight wings, whale tails, and water wheel turbines. A team of high school students from Sparta, N.J., even designed a submarine featuring full-body propulsion that utilized the pilots’ arms and legs. Innovative designs, combined with increased use of computer-aided variable pitch propellers and electronic navigation systems, have driven speeds steadily higher during the 18 years the event has been held.

The highlight of the week came when the two person propeller-driven submarine OMER 5, piloted by Sebastien Brisebois and Joel Brunet of the Ecole de Technologie Superieure at the University of Quebec, broke the human-powered submarine world speed record with a top speed of 8.035 knots. Many human-powered submarine enthusiasts believed the 8-knot barrier to be unbreakable. The previous record of 7.192 knots, set by OMER 4, had stood since 2001.

According to ISR Executive Director Nancy Hussey, support from the U.S. Navy has been integral to the success of the event. ISR participants are granted special access to the restricted-access Carderock installation, and many of the volunteers needed to support the event are Navy personnel based at Carderock and elsewhere. “It is because of the support of the Navy and the wonderful people here at Carderock that this competition has been such a huge success,” she said. “We will continue to provide an opportunity for bright and creative engineering students to apply their skills in a real-time, in-the-water environment. The ISR provides an education in reality for marine technology and ocean engineering students. We are delighted by their ingenuity and anticipate an even bigger competition in 2009.”

Team Submarine is a sponsor for the event and both of the organization’s flag officers spent time at the races. Rear Adm. William Hilarides, Program Executive Officer for Submarines, came away impressed by both the level of technical innovation and the teams’ enthusiasm and passion. “It was great to see these young people gaining real-world submarine design and engineering experience. You can tell each team put a lot of hard work and ingenuity into their subs, and seeing their excitement and expertise on display at Carderock gives me great hope for the future.” Rear Adm. Tom Eccles, then-Commander Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Deputy Commander for Undersea Warfare, and Deputy Commander for Undersea Technology, concurred and added that, “the International Submarine Races showcase what today’s students can do. And the students of today will be the designers and engineers for the Navy of the future. At a time when the Navy is looking to diversify its workforce and build the leaders of tomorrow, those of us who are already a part of Team Submarine are excited to sponsor events like the International Submarine Races in order to encourage our young, gifted engineers to pursue careers that are not only personally satisfying, but also beneficial to their country.”

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Members of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit TWO assist a submarine following its run. Photo by Mike Smith.

The three independent teams at this year’s ISR were joined by student teams from Ecole de Technologie Superieur, (Canada); Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal (Canada); Everett Community College (Wash.); Florida Atlantic University; Hernando County Schools (Fl.); Millersville University (Pa.); Sussex County Technical High School (N.J.); Texas A&M University; University of Bath (G.B.); University of British Columbia (Canada); University of California at San Diego; University of Florida; University of Maryland; University of Michigan; University of Veracruz (Mexico); University of Washington; U.S. Merchant Marine Academy; Virginia Tech University; and Western Washington University.

According to Race Director Jerry Rovner, who has been involved with these races since the second year, the events were first held in the open ocean. The first two races were conducted at Riviera Beach, Fla. The third race was conducted off the shores of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. These first three races each took place over a three-week period, and it required an enormous effort to set up the underwater course offshore. The race in Fort Lauderdale in particular was so massive that it required the combined efforts of Florida Atlantic University, the international submarine race group, the City of Fort Lauderdale, a few other sponsors, and, to assist with safety, two United States Navy mobile diving and salvage reserve units totaling over 70 men all led by Rovner.

After a reorganization between the international submarine race group between the third and fourth races, and with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, the races were moved to the Carderock model basin in an attempt to contain spiraling costs and increase safety and control over the environment. In 1995, the races were a three-day-long event held between Christmas and New Years Day, and after that all races were moved to the summer and were extended to a full week. It is because of the professionalism displayed by the entire ISR staff, according to Rovner, that the Navy has continued to support the races to a greater degree each year.

Rovner is quick to point out that these races could not take place without a tight-knit support team that has been together since 1995, including Nancy Hussey (executive director), Jack Nicewinter (registration), Jim Corry (diving), Claude Brancart (head judge and contestant liaison), Frank Lang (timing and video), Dave Peterson (coordination of outside operations), his wife Sue Peterson (volunteer coordinator), John Hussey (media relations), Dave McGee and Peter Hanway (assistant race directors), and Dan Dozier (Chief of Staff of the Carderock base and a past and current contestant), as well as about 60 other volunteers. In fact, everyone involved in the races is a volunteer – there are no paid positions.

If the races are to grow even more in the coming years, Rovner sees a need for sponsorships and outside funding. “If we could get engineering companies to understand what the Navy has figured out, I believe that sponsorship and funding would become a nonissue,” he said. “Instead of traveling across the country to universities looking for young college students to hire, all they have to do is come to the races every other year and see about 350 engineering students in one place at one time working live on their engineering projects. This would save tens of thousands of dollars in recruiting costs for each company. The United States Navy over the years has already hired around 40 engineers from the races.”

Overall, the 9th International Submarine Races were a great success. The teams combined for over 250 races during the five-day event, and several new world records were set. The 10th Races, scheduled for Summer 2009, are expected to continue the trend of innovation and creativity displayed by bright young students and submarine designers from around the world.

Mr. Holian is an analyst with Alion Science and Technology in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.

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Ecole de Technologie Superieure at the University of Quebec’s OMER 5 broke the human-powered submarine world speed record with a top speed of 8.035 knots. Photo by Mike Smith.