SPRING HILL — It was two weeks before the start of the 12th International Submarine Races, and the creators of Sub Zero were still looking to make a few refinements to their scratch-built craft before taking it for one of its last practice runs in the Gulf of Mexico.
The team members, all Springstead High School students, took turns tinkering with control cables, directional flaps and other mechanisms on the human-powered sub, making sure that everything worked well.
Steve Barton, a former instructor in the school's construction vocation program and an adviser to teen submariners for nearly 20 years, watched as they worked. But for the most part, he left the decisions on what to do up to them.
"They built the sub themselves and know everything about it better than I do," Barton said. "This is their boat and their race."
Since 1993, Barton and his wife, Pat, a guidance counselor at the school, have been the guiding force behind Springstead's sub team. By nurturing the students' enthusiasm for adventure and knowledge, they have watched the team build a solid reputation for success at the prestigious event, which is held every two years at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Bethesda, Md.
Finally, in 2009, the team's single-person sub, Sublime, claimed the top prize — first place in best overall performance, as well as second place in absolute speed — leaving in its wake a list of competitors that included Virginia Tech, the University of Michigan, Texas A&M and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
Barton admits he takes special pride that his young team does so well against well-funded, experienced teams. Springstead will again be vying for top honors at the five-day competition, which starts Monday. The team will enter two crafts, the trusty Sublime, plus the newly completed two-person sub Sub Zero.
"We're all really excited to see how we do," said Springstead High junior Christine Jacquot, 17, a member of the 22-person crew taking part in the competition. "We've spent a lot of time getting things right and learning what we need to do to go faster. We're ready."
The races are run on a 100-meter course, 30 feet below the surface, in a half-mile-long indoor test tank facility. The "wet subs" operate fully immersed. Pilots use scuba gear to breathe while propelling the craft with a bicycle pedal-style gear apparatus that delivers power to the steel propeller. Top speeds can reach more than 7 knots, just shy of a full trot on land.
Springstead junior Damian Forbell, 17, one of the pilots, said the claustrophobic conditions inside the submarine make it tough for him to extend his legs and that even the team's most skilled pilots find the cramped quarters difficult to get used to.
"When you're done racing, you're completely drained physically," Forbell said. "It takes a long time for you to recover your strength."
Funded solely through small grants and private donations, the sub program's budget is meager compared with what some universities and privately funded teams spend on the development of their craft. Barton, however, believes the essential ingredient needed to win doesn't come with a price tag.
"These kids have a lot of heart," he said. "I've seen them tired, worn out and totally frustrated, but I've never seen them give up. Not once."
Despite the team's successes, this year's race could be the last for the Bartons, whose involvement in human-powered submarines dates back to the early 1990s, when their late son, Stephen, built one for a high school science project and later entered it in the first International Submarine Races. Pat Barton's retirement this year has prompted the couple to consider that perhaps it's time for someone else to take command of the team.
Springstead principal Susan Duval said that the submarine program, with its correlation to academic achievement, is worth continuing, and she is actively seeking someone willing to serve as an adviser.
"It has helped inspire a lot of our students through the years," Duval said. "To me, it's a worthwhile activity that should always have a place at our school."
Logan Neill can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1435.