Submerged in making their subs go
By MARYAN PELLAND
Published March 9, 2007
For the submarine creations, it was trial by water. For the student designers, it was trial by fire.
The chilly springs of Weeki Wachee provided the testing site for four human-powered subs designed by teams from Virginia Tech, Florida Atlantic University and Springstead High School.
For three years running, Weeki Wachee Park has hosted a three-day practice and tuneup session for any team that cares to participate.
Teams have an eye toward an international contest in Bethesda, Md., this summer.
This year, Springstead tested two submarines. One, Sublime, is about 15 years old and has won a boatload of national and international awards, including one for fastest female pilot, last year.
Florida Atlantic's FA U-Boat, also about 15 years old, won the title for fastest speed in 1993, but lost that hold to a Canadian team. FAU will focus on retaking that position at the race in Bethesda.
Virginia Tech's team president, Chris Olien, 20, said the team will begin work on a new high-tech sub next week. Their subs are linked to the shore via computer controls that can assess position and performance on the fly and make corrections.
"We have to stop in Titusville for a new part," Olien said, grinning. "Then, we're going for speed records."
Steve Barton, Springstead High's teacher and adviser, began working with human-powered submarines in the 1990s, He said there are budgets running from about $2,000, like Springstead's, to the $160,000 being spent by a Montreal team.
"We're up against a field of professional engineers and college students. Experience and money. They used to make fun of us, but not anymore," Barton said. "They have semi-pro bike pedalers; we've got Eric (Cosma), a great hockey player - fast. You gotta love him."
Human-powered subs are roughly the size of two kayaks stacked on each other. Hollow, they contain only a bike-type pedal system. There is room at one end for a dive tank air supply and a driver, or propellist.
The propellist reclines, seated, with legs out flat, and has enough room to move his feet and hands to pedal and steer.
No motors allowed.
A clear, Plexiglas hatch provides visibility and an escape route if something goes amiss.
It's all about safety and there has never, at practice or a race, been an injury or a trip to the hospital, Barton said.
Springstead has trounced both Virginia Tech and Florida Atlantic in more than one category. The high school team is also helping a new University of Florida team learn sub building. The high school designers took third overall at last year's internationals, and they see no reason to shoot for less this time around.
Still, ashore at Weeki Wachee, rivalries were on hold while teams tested their subs, offering each other suggestions and admiring various design components.
John Athanason, Weeki Wachee's spokesman, is awed by results he sees at each exhibition.
"Especially our local students," he said. "It's amazing. They design them, build them, then get them moving every time."
Barton said each sub, filled with water, weighs about 2,000 pounds.
"It'd be tough to get 2,000 pounds moving on land. But in water, in a 150-yard run, by foot power alone, they get them going faster than you can run," Barton said.
Tuesday, four craft launched. Three glided smoothly to cruise at 15 feet in the spring as advisers tweaked here, commented there.
The only casualty was Vinnie, a new shark design sub from Springstead. On its maiden voyage, Vinnie hit the water nicely, floating steadily for a few seconds.
Then the bow tilted down, too heavy, according to Barton. A bit more buoyant foam was stuffed in, but the sub was still nose down.
"You can design and build them on land, but you have to put them in the water and then you'll know what you've got and what you have left to do," Barton said.
Athanason said it would be fantastic to host the actual race at Weeki Wachee.
"We offer a unique place. You can see everything underwater from the theater - can't do that anywhere else," he said. "It would be great to see involvement here grow."
Visitors to Weeki Wachee can watch exhibition runs of human-powered submarines at 1 p.m. Thursday after the mermaid show. Park admission is $16.95 for adults and $13.95 kids.