William's diary of a submarine race

Rivershark goes Washington

Sunday 18 June

And so it begins… After a marathon day of final milling, turning and assembling work on the new propulsion system and a second marathon in the evening getting an impossibly massive stack of gear into an unlikely small crate, Rivershark is packed and ready to go. All 620kg of plywood, dive gear, tools, spares, camping equipment and submarine are boxed up and ready to be shipped. Ashish and Tobi are still shaking their heads that it all fit. We’ll have to take care when opening the bin, as the contents may have shifted during the flight…

Monday 19 June

The truck arrived this morning. Coincidentally, as Facebook chose to remind me this morning, exactly four years to the day that Rivershark last went to Washington! Same crate, same boat, different route. Last time, she travelled via London on a trailer behind my car. This time, a non-descript white truck with “Vladimir” at the wheel turned up quietly (well, as quietly as a 7,5 tonne truck can ever be) on campus, and just as unceremoniously departed, with a crate forklifted aboard to the groaning of suspension elements.

Tuesday 20 June

Then it was time to do a bit of clean up, both in the lab and in the email. There a delightful surprise was confirmed: Volksbank Kleverland has come through at the last minute with a sponsorship offer. They join the Förderverein Campus Cleve and Autohaus Evers as our primary sponsors – thank you to you all!

Wednesday 21 June

An early morning start for four of us today. It’s going to be a long one. The check-in at Delta airlines in Düsseldorf felt like we were in a pick-up bar. Two friendly ladies in airline uniforms chatting us up almost as if they were flirting – an odd charade as an exercise in passenger profiling. Disconcerting, but hey, if that’s the price we have to pay to travel safely, then I don’t mind talking to strangers about submarines!

After a long bumpy airplane ride to Atlanta, we get our first experience of Trump’s America. US Customs and Border Control has never been an inspiring experience, but now they’ve redefined inefficiency. An hour and a half later we’re going through Security again. Airport strip-tease is the new sport of the day. Then sprint across the jungle of Atlanta airport to the connecting flight. Hopefully our luggage had an easier time in Customs.

A short flight on an ancient airplane, and voila. Washington. Dulles Airport. Smooth. Team reunion at baggage reclaim, and off to the rental car company. Here we were in for a shock. I’d forgotten how sparing North American car rental companies are with truth in advertising. The $400 price I’d agreed to online for a two-week booking turned into $1500 by the time they were done adding the minimum insurance and taxes! Too tired and too surprised to care anymore, I begrudgingly traded my long-suffering credit card for the keys to a nondescript Virginia-plated Something-or-Another with wheels.

After that it got better. The motorway was clear in to town (a minor miracle in Washington DC), the hotel was clean (if a little run-down), and dinner at “Social Burger” was excellent, including the Bitburger Radler! Email checked – the submarine is in Washington! All is good.

Thursday 22 June

Breakfast was less good. Well, the bagels were ok, but the coffee – well let’s not talk about that. The important bit is that the submarine is at the airport needs rescuing from the clutches of the US Customs and Border Patrol. A quick email and a phone call to our broker gets that process moving, and some more internet surfing lines up a UHaul truck. Some minor patience is required in traffic, but then we’re off to the airport.

Some juggling of rental cars (to cancel that $1500 silliness) and trucks, and three of us are rummaging through hardware stores looking for supplies and a few tools (where do you buy a ¼ NPT tapping tool in a city you don’t really know? Even the biennial pilgrimage to Home Depot didn’t produce one. Which really had us stumped. Used to be you asked a sales(wo)man in one store for a recommendation to another if (s)he couldn’t sell you what you needed. Free WiFi is apparently the Millenial equivalent. Lowes’ near the airport have the tool you need…

This was the simplest Customs Clearance in my submarine racing history. Dave the broker at JS Connor had the paperwork all waiting for me when we arrived, and we could pop over to KLM to collect the submarine. That was also unsettlingly easy. Five minutes of forklift dance (by the second driver), and the crate was loaded in the back of the UHaul, whose suspension groaned approvingly.

To the campsite and unpack. There had indeed been some shifting of contents during flight, but nothing injured irreparably. Another few hours’ work and Camp Rivershark was set up in a forest on the banks of the mighty Potomac River (Swimming verboten. “Accidentally falling in” = legal grey area).

Saturday 24 June

„Wenn man eine Reise tut, dann kann man was erzählen.“

Adventures in international travel. Nothing quite like it. The team’s stories are blogs in and of themselves. One thought she was going to New York – one broken airplane later, and it’s welcome to Boston. Another: luggage? What luggage? Oh, you mean that bag in Dusseldorf? We’ll send it to your home for you. Heat stroke? Good thing the Greyhound is air conditioned. A Bethesda taxi driver who’d never been to West Bethesda. Hitchhiking in America - pure entertainment. And the #32 bus – always an adventure in pedestrian ecstasy after you get off in the middle of nowhere.

