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Submariner Karl Stanley
Karl Stanley - Click to Enlarge

"I could be the first person to live in an underwater house."

Confessions of a Backyard Submarine Builder

At 15, Karl Stanley began building a sub from a length of steel pipe. Here's the crazy part: It worked. Today, at 28, he's building his second sub and dreaming of underwater Jacuzzis, as he explains in this interview.

Karl Stanley's first submarine, C-BUG (Controlled by Buoyancy Underwater Glider), is easily one of the most innovative personal submarines ever made. The lightweight craft operates primarily without the help of any motor, and even more impressive, it began as a ten-foot-long [three-meter-long] steel pipe, which Stanley began welding in his parents backyard 13 years ago. At the time, Stanley was a high school sophomore with no formal welding experience, let alone an engineering degree.

A year after C-BUG's completion in 1997, Stanley found a home for his yellow submarine just outside U.S. waters. At the Inn of Last Resort in Roatán, Honduras, Stanley and C-BUG take paying passengers to greater and greater depths—up to 725 feet [221 meters]—and into rarely seen realms of the Caribbean.

Now, after four years, Stanley, 28, is looking to go deeper. Between his time in Roatán and visiting friends around the world, Stanley has a semipermanent residence in Idabel, Oklahoma. There he is building his second sub, fondly named after its birthplace. He estimates that Idabel will be complete by May 2003.

What made you think you could build a submarine at 15?

I guess the bigger question would be, why would I think that I couldn't? When you're that age, you just think that you can. So I just did it.

The more I learned about other people who had successfully built their own subs, the more I realized that my personality is a lot like theirs. John Perry [another amateur submariner] started a submaking company by building a sub in his backyard out of plywood.

When I was about ten years old, I made plans and built a square boat out of plywood. This was obviously before I knew better. But making it helped me learn, by trial and error, how to make things happen.

What do you like most about being a submariner?

I like the exploration and mystery part of diving into deep water. I'm not interested in military subs or subs that only go 100 to 200 feet [30 to 61 meters] deep. I'm only interested in the fact that I can see places that are so deep that no one's ever been there before.

The building part itself is dirty work. I'd prefer to just operate the sub and get to see cool animals. It's a nice challenge to design something and see it come to life as a one-of-a-kind craft, but it's often hot, nasty work.

I'm really devoted to building submarines, more than anything else. In school, studying was a chore, but with this, I want to know everything I can about it.

Why do you operate out of Roatán, Honduras?

Roatán is the perfect place to operate a small submarine—the water is deep just off shore, it's very clear, and it has virtually no current.

Roatán is a popular dive destination for scuba divers, so I'm guaranteed to meet a lot of people interested in going down in the sub. Plus, everyone on the island speaks English, because Roatán was settled by pirates from England, among other places.

Is there a lot of ocean life off the island?

Where I'm diving doesn't have as much ocean life as other places because there isn't a strong current to bring in the nutrients to sustain much life underwater. I'll see sharks, leatherback turtles, schools of tuna. It's a trade-off.

For example, if I went to Coco Island off of Costa Rica, there are a ton of oceanic animals. You simply drop into the water and you're practically guaranteed to see sharks. But on most days you have a two- to three-knot current. I wouldn't want to operate a sub in a current that strong.

Are there fewer restrictions in Roatán than in the U.S.?

There are, but that's not why I'm there. I'm there because the deep water is so close to shore. There is literally no place in the entire continental U.S. where you can find that kind of access to water that deep—nothing even close.

Some engineers suggest your submarine shouldn't go deeper than 440 feet [134 meters].

I think people are just surprised that an amateur submarine builder is taking his sub this deep. Typically personal subs dive to only 50 to 100 feet [15 to 30 meters]. C-BUG can probably go down to 700 feet [213 meters].

To me, at 50 to 100 feet, why bother going to the trouble of building a sub? you might as well just go scuba diving.

Why do you do most of your building in Idabel, Oklahoma?

A couple years ago in Roatán, I met a guy name Buck Hill, who operates a tire factory in Idabel. We became friends and he convinced me that Idabel would be a good place for me to work on new subs.

The people have been so supportive that I decided to name the new sub that I am building after the town. To them, this project is so exciting that they help me out with discounts on materials or let me use their facilities. Plus, the cost of living is really cheap.

And Broken Bow Lake, which is 230 feet [70 meters] deep, is only about 15 miles [24 kilometers] from Idabel. I can test it right there for basic floatation.

What are your plans for the new sub?

Idabel is different from C-BUG, because she will carry three people instead of two, she will be able to dive to 3,000 feet [914 meters] instead of 700 [213 meters], and she is specifically designed for use in Roatán. I believe that it may be the first time in history that a submarine has been designed for a specific dive site.

Because normal subs spend most of their time traversing flat areas, a sub's window generally faces directly forward or down a little bit. I spend 95 percent of my time on a vertical wall, so I've designed the windows to view upwards and forward, which is the most impressive view at this site. You can see the sun coming through the water and the edge of the cliff over your head. It's really dramatic

You're also planning to build an underwater hotel?

I'm going to have an underwater hotel, that's certain. It's going to ride up and down a cable from 800 to 1,000 feet [244 to 305 meters]. The capsule will be as simple to operate as an elevator.

The hotel will have a bed, bathroom, and I was even contemplating a Jacuzzi. I think that would be the ultimate luxury. You're hanging out in the Jacuzzi looking at a 4-foot [1.2-meter] window at 800 feet [244 meters], seeing sharks. The irony is pretty good, too.

There's one underwater hotel right now that operates in Key Largo [Florida], but you have to be a scuba diver and it's only in 30 feet [9 meters] of water. However, it's been around for ten years and is hugely popular. If I gave people the opportunity to spend the night at 800 to 1,000 feet, I'd certainly have enough customers to make the business worthwhile.

I think the hotel would be pretty big with honeymooners. There's inherent privacy, not to mention the uniqueness of it all.

You're only 28. What's in your future?

After I finish Idabel and get the underwater hotel up and running, I want to get the personal deep submergence record in my name. The solo descent record in a submarine right now is 3,000 feet [914 meters].

Beyond that, it's hard to say. I've thought of using the hotel and sub revenue to build a custom-designed research boat with a mini-submarine on board and taking it to places where people haven't been able to dive before, exploring super virgin territory.

I might even build a pod to live in—I could be the first person to live in an underwater house. It's the best real estate possible—waterfront, protected from hurricanes, and powerless air-conditioning. All you have to do is submerge to the right temperature zone at night.

I always thought the submarine would work but in terms of making a paying career out of it, I never really had any belief in that. It was the classic do-what-you-love-and-the-rest-will-follow.

Photograph by Warren Salowe


—Mary Anne Potts

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