Published June 13. 2011 4:00AM Updated June 13. 2011 5:03PM
Old Saybrook - The white hull of what will soon be a lipstick red, human-powered submarine doesn't make it in the pool gracefully. But when it does, a group of Old Saybrook High School students and teachers cheer.
"All right!" woodshop teacher Fred Frese yells. "That's it! Oh, it's perfect, perfect. Look at that. Look at that. Right on the money."
Frese turns to the submarine team's captain, senior Shannon Jorgensen. "I love it! I love it."
They have come to the East Lyme High School swimming pool this Tuesday, the day after Memorial Day, to test the buoyancy of a submarine the students have been building for two years now with Frese and volunteer submarine designers Roy Manstan and Paul Mileski.
There's more work to be done, but the boat does what it's supposed to in the water.
"We were very excited when it floated - well, didn't float, it sunk," says Jorgensen afterward. "Just 'cause, like, that's pretty much the first obstacle of the construction of it. Otherwise, I don't know what we would have done."
The students - all girls save for four boys - started off working on the project as sophomores, drawn in by their dynamic teacher's promise that they would get to do something most other high schoolers don't: design and build a one-person, wet submarine to race in the International Submarine Races later this month in Bethesda, Md.
In fact, the Old Saybrook team is only one of three high school teams competing against universities, individuals and research labs from across the globe. The competition runs June 27 to July 1; the team will head down to Maryland just two days after 13 of the 14 students on the team graduate.
Frese can't explain why the project drew the interest of more girls than boys. Women, after all, weren't until recently even allowed to serve on submarines. The U.S. Navy lifted its ban last year, and the first group of female submarine officers are slated to report to their submarines at the end of this year.
"I put out a poster that had a picture of Uncle Sam on it: 'We want you for submarine duty,'" says Frese. Sixteen girls and four boys signed on. A few dropped out, a few joined later, but the team has continued to consist of mostly girls.
"I think it's time for them to step up," Frese says. "That's what the shop class is pretty much about, just letting the girls step up. Step up. You can run a machine, you can run a saw, you can fix a car, you can race a submarine."
School Principal Oliver Barton says of the project: "It's great that any kids have the confidence (to compete in the event), but it's exciting that something happened among a group of girls that got them motivated to see themselves do something that no one else in the state is doing."
If anyone is going to make a project like this happen at the high school level, it's Frese. Three years ago, he and his students finished building a replica of the Turtle, a 1770s submarine invented by American patriot David Bushnell. It was Frese's third Turtle replica; one of his replicas is on display at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex.
Frese secured a $10,000 grant from Toyota TAPESTRY that helped keep the new project self-funded. Students have also raised funds to pay for extra expenses such as hotel rooms for the week they'll spend in Maryland.
For Jorgensen, who helped Frese build a submarine team as a sophomore, part of the appeal was in the teamwork.
"I think it's pretty rewarding," she says. "Like, I don't do any sports of any sort. ... But having like the whole team mentality and like being able to come closer with people that you wouldn't necessarily know is really cool. And the fact that you learn something new. Like, not many people have the chance to say they've built a working submarine by themselves in high school."
The majority of the students won't go on to study engineering, but English teacher and team adviser Gretchen Bushnell says the project is "probably one of the most amazing experiences kids get to have in high school."
A number of the students on the team have documented the work on the submarine for their senior projects, a graduation requirement in which students must spend 50 hours researching a subject matter of interest and give a 45-minute final presentation at the end of the year.
It's good practice for the presentation students will give to a panel of judges at the International Submarine Races.
'Miss Jesse Too'
The sub, named "Miss Jesse Too" after Frese's wife, is a wet submarine, meaning the inside of the boat fills with water and the pilot wears a wetsuit and uses an oxygen tank to breathe. LBI Inc. in Groton built the boat based on a mold students built with the help of the two volunteer engineers.
As part of the project, students also had to become scuba- certified, a challenge unto itself. They passed the physical test without a problem, they say, but most had to retake the written test, which was harder than they'd anticipated.
Senior Adam Martino says the opportunity to become scuba- certified was part of the reason he wanted to join the team.
"That's something a lot of kids my age can't say they have," Martino says. "Made me proud of myself."
When they test the boat at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton over the next couple of weeks, students will finally get a feel for what it's like to pilot the 11-foot long, 28-inch-wide boat - face down and pedaling bicycle parts to propel the submarine forward. Frese anticipates the boat's pilot will need an 80-pound tank of oxygen to race the competition 100 yards in about 2 to 4 minutes.
Most are hoping to be fast enough to be selected as a pilot - from the petite Tenzin Lama, barely 5 feet tall, to football player Jared Arcari.
One of the most surprising things about the team is how diverse the students involved are, says Bushnell, one of the teacher advisers.
"They don't all come from the same group of kids," she says. "But they're pulling it together. It's amazing."
The submarine team consists of Shannon Jorgensen, Julia McKay, Tenzin Lama, Jennifer Ruth, Adam Martino, Jared Arcari, Trevor Coley, Sarah Bell, Nicole Vigorita, Ariel Wise-Rios, Patrick Scarlett, Chelsea Abreu, Danielle Gibbs and Jade Spitale.