But now we’re all assembled (well almost all – still a few in the air).

The sub on the other hand, is anything but (assembled, that is). The parking lot full of tools and parts was the first clue, but the proverbial hit the fan just before the sun went down, as it became clear that the sub really wasn’t ready to go to the base in the morning. Suddenly feeling the time pressure, the team buckled down and the night shift got started. Surreal, somehow, to be sanding the hull to fit the window and lateral line panels in the dark with a battery powered grinder and a forehead mounted flashlight! By the end of the evening, though, the bbq-powered spurt of energy was enough to convince us all as we went to bed that we’d be able to get the boat ready for delivery the next day.

Saturday 24 June

Sunday 25 June

The birds woke us Sunday morning after the first dry night since we’ve been here. Shame, actually, since it meant that the dusty evidence of our late night sanding was there in the parking lot for every one of the marathon runners to see as they tramped past our worksite out on to the canal towpath. It was fun to watch them shake their heads in disbelief at our underwater bicycle project as they ran off into the distance…

By mid-day the final preparations were done. The hull was fully streamlined, with window and lateral line panels nicely installed and the old (now surplus to requirements) belly hatch buried under a smoothed over layer of body filler. The biomimetic fourple-fin propulsion mechanism was installed and tuned. Mechanical controls connected and working. Ready for the race.

Logistics has been the keyword this competition. Now the 620 kg of sub and kit had to be moved from the campsite to the base. Not nearly the challenge, you’d think, as moving it from Cleves to Washington, but with no forklift to hand, compromises had to be made. Managed to book the last UHaul truck available - just bigger than tiny, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers. By the time Claudio and I had negotiated Washington traffic twice, the clock had raced along so that only half an hour remained to get onto the base. A sudden whirlwind of activity overtook the team and the parking lot, and twenty minutes later, we were pulling through the back gate of the base with ten minutes to spare. Another whirlwind appeared, and suddenly Camp Rivershark was in place on literally the nicest site available (it’s nice to be among old friends who reserve stuff for you!), among the trees outside the David Taylor Model Basin. Now the racing can begin.

Well, yes, but first we have to survive The Briefing. Here we learned all about the various things we’re not allowed to do on a US Navy base, including not seeing the “element of air defence of the city of Washington” (we can’t tell you what it is, but google will be happy to show it to you…). The lecture included a warning not to engage in frat-boy shenanigans, lest some pistol packing federal policeman be tempted to cart us off to the brig in handcuffs. We learned that parking tickets on the base cost $250 to settle. We were introduced to the race itself, the timing system, diving operations, the scoring, the Queue, and where we can and cannot run or go barefoot. A lot to take in, but we got the message.

Then we got treated to the Pep Talk. We learned that former ISR races have some pretty spectacular CVs - one was even an Astronaut! Lots of opportunities to network, to get careers started. Most of it focused on US citizens, but plenty of international opportunities as well. “Who’s a winner?” we were asked. “What are your goals for the week?” Fastest female non-propeller time. That’s one of ours. Innovation - that’s our forte, and we’re hungry for it again. Apparently we’re also in it to finish classy. With flair.

The team blagged a hotel shuttle along with Bath to a beer garden in Rockville. Claudio and I returned the UHaul - Adventures in Moving, they said - well even returning the truck was an adventure, as there was no room in their lot. We ended up parking it on the grass surrounded by a sea of white and orange trucks likewise parked helter skelter over their property. It took a few tries after that to find the restaurant and rejoin the team (it’s on N Washington St. No, wait, it’s Beall avenue. Sorry, actually it’s on Main St…). Kitchen was closed by then, but the cider was nice.

Sunday 25 June

Monday 26 June

Now it’s finally time. Today’s goal: the qualification checks. The sub’s gotta pass the “dry check” - scrutineering by the judges before it gets wet to ensure all systems are compliant with the design rules, then the “wet check” where crucial safety systems have to be demonstrated to a judge underwater. Confident that our sub is ready for both, we head off to the base.

After some minor difficulties, including one team member found lost on the side of the road and three more in a police car (what happens in Washington, stays in Washington…), we all got through the front gate security and up to Camp Rivershark. Our lovely tiger shark was waiting there happily grinning in the sun.

