Other teams have better technology and more money, and the competitions are no longer outdoors, but Wheaton resident Edward Leibolt keeps coming back every two years to race his human-powered submarine.
"It's very hard to build a boat. But anyone can get into this," said Leibolt, still soaking wet from his last run on one of his team's two submarines.
More than 15 teams from across the country, along with some from Canada and Europe, put their creations to the test last week at the David Taylor Model Basin at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, in Bethesda in an event sponsored by several public and private research groups.
The submarines are all human-powered, with designs ranging from sleek and barracuda-like to Jetsonian and cartoon-like. They submerge more than 20 feet and race over a 100-meter course -- guided by a string of lights at the bottom of the basin. Competitors power the vessels as they breathe from scuba gear.
"It's a very strenuous activity," said Leibolt, who works at the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
As a two-person submarine moves through the water, with one person pedaling and the other piloting, some team members dive to help guide the vessel, and others help drag it from one end of the 3,200-foot-long basin back to the starting area.
The International Submarine Races provide a forum for engineering buffs and others to apply their technical savvy and simply to have fun. No sizeable financial awards are made, but there are honors for the fastest, the most innovative and the best teams overall.
The races, which started in 1989 at a Florida beach, are held every two years. The last five competitions were held in Bethesda.
Leibolt is the leader for Wheaton Submarine Works, the only local team and the only one to enter two submarines in the race -- Subtaxi, a two-person vessel, and Scuba Doo Two, a one-person submarine.
Some teams use corporate and private sponsorship, but smaller teams finance their costs and entry fees with money raised from co-workers or credit unions, along with their own cash. The level of competition, performance and money being poured into the competition has increased dramatically, Leibolt said.
"It's kind of daunting," he said, explaining that some of the gear in Subtaxi is about 16 years old.
For Leibolt, the years of submarine races have spanned not only technological changes but a variety of team members and people who look to share the hobby.
Logan Rainard, of Wheaton, who works for an engineering and building design firm in Laurel, fondly remembers his first submarine race, four years ago.
"The paint was still wet when it went in the water," he said of the submarine Scuba Doo Two, which he built along with Leibolt, his neighbor.
Rainard, 22, who also works with the team with two of his brothers, said he worked six to eight hours a night for weeks to get his submarine ready. "It takes a ridiculous amount of time to build a boat," Rainard said. Most of the submarines are made of plexiglass and fiber glass. Ultimately, for Rainard, the joy of the races is not to set records but to tweak his creation.
"It's a lot of fun," he said. "It's fun to see something that you build work."
Competitors range in age and experience from teenagers in high school to college engineering enthusiasts to longtime naval research employees keeping up with their hobby.
The competition is not just about winning but learning, said Nancy Riegle Hussey, executive director of the Foundation for Underwater Research and Education, a nonprofit group that organizes the races. The races are "an education in reality," Hussey said.
Daniel Dozier, who was on the Carderock Division Sub Club's team at the first competition in 1989, along with Leibolt, said the competition exposes contestants to naval research. The military, in turn, gets to watch potential employees in action."We're looking for the best and the brightest," said Dozier, an employee at the Naval Warfare Center who helps to coordinate the races.
Omer 5, a team from Montreal, set a speed record last week with 7.061 knots, and Wasub, a team from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, won the prize for best overall performance.