The IMarEST is holding its European International Submarine Races from 3 - 13 July at QinetiQ's Ocean Basin. We caught up with Nancy Cronin-Coltsmann, pilot of the University of Southampton team's submarine in 2017 (and the team's Dive Officer and Publicity Officer for 2018) to find out what it’s like on the inside...
What is it like to pilot a human-powered submarine?
I actually find it quite relaxing! The races are so noisy and exciting as so much is going on, but when you get underwater and into the submarine all that action gets shut off and you only have to focus on you. If the submarine is perfectly neutrally buoyant, you can kind of feel it rise and fall as you breathe - it’s very calming. Your support divers tend to move the submarine into position on the start line so, as the pilot, everything is being taken care of for you! It can be a bit disconcerting when things aren’t going as expected and you, being inside the submarine with a very narrow field of vision, can't see why, but it’s also nice to know someone else is dealing with it and you can just chill and wait.
And then the race director yells “GO! GO! GO!” through the underwater speakers, and it’s time to pedal! The submarines don’t actually go too fast – no faster than a brisk walk in most cases – but it feels like the whole race is over in a blink. I personally find it really hard when I resurface and everyone asked what happened – it’s all an adrenaline blur! I have over 350 dives as a SCUBA instructor, but being inside a human-powered submarine was a challenge like nothing I’ve experienced before.
What are the biggest challenges for you personally?
At the International Submarine Races in America in 2017, we had a really tough couple of days when we couldn’t get the submarine to stay straight. I knew it wasn’t my fault – I was steering correctly, the submarine was just unstable - but I felt a great deal of responsibility! I felt like I was letting the team down, because everyone had worked so hard all year, and so many people had been really generous in helping us get to the races, and we weren’t making any progress. Everyone reassured me that wasn’t the case, but emotions run so high at the competition I couldn’t help it!
We then bolted some extra fins, generously donated by another team, on the back and underside of the submarine, and the difference was phenomenal. We went from no further than 15 meters into the course to getting all the way to 90 out of 100 meters! That also meant we logged a speed through the timing gates: we were the 12th fastest team at the races. We didn’t quite cross the finish line, as a camera cable got tangled around our propeller, but we definitely ended on a high and everyone was ecstatic.
How do you manage your university studies as well as this commitment?
I manage it better at some times than at others! Thankfully I know my deadlines in advance, so if we have a testing weekend scheduled I try to make sure to finish my university work beforehand. There are times of course when I fall behind on lectures, but so far I’ve always managed to catch up. I do find that when I am extra busy with the submarine, I do my university work far more efficiently. When there’s no time to procrastinate it doesn’t take me as long to complete my assignments!
How do you feel like being involved with the project has prepared you for the world of work?
With the submarine races there are strict, immovable deadlines. The races are set in stone before you even start designing your submarine, so having that deadline in mind throughout the whole process is definitely comparable to the world of employment. Often in engineering projects, you can write in your report that it didn’t work and what you might have done to try and get it to work – in the races, that’s not an option! You have to get your submarine working no matter what, and there’s definitely no pleading for a time extension. That leads to some ingenious problem solving with the very limited materials you have with you at the races.
My team is entirely student run. Alongside designing, building and testing our submarine, we approach companies ourselves to get sponsorship, we manage our own budget, and we organise our own logistics. The amount of real-world experience you get from dealing with a real project like this is immeasurable and definitely unique among those who don’t get involved with any extra-curricular activities like this at university. I think a lot of people can get stuck in a student-bubble at uni, but that is not an option when building a human-powered submarine!
Why do you think projects like this are important?
The submarine races are an incredible experience for all the students involved, from designing something as innovative and creative as possible, to travelling across the world to represent your team, university and country at international races. You learn so much from building a human-powered submarine that just can’t be taught in a lecture theatre. As a team member, you have to be incredibly resourceful – building on a tight budget, trying to fix things during testing or at the races with limited tools, trying to optimise what equipment you have access to – but students have always been good at that!
You also become incredibly professional. When approaching companies for sponsorship, you have to persuade them that you’re responsible enough to be trusted with their money and with associating their brand with you! You have big team meetings where you need to make important decisions with your peers, and whilst you all want the same outcome (the best submarine possible!) often people have very different ideas on how to get there, and you as a team need to make a judgement call. Most of all, there is a LOT to do in a year! But it’s all worth it at the end of the year when you get to see what you’ve been working on all that time in action.
The races also inspire young people in science, engineering and technology. Everyone I’ve talked to about the submarine thinks it’s really cool, and they always have a million questions about it. Having such a real world application of what can seem a daunting subject is a great way of relating what engineering really is. People tend to come flooding out with ideas for the submarines – without even realising that they are engineering! And this is coming from a marine biologist!
Find out more about eISR 2018 here or join us at the eISR Open Day on Saturday 7 July in Portsmouth, UK for a day filled with fun activities for kids and a Careers Fair for students!