Dry check. Harder than you might think. The final reassembly was straightforward, but then we went through the rules carefully one last time. A few oversights had to be corrected (all wing tips have to be painted orange. Also the shoes…), and we had one task left, to place the two (surprise new rule this year) strobe lights, which meant drilling new holes in the hull :-( and adding the new sponsors’ logos :-)

By mid day, we were ready. Call the judges. Excitement building in the camp. Will we make it? What picaune bits of silliness will they choose to fail us on? Surely our beautiful boat is ready to go?

Well, turns out we did forget one thing. The straps on the pedals had to be painted orange. No problems - spray can fixed that quick.

But… Then they asked about our sensor systems. And it all ground to a halt.

The Sonar….

The sonar is apparently a Big Hairy Deal. We’ve been going back and forth with the judges all winter about it, but it all got unclear after a US Navy doctor got involved. There’s been a lot of discussion behind the scenes, which we have only now just been made party to. Apparently there’s even been some new secret research done by the Navy which has raised some concerns about high-frequency sonar in extreme conditions, and in particular on the causes of whale strandings which have potentially been the result of sonar-animal interactions. The power of those sonars is much higher than our little machine, but everybody’s worried.

Simple solution: the sonar is disqualified. For now. The saga continues.

Never mind. The show goes on. Dry check otherwise passed, it’s time to load the boat and dress the divers. Off to the basin and onto the lift. After our diver safety checks on the lift, we descend with our Rivershark into the depths (well, ok, three feet, but still, that water is cold!). Then off the lift will full BCDs and regs in mouths. The boat was a little heavier than we expected, but an idle Omer diver lent us a quick hand and we settled the boat down to the bottom gracefully.

Wet check. Let’s practice first. Always a good idea, right? So down we go, test the emergency buoy. Works first time. Good. Check. Now the pilot. Tobi brings Alam to the bottom, and he steps into the sub. Idea is, get feet in the pedals, close the hatch, then practice the signals, test the buoy again, open the hatch from the inside, and get out. All practice. At least, that was the plan. Unbeknown to the rest of the team, and in particular to Alam the pilot in his machine, I had been replaced at the signalling station by the judge. So Alam just dutifully followed the judge’s instructions. All ok. The confusion started when I simply took him to the surface after the “practice”. Only once we could talk again, could I explain to everyone that we had just passed the wet check!



Now we’re qualified to race!

We were out of time, however. The hard part now was to get the submarine up from the bottom. Remember it was heavy on its way down. So we dragged down all of the foam we had available, but it still wasn’t enough. The boat stayed stuck on the bottom. We could have lifted her on our BCDs, but that’s a risky manoeuvre which requires really experienced divers to do, and we’re not that experienced (yet). So instead, we “anchored” the boat to the surface with a 20 litre chunk of foam, and hauled her up. Like weighing the anchor on a fishboat, but upside down! Very odd, but hey it worked. What’s that saying? Necessity is the mother of invention!

Our foam anchor was not the strangest sight at the races, by a long shot. Our Camp Rivershark is right next to Umptysquatch, a high school team from New Jersey who have taken part in every race since the turn of the century. Their fabulously creative submarine this year is a jet-propelled device painted up like a giant ice-cream cone, complete with a cherry on top!

As we left the base and headed off for a Starbucks and a pizza, we were feeling good about our progress. We’re ready to race tomorrow!

Monday 26 June

Tuesday 27 June

Frustration. That’s the word for it. Simple things should be simple, but often in life (and in submarine racing) they just aren’t. Buoyancy. Simple concept. Displaced volume equals weight. Foam and cork go up; fibreglass, aluminum, steel and lead go down. Really shouldn’t be hard, but it’s the bugbear every year for every team. Maybe it’s because it’s mathematically so easy that teams just don’t consider it. Whatever the reason, it got us today.

The day started out really well. All on to the base in a three-pass delivery with Goliath, our little red rental car. Alam and Leonie went straight to the captains’ meeting while the others got stuck into sticking foam to the inside of the boat. A foam bulkhead behind the sonar in the bow, and a layer of foam all along the top of the hull. That was the plan. Stymied by all the wrong glue. Finally though, by mid morning a biomimetic solution had been found: velcro! (that, and plenty of cable ties and duct tape…). The team were confident now that the boat would float.

Meanwhile, the discussions continued about the sonar. Yesterday, the final decision had been that it would be allowed, particularly as there was nothing in the rules that forbade it. Then at the very end of the day, word came from the Navy medical officer that no it wouldn’t. This morning the negotiations continued. Delicately. Lots of scientific opinion went both ways. Frustrating that he couldn’t share the data that bothered him from the classified research the Navy has been conducting. He was as good as he could be without losing his security clearance, and I have to respect that. Still. The scientist in me was screaming inside for knowledge, but I bit my tongue and accepted the uneven playing field. My argument is that the sonar emits a signal very similar in amplitude and beam pattern to the echolocation clicks of a dolphin, and nobody is considering banning dolphins. In the end, we came to a compromise of “give it a try once, then we’ll reevaluate”. That will work for us.

