Tennessee Tech's hopes still afloat in underwater competition

In California two subs, "SubStandard" and "Omer," have laid down a challenge to Tennessee Technological University and other competitors at the World Submarine Invitational.

The team from TTU spent two hours in competition late Wednesday, with its two-person crew reaching a top speed of 6.165 knots. This surpassed the 6.0 knot barrier that Tennessee Tech and other human-powered submarine racers have long been shooting for, but it fell short of the current field leaders at the event underway in Escondido, Calif. On the first day of competition, SubStandard literally set the standard for all other competitors when it established a speed of 6.7 knots in a one-person run, shattering previous speeds for both one- and two-person propeller-driven subs. Days later, Omer chalked up a maximum speed of 6.5 knots in a two-person run.

As of Wednesday night with only a half day left in the competition, those speeds led the field and had most competitors still reeling in surprise. "Both were a big shock to (previous record holder) Florida Atlantic University," said FAU adviser Ray McAllister. "We hope to do better in '98." Others who had expected to see maximum speeds in the low 6-knot range echoed that statement with feeling.

Yesterday Tennessee Tech stuck to runs using a two-person crew, the traditional configuration the university has raced with, where one student pedals furiously and another, face pressed into the sub's clear nose cone, navigates. This morning, team members intended to roll up their sleeves and experiment -- trying one-person runs with powerful John Gore of Nashville both propelling and navigating the sub. On the outside, the students said they will try different propeller configurations using two- and three-blade combinations of specially designed carbon fiber blades. Their effort may result in incremental speed increases, but it is unlikely to overturn SubStandard's dazzling finish, which eclipsed FAU's previous world record by a whopping 13 percent.

While their effort so far in the World Submarine Invitational hasn't broken records, the team from Tennessee did find themselves the center of media attention, capturing the imagination of a number of reporters. A videocrew representing the Discovery Channel's "Beyond 2000" chose Tennessee Tech as the team it will profile in an upcoming segment. The crew spent the day trailing the students, interviewing team members, videotaping underwater footage and recording the team as it prepared for runs. Reporters from California and from England also converged on team members and their bright yellow "Torpedo III."

The six-day event culminates more than two years of preparation on the part of Tennessee Tech's team. Human-powered submarine racing presents an array of intellectual and physical challenges. Students -- and most competitors do represent colleges and universities -- design the subs from the inside out, choosing propulsion and steering systems and deciding how the crew will fit in the vehicle. They also wrestle with the boat's overall shape, its mass, surface area and resistance in the water. After months of design and testing, they then build their vehicle and test it further. The subs operate with wet chambers, meaning team members also must become proficient with scuba gear and underwater breathing apparatus and maintain that equipment, managing valves, masks, air tanks and a battery of associated gear.

Many community members have given Tennessee Tech's team generous assistance with this work. The university's Student Monies Allocation Committee covered airfare for the 13 team members. Other sponsors include Bennett Industries, Metcom Inc., Bank of Putnam County, Triangle Plastics, Signworks, Cookie Town Rod & Kustom, team adviser Joe Scardina and Tennessee Tech's Center of Excellence for Manufacturing Research and Department of Mechanical Engineering. Outside the region, the technology firm Bayer contributed polycarbonate resin used for the sub's nose and hatches. And Roadway made its own unique contribution: transporting the sub and associated equipment to and from San Diego at minimal cost.

The students expected to compete until noon today, when the event was scheduled to end and top finishers to be announced.