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!