Frustration started to set in as the team got the submarine to the bottom. Moving foam around the boat on the bottom, trying to “catch the trim” as submariners say, was a lot harder than anyone expected. Underwater work is hard enough, and the added stress of the race time pressure just pushed everyone to the limits. In the end, the team had to surface as air supplies ran low and the clock demanded that the team go give its design presentation. Rivershark stayed on the bottom with a bunch of weights anchoring her to the ground. Divers returned to the surface in a somber mood, and frustration threatened to pull the team apart.

Alam, Claudio and I left the camp and gathered at the judges’ room. The presentation was a simple one, and went well. The judges were excited about our automation, and in particular about Claudio’s new lateral line sensor.

After lunch, presentation and air refills, we went back down to our submarine. Forlorn on the bottom. Seemingly as frustrated as we were. Things started quickly to look up though. The morning team had got really very close, and it only took me another patient forty five minutes to get the last of the foam properly distributed. Meanwhile, Sören and Toni worked with Leonie to get her neutrally buoyant on the bottom.

Then it was time for some test runs. We inserted Leonie and shut the hatch. The boys held the boat in the shadows by the tank wall, and I gave her the universal underwater signal for “start pedalling” (rotating fists in a motion mimicking a bicycle crank). Off she went. And went she did! Flying flat and straight. And fast. I had to chase hard. At one point I had to grab the submarine by the hatch handle and ride it like an outa control horse, pounding on the sides to get her attention, and finally popping the hatch to get her to stop before we crossed the starting line and got into big trouble.


We are ready to race! The clock has run out for today, but we’ll be ready first thing in the morning.

Tuesday 27 June

Wednesday 28 June

Today’s the day. We can feel it. Shuttle to the base (half hour later due to construction), and let’s get going.

First things first. The Team Picture. Staring (squinting) into the sun. Putting our best side forward.

Then let’s get the boat going. First, glue in the bags of foam we so carefully packed out of the submarine last night. Some we glued in, some got velcroed, and the tiny bits we gathered into plastic bags and glued those in at the various locations they came from yesterday. Sounds hokey, but the solution works and gives us the flexibility to move foam around to catch the trim again if anything changes over the next few days.

While half the team worked to get the buoyancy sorted, the mechatronics team got stuck into testing the waterproof boxes. Finally the o-rings held and we could declare them all ready for their electronics.

Then off to the queue and into the water. To our relief, the boat was still as neutrally buoyant as we’d left her the night before. Leonie too. So now we’re ready to race.



Rivershark, lock and load!

The call we’ve been waiting for! We swam the boat to the starting line and set her up. Leonie dropped her gear and walked (bizarre for a diver!) the last few steps to the boat. The extra long regulator hose gave her the flexibility to move while she set up the cockpit. Then she swapped regs and climbed in. We locked the hatch above her, and she was ready to go. A quick pop to the surface to let Cory know, and then the sweet sound of the pings. Rivershark, Rivershark, Rivershark, Go, Go, Go!

Off she went. From our perspective, she looked good. Straight line out into the murk, flying true down the centre line. Underwater shouts of celebration travelled in our bubbles to the surface. We’re finally racing!

But out on the course, it was different. The boat was moving faster now than any of the team, including her pilot, had ever been. Leonie did her best, and managed to trim the pitch, but the simultaneous yaw control and tracking the midline through the tiny window were too much for her, and she veered off and slammed into the wall.

So we went back into the queue and waited. Patience is the name of the submarine game. With 22 boats running, and two thirds of those in the queue ready to race, the organisation of the ISR is a spectacular thing to behold. The continuous adjustment of the queue, though a frustration sometimes, means that everybody does get a fair shot at racing.

Our time finally came, just before lunch. The boys brought the sub to the starting line, and we trialled a new pilot delivery concept. The idea was that I should take Leonie down, with her breathing on my spare regulator. Looks simple when other teams do it. How hard can that be? Turns out it’s harder than it looks. Especially if you haven’t got enough weight to sink yourself and the fabulously “neutrally buoyant at 6m” human surface marker buoy with you. Harumpf. Couldn’t get off the surface. Pulled out of the queue and let Washington go by us. Seven extra kilos of weights solved the problem though.

Cory, Rivershark is ready to race!

Leonie ready on the start line. Boat lined up flat in pitch and straight down the course. The beeps came, then the go signal, and she was off. Pumping those fins hard. Flew straight down the course and through the timing gates. Clocked at 1,85kts. Pretty impressive! But just out of the timing gates, she lost control again and found the left hand wall. No damage, but the incomplete run does mean the time doesn’t count.

