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.