On land, Mercury III, the pride and joy of Engineering junior Dominic Piro, is unimposing, even with its shark paint job. A 10-foot long oval shell made of carbon-fiber composite and balsa wood with a bicycle drive train mounted inside, it looks like a soapbox racer with propellers.
But even though the designs are similar, Mercury III isn’t a soapbox racer, it’s a working submarine. Capable of reaching speeds of nearly 5 knots, or roughly 6 miles an hour, it’s the result of years of tweaking and adjustments.
Piro is co-manager of the University’s Human-Powered Submarine Team, one of several student projects, including the Solar Car Team, sponsored by the College of Engineering. Possibly because it doesn’t move as fast, the submarine isn’t quite as talked about as the University’s award-winning solar car. But even though the team operates in relative obscurity, the sport requires athletic prowess, deft engineering and considerable daring. Staying on course in a submarine is difficult, and racing one is even trickier.
Inside Mercury III, there’s enough room for a single person, provided that person isn’t too tall or too wide. To get it moving, the pilot has to pedal the submarine like a bicycle.
“I’m not claustrophobic, but I don’t like the idea of climbing in the sub,” said Christine Matlock, the team’s diver manager.
As the sub moves through the tank, its speed is measured at checkpoints along the way. The team with the fastest submarine wins.
In 2006, the University’s team won the one-person propeller-driven category, reaching a top speed of 4.587 knots in an event near San Diego, Calif.
The team was the third fastest in the One-Person Propeller division during the International Submarine Races in Bethesda, Md. this past June. At a top speed of 4.958 knots, pilot Willie Hatfield set the record for the school.
In all of the submarines the hulls fills with water and the pilot, completely submerged, breathes using scuba gear. He lies on his side to pedal, looking at the bottom of the tank through a window in the nose of the submarine. Because the pilot can only see directly in front of him, the race course has to be lit with neon lights, or “mood lighting” as Hatfield called it.
“Everything else is murky and blurry expect for this long string of blue lights,” he said.
Pedaling the sub is no small feat – it weighs about 1,000 lbs. By pedaling alone, the pilot moves the sub, themselves and several lead weights added for balance.
Hatfield said that during a one to two minute race he typically used half a tank of air. For divers breathing normally, not under physical strain, the tanks typically last about 30 to 40 minutes.
The indoor tanks in which the submarine usually operates complicate the task. Shallow water, that is, water less than 12 feet deep, is the most dangerous because the pressure is most unstable, said Larry Harris Taylor, a University Medical School researcher and the team’s dive safety officer.
Stopping the submarine is another matter. Once divers staffing the competitions stop the sub, they monitor the pilot for signs of injury or panic. Because of the dangers of sudden pressure changes, the submarine – with the pilot inside – must be brought back to the surface gradually.
“If you panic, it’s pretty bad,” Hatfield said.
Hatfield, who graduated last spring, didn’t spend time at the gym training for the event. Instead Hatfield used his single-speed road bike as transportation from Central Campus to North Campus.
Hatfield said he purposely used a single-speed bike to simulate piloting the sub, which also has a fixed gear.
“I never saw him walk anywhere,” Matlock said.
Because scuba equipment is classified as life-support under the University’s insurance policies, and both pilots and team members use scuba gear, operating the submarine for the team is classified as high-risk. Though maybe not in practice – there haven’t been any recent submarine-related injuries – according to insurance policies, operating the submarine is one of the riskiest sports at the University.
Any time the sub is in the water, Team Dive Manager Christine Matlock requires at least three divers, along with the pilot, to inspect and prepare the submarine for a run. Once it’s submerged, the submarine’s hull fills with water, and the team members can make sure it’s properly balanced.
To be covered by the University’s insurance, each member of the submarine’s dive team must meet the dive standards of the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. The requirements include knowledge of CPR, first-aid certification and passing a DAN O2 Provider test – a test on giving oxygen to an injured person. Each diver must also have a physical from a designated doctor at University Health Services.
And finally, before they can get into water, Taylor evaluates each diver in a skill test conducted in a swimming pool.
Divers must log 12 dives every year to stay certified. For Matlock and other members of the dive team this means twice monthly excursions to Bowling Green, Ohio, where they train in an old quarry. At the beginning of the school year, water temperatures average 60 degrees, but by November, when the divers are squeezing in their last dives before the submarine is ready for testing, temperatures hover closer to 45 degrees, Matlock said.
Once the sub is ready for trail runs, the team tests it in the Marine Hydro-Dynamics Laboratory in West Hall on weekends with the help of the team’s faculty adviser Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering Prof. Robert Beck.
This is a huge advantage in competitions, Hatfield said, because most teams do not get to test their sub in a tank before they arrive at a competition.
The team is continuing a long, storied tradition of submarine building in the United States The first well-known American submarine was small and was pedal-operated by one person, much like Mercury III. During the American Revolutionary War, its pilot tired unsuccessfully to drill a hole into the hull of the HMS Eagle, a British warship was docked in New York Harbor.
Even though the days of human-powered submarines have long since past, team members agree the team is a great resume builder.
Nelson, who now works in Washington, D.C. designing ships, said the team was always the main talking point during job interviews – so much so that it almost didn’t matter that he had spent so much of his college career working on it.
“They love it,” he said. “They skip right over course work and the GPA.”

Brian Merlos
Engineering junior Dominic Piro shows off the human-powered submarine, the result of years of toil and adjustments (JEREMY CHO/Daily)

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