Never mind, back into the queue. The support divers were exhausted after six hours in the water, so it was time to change out. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough crew, but fortunately for us, there were a bunch of divers available from the Mexican team next door, who happily volunteered to join our team. Language was going to be a challenge, but with their limited English and our limited Spanish, we figured it would work just fine, especially once they moved underwater, where spoken language no longer matters.

Our start was delayed by a tangled safety buoy line which eventually I had to wade knee deep into the water on the beach to fix. It was properly tangled, and I had to pull it completely out of the boat to repair it. Rivershark, you ready to race? Five minutes!

Now it was Alam’s turn to have a go. He’d been banned from diving in the morning for an inadvertent breach yesterday of the safety rules (these things happen). Now he was dressed again and itching to run. The multinational team lined him on the bottom, and off he went. He started out ok, but then immediately started to rise. A sign the air wasn’t escaping the hull properly. We’ll have to drill some new holes tonight. He got through the first timing gate alright, but all we saw of him on the second timing gate camera was the lowest tip of the lower mirage drive fins. It was enough though to measure a speed: 1,45 kts. It won’t count, but we’re happy with the performance. Once we get control under control, we’ll be away.


Burgers and pizza for dinner, followed by a long soul-searching meeting around the picnic tables in camp. We’re going to have to abandon some goals. Time and gremlins are just not working in our favour. It’s looking like we’ll have to give up on the mechatronics - the seals just aren’t working. We’ll have to finish the competition on the manual steering. But we’ll still try to get the sensor systems working and feed that back to the pilots via the tablet computer and its glass cockpit.

Wednesday 28 June

Thursday 29 June

Power start this morning. Through the gate in record time, then on to Camp Rivershark. The submarine was ready immediately to race. The whole race took a break to do some group photographs, then into the queue. First in the water, fourth in the race queue. Sometimes it works like that. The race supervisor reworks the queue continuously to balance out the performance, speed on the start line, and numbers of starts, of each boat. Nobody understands how he does it, but there are very rarely any complaints. Certainly not from us.

Fourth to go. The team lined up Alam on the starting line and sent him off. He looked good disappearing into the distance, but then it was clear he was having trouble controlling the pitch. Pilot induced error, it’s called. Starts off slowly, but with each correction, the oscillations get bigger, until finally control is lost. That’s what happened to Alam. His final correction was to avoid the floor suddenly looming up at him - his hard pull on the elevators saved the crash alright, but it sent him rocketing to the surface. Bleep, bleep, wait for Navy, wait for Navy. Sigh. Back to the queue.

Meanwhile ashore, the mechatronics team has been continuing their efforts to make the sensors and motors all work together. The system worked fine on the bench, but readying it for integration into the submarine has been harder. Simple things like USB cables just aren’t when you have to plug them in underwater.

Rivershark, lock and load.



Down goes the team, swimming our gorgeous tiger shark to the starting line. Alam drops his scuba gear, swaps his reg for the one in the sub, and climbs in. Toni and Sören line up the boat. Alam indicates he’s ready, and Leonie closes the hatch. Excitement mounts in the basin as she gives him the “centre your planes” command and oks his response. She signals to the underwater camera. He’s ready to race.

The crowd at the surface hushes in anticipation, their eyes glued to the monitors. Rivershark, Rivershark, Rivershark, Go, Go, Go! The twin mirage drives start pumping, and the blue and yellow tiger stripes disappear into the murk past the starting line. The next camera picks him up a few metres later: Alam is still running our shark straight and true down the centre line, now about a metre above the bottom.

We lose him again as he disappears into the murk beyond the camera’s view. The Navy’s surface boat is still moving. A good sign. Then he comes into view of the first timing camera. Yawed hard to starboard, but still moving. Right near the bottom. Drifting now, as the lower mirage drive has hit the floor. Some patient, gentle, pressure by our pilot engineer on the lower fins lifts the boat far enough off the bottom that he can start again, and after a nail-biting minute, he’s moving again, straight down the course, through the second timing trap and back to his metre above the bottom. A hush descends over the crowd as he disappears from view, seemingly pitched up and possibly dragging the safety buoy partly deployed.

When he reappears on the next camera, he’s just below the surface, diving back to midwater. Did he break the surface? The upper mirage drive certainly churned up a wake. But then he’s got her back under control, still running the midline, and back to depth. Hearts are beating fast in the crowd of pale blue shirts gathered around the monitor.

Then suddenly, he’s there. Cheers erupt around the basin as the blue strips appear out of the murk and Rivershark is over the finish line for a successful run!

