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.