Our excitement carries on through the rest of the morning. We’re flying on adrenaline now. The boat is quickly put back in the queue and readied for the next race. We decide to have another go at the women’s competition, so Leonie takes over the pilot’s cap.

Rivershark, lock and load.

The team set her up and Leonie was off on the third run. Over the starting line ok. Flying straight and true into the murk. Then the murk started to fight back. Midline? What midline? Disoriented, but not done, she soldiered bravely on, making sweeping swerves along the course looking for the line. But it was not to be. As she slipped across the first timing gate, completely out of control, dazzled by the high-power LEDs like a moth to flame, she steered straight. Into the second timing trap.

We are now the bad boys of the racecourse. Nobody survives destruction of the Cory’s racecourse. The kidding will be merciless now until somebody else does something worse… (or until we feed Cory a bunch of watermelon!)

Now starts the waiting. Our wait is nothing compared to that of the poor Mexican team next to us. Their boat got caught up in US Customs, and they’ve spent the whole competition turning their thumbs waiting for someone to finally clear it into the country. Finally today, the race organisers made arrangements for them to use a twenty five year old sub which has been a moving museum piece since its last run in 2007. Nice finally to see them in action!

Our other competitors are having mixed success. Omer X are running a boat with a similar propulsion design to ours. They ran their boat at last year’s eISR in Gosport and had nothing but bad luck. Everything broke. Sort of like our luck this year. But everything is running right for them this year, and they’ve clocked some impressive speeds. Wasub from Delft are having a race like ours. Nothing has worked for them, or rather, they’ve never managed to get all of their subsystems working simultaneously. On every run, something has gone wrong. Once they get their luck together, they’ll be away with their oscillating foil propelled machine.

Rivershark, lock and load.

So much for the reverie. Back to seriousness. Time to race.

Sören, Toni and Alam swim the sub to the starting line. Practiced now, Alam hops in. The hatch is closed and the crew give the signal. The go signal, and he’s off. Bat outa nowhere. Flames shooting out the back of the hull. Screaming down the racecourse and through the timing trap. That’s what submarine racing is about. He was barely out of one trap before he was through the second. We’ll know later what speed he managed.

But it wasn’t to be. The change in lighting past the timing gates confuses many pilots. It gets dark quick, and the momentary disorientation at that speed often sends pilots way off course as their eyes adjust to the dark again. Temporarily blinded, Alam lost track of the midline and veered off starboard and bounced heavily off the wall. We’re going to need more than touch-up paint to fix that one. He soldiered bravely on, now both blinded and dazed, but never really managed to get the boat away from the wall. Finally he got tangled in the lighting and camera walls just short of the finish line. Disappointing finish to a spectacular start.

We may get one more go today. We’ll see. It’s getting pretty late.

It’s not to be. Alam’s and Leonie’s brief careers as submarine pilots are over. We’ll run our other two pilots tomorrow.

We leave the base in a bittersweet mood. The success of the day - we’re on the board with a silver medal performance in speed for now - is tempered by the decision we’ve had to make to abandon any hope of incorporating our electronics into the submarine. Our tablet computer is blown and there simply is no time to replace it before tomorrow. We’ve thought through all of the potential workarounds, but it’s time to face the cold hard truth. We won’t be running any sensors this competition at all. That’s a bitter defeat to swallow for the mechatronics team.


But never mind. We’ll try again tomorrow.

Thursday 29 June

Friday 30 June

This is it. Today is the day to make all of our hard work pay off. The Rivershark stayed on the beaches overnight so she’d be early in the queue today. Unfortunately we had repairs to do to the safety buoy, so that slowed everything down for us, but we still managed to catch the top of the queue, fifth in behind Washington and Archimedes.

While we waited, I got my first real look at the damage the boat suffered in her crashes yesterday. The bow is essentially stove in - cracked in two right across, along the joint between the two halves of the hull. The team have done a solid job duct taping her back together, giving her an almost comical look, as if she’s got the mother of all toothaches. Then I had a look underneath the boat. The windshield has taken a beating - there’s room to stick a fist through it now, and it’s come completely clear of the hull. That won’t help the drag coefficient…

Rivershark, lock and load.

Toni and I pulled the submarine to the starting line while Sören brought our new pilot, Tobi, to the bottom. He climbed quickly into the cockpit and settled into the pedals. We brought the boat up to the starting attitude, and sent the ready signal to the surface via the cameras. Ping came the acknowledgement. Time for some final alignment checks, then Rivershark, Rivershark, Rivershark, Go, Go, Go!

Tobi threw his weight into the pedals, and off he went into the murk. What looked like a good start went quickly wrong, though, as the buoyancy got the best of him and he climbed steadily to the surface. He finally broke the surface and ended his run just shy of the timing trap. Never mind, we’ve got a second run today. We’ll get it right on that one.

So back into the queue. All boats are now in the water, so it will be a long while before we can race again. Lots of time to chat with other crews, take pictures and videos, and do television interviews. It also some time to reflect on how the week has gone so far, and on who’s made it possible. The unsung heroes of our team are our ground crew. Dharav, Bhargav, Suryans, Harry and Ajay, who’ve carried tanks and retrieved the sub after every run. They get no glory, but without them, we’d never be able to race the submarine. They have ensured there’s always a full air cylinder for every diver, they’ve dragged the boat back to the starting line after every race, fetched tools, weights and buoyancy foam whenever we’ve needed it in the water. And they’ve done it cheerfully all week, even though they’ve all had to give up their own individual projects along the way.

You there, divers, put your heads underwater!

The odd command from the racecourse supervisor, Jim Cory, snaps me out of my reverie. My fellow frogmen from the University of Washington team are similarly confused. Then he repeats the order. Shrugging our bobbing shoulders, we comply. Music! Not any music, but UW’s marching tune. The one they play as their teams take to the football pitch. My companions (both of whom are marching band members) are ecstatic as they head to the bottom to lock and load their submarine. Then the music starts above the water as well, and the mood in the basin takes on a happy excited feel. There really is nothing like a marching band to set a sporting stage!

Off goes Washington. We’ll be next. The dive crew slip off the beaches (wooden towers in the water that just break the surface, where divers can haul out to warm up and where submarines can be landed for minor repairs) and head to the boat on the bottom to finalise our buoyancy. Moving a deck of cards sized bit of foam from midships astern, and Rivershark hangs in mid water, slightly down by the bow to compensate for the air which the pilot is about to exhale into her. We’re ready.



Rivershark, lock and load!

We swim the boat to the starting line. I back off to film the start while the others load Alam into the cockpit. He takes his time settling his equipment, gauges and regulators where he wants them. Then he slips his feet into the pedals and gives the ok sign to the support diver. Ducks his head into the bow of the boat, and the hatch is closed above him. I always enjoy this scene, as a diver ends up doing a head stand above the boat to swim the positively buoyant hatch down and into position.

Rivershark, Rivershark, Rivershark, go, go, go!

Off he goes. The mirage drive fins dig into the water, and the vessel picks up speed. True down the centre line and clear over the starting line. This is going to be a fast run. Last we see of him is the orange of the safety buoy stern post disappearing with a wisp into the murk.

The crowd at the television monitors is roaring. He is really moving. Rivershark is through the first timing trap. Now the second trap. Faster than we’ve ever seen any of our boats go. This is it!

The crowd holds its breath. We pop to the surface to hear the excitement down range. The Navy boat is chasing the submarine’s bubbles down the course. Alam disappears off the cameras into the blind spot past the timing trap. We wait. We watch. Will he do it? All he needs to do is complete the course, and we’ve got it in the bag. Over 3 kts for sure. Wasub will never catch us at this speed!

The cameras pick him up again, and the news isn’t good. He’s got disoriented in the dark zone again, and ended up against the wall. Focused on picking up the centre line, he hauls the controls to port, but it’s too late. The distraction has cost him, and he’s too high in the water. He finds the midline alright, but he’s also found the surface. The race is over. Disappointment rolls in waves through the basin.

Now the long wait begins. We return Rivershark to the staging area, making her fast to the wall over her usual parking spot on the bottom. Then we haul out to stay warm. We will be lucky indeed to get a third run. Nineteen boats in front of us now in the queue. The clock ticks on.

Meanwhile the other teams have not been idle. Omer X has clocked some spectacular runs today. There’s no way any of us will catch them. It is however sweet to see them do so well, particularly after their horribly disappointing eISR last year, when they broke a crucial component on the first day and never really got to race.

Wasub is lined up and ready to go now. They have been fighting with mechanical gremlins and control problems all week, but they’ve got an excellent pilot, and if anyone can get their boat travelling flat and true, he’ll be the one. Down to the starting line to watch this gorgeous orange and white boat with pitching heaving foils get its start into the murk. Wasub, Wasub, Wasub, go, go, go. And off he goes. Nose up at first, but he catches it. Flying straight out of our view. Looking good.

By the time we’ve all got to the surface, the Navy boat is well down course, following his bubbles past the timing trap. This is looking good for Wasub. Nailbiter for us. They’ve not come anywhere near our speed through the trap, but pilot experience looks to be paying off. He’s straight down the middle, 3m down and coming up on the finish line. Will he make it? The orange crowd at the monitors confirms it for us. He’s done it! The basin erupts in cheers. We’re cheering too, though this now means we’ve slipped back to third place.

Now the heat is on. We know we can beat their speed. All we need is one more run. Cory says it’s looking good, so we stay in the water, ready for the call. 

Then the unexpected happens. News comes to the basin that the missing Mexican submarine has finally arrived on the base. The whole ISR staff kicks into overdrive to qualify their vessel and get them onto the course. The queue keeps moving slowly forward and the clock ticks on. We’re fifth from the start. Fingers crossed.

Then a cheer erupts from the basin entrance. Archangelo is making her grand entrance. They need Spanish speaker, so I swim over to help them get through their qualifying wet checks. They’re pretty excited, so it takes a few minutes and plenty of Spanish conversation to get them calmed down enough to submerge and complete their requirements. Once underwater, they don’t need Spanish anymore, so I swim back to Rivershark in the queue.

Three more boats, and we’re up. We’re all watching the clock. Two more boats. We start getting Alam and Rivershark ready. But then it comes. The cheer from the qualification basin. Archangelo is ready to race. That stops the queue. Those poor students have been twiddling their thumbs all week waiting for this moment. Of course we step aside. Down they go to the starting line, with plenty of experienced ISR staff divers to help. We watch and wait. Then a hatch cover suddenly appears by my left shoulder. I grab it and head for the bottom. They’re going to need this.

All is ready for their run. The pilot has done this once before this race at the controls of an ancient submarine, but this is his first run in his own submarine. The excitement underwater is amazing. So much racing experience gathered here to set one team off on a run. Archangelo, Archangelo, Archangelo, andale, andale, andale! And off he goes, look good over the starting line, but then straight to the surface like a rocket. Never mind. He got started. That’s what counts.

I head over to Rivershark for final checks. Pop out that bit of foam I moved earlier. Now she’s 100g heavy. Hopefully that will keep her down and give Alam a bit more time to react if he gets lost in that dark transition again. Ready. We can go anytime.

But my heart sinks as Claudio drops into view, shaking his head. It won’t happen. I know why, and I’m 100% behind the decision - Archangelo will get a second run. We won’t get our third of the day. Heartbreaking, but life does that sometimes. We’ll go home pleased with our bronze, knowing we could have done the speed, but never knowing whether we could have held it all together.

We swim the sub back to the beaches. Thumbs up to the racecourse director. He’s as heartbroken as we are, but there is nothing he could do. Time simply ran out. We make it to the beaches. Wasub’s pilot is waiting there for us. I congratulate him on his silver. “That’s no way to win,” he says, the disappointment clearly showing in his face. He wanted to see us go as badly as we did.

But never mind. We all did well. The Mexicans never did finish their second run, but they got to do it. That’s what sportsmanship is all about. That’s what submarine racing is all about. There’s a spirit to these races, and that’s why we all keep coming back.

We make our way to the elevator and out of the basin into the sunshine. Time to pack up. Roll the crate up vertical, load in the toolboxes, dive kit and submarine, then bolt it all back together. Rivershark is ready to fly. And hotdogs are ready on the barbecue!

We load the ten rented scuba tanks into our poor little Goliath and watch as the tops of the tyres disappear into the wheel wells. I’ll have to be careful on the bumps back to the dive shop.

The final Awards Ceremony is held every year in the base auditorium. 400 students and staff gather to look back at the week and recognise the many accomplishments. There’s a Founder’s Award for the retiring Head Judge, Claude Brancart, who was the co-founder of the race back in 1989. There’s some well deserved recognition for some of the outstanding volunteers who made it all happen. There’s of course plenty of recognition of the sponsors who financed it all.

Then there’s the awards to the teams. We applaud the speeds the others achieved in the propeller class. Solid performances but nothing spectacular. Then comes the non-propeller category. Non-propeller, college class, third place: Rivershark. We’re delighted. There’s been no mention of a bronze medal, but we’ll take it.

The biggest surprise of the evening though came a short while later, after the speed awards. Best Use of Composites went to Godiva 3 from Warwick for rapid prototyping and their use of recycled carbon fibre. Spirit of the Race went to Omer X - fitting, as usual: they really are a spectacular group of people. Then came Innovation - an award given primarily for design and implementation. In third place, for their advanced design incorporating a sonar-driven autopilot with an artificial lateral line speedometer, from Rhine Waal University of Applied Sciences, Rivershark! Now that we hadn’t expected, but the judges really felt we’d embodied the spirit of innovation, despite our struggles with cables and blown motherboard.


Two-time bronze medal winners. Works for us.


That’s submarine racing. See you all back in Cleves.

Friday 30 June