What’s a deep-sea sub doing in the middle of Kansas? – Miami Herald

 In Science
Chickens peck in the dirt at the end of the rutted drive.

Out back of the house, a rooster crows. And in a building that looks like a fine place to park a combine, a crew works on a submarine that can go 8,000 feet deep in the ocean.

Only a half-dozen or so subs in the world can do that. The others are owned by governments and research groups in Russia, France, Japan and the U.S.

Then there’s Scott Waters, 29, the head of his family’s chain of hardware stores. He found his submarine in storage in Wisconsin, loaded it on a flatbed truck and hauled it home to Salina.

Its name is Pisces VI and it can go where light can’t, down to an undersea world of legend and fantasy, the part of the planet we know least about.

And Waters is here on a gravel road in Kansas wheat country.

Some people know him as the “crazy submarine guy.”

Fascinated by the deep sea since boyhood, he got hold of a blueprint and built a two-man submarine from scratch. Took him five years. It can go 350 feet deep. He named it “Trustworthy” and not long ago put it in Milford Lake, near Fort Riley.

Worked just like it was supposed to. But he didn’t see much down there.

“Some old tires, mud, tree branches and a few catfish,” Waters said, a boyish smile under the brim of his ball cap.

Hardly Jules Verne stuff. Waters needed more. So he looked the world over and found Pisces VI. Back in its 1970s Cold War heyday, the spherical submersible was used for research and oil exploration in the North Sea.

Its owner, International Underwater Contractors, wanted $500,000. After nine months, Waters, apparently quite the negotiator, got the price down to $30,000. That was in December.

Now, instead of the bottom of Milford Lake, he hopes to someday see undiscovered species, lava flows from underwater volcanoes, bright-colored sponges the size of washing machines and who knows what else.

The plan is to take Pisces VI apart and put it back together using new digital technology to come up with an ultra-modern submersible for scientific research and the film industry. His business plan calls for an investment of $250,000, which he thinks he can make back in two years.

Because a lot of funding has been cut for exploration programs, Waters thinks he can offer Pisces as a cheaper option for scientists and film crews.

He’s a smart guy. Smart enough to know he can’t do this one alone like he did Trustworthy.

So he put together a team of 10, including engineers, scientists and master machinists. One did electrical engineering for NASA.

One is from England, and the rest hail from all over the U.S. Two or three times a year, Waters gathers them at his place north of Salina for a week or two.

The retrofit is well underway. Waters thinks he can have the Pisces ready to launch two years from now. It will first be tested at the University of Pennsylvania, which has a tank that can simulate pressure.

The challenge to the whole thing is that the sub was built in 1976 and has been sitting in storage for 25 years with old saltwater having its way with vital parts.

Safety, contingency and craftsmanship are fairly important.

“Because at 8,000 feet, ain’t nobody coming to get you,” project crew chief Vance Bradley said when the team got together recently.

Pisces will have room for a pilot and three passengers. It will be powered by two 7-horsepower thrusters that can propel it at three knots.

The team works during the day. At night, as stars shine bright over Kansas farmland, they sit in the big outbuilding Waters had made specifically for Pisces. They drink Corona and Labatt Blue, smoke cigars and swap stories about a shared love — the mystery of the deep sea.

Bradley, who lives in Florida, actually worked on Pisces VI back in the day.

“This thing will put footprints on the ocean floor and a hundred years from now they’ll still be there,” Bradley said. “How cool is that?”

Grace C. Young is the project’s science ambassador. She will be the link to research groups and networks such as Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Young graduated from high school early, earned an engineering degree at MIT and now is doing thesis work on oceanic imagery at the University of Oxford in England.

Question: What made her come to be part of this?

“People asked me that when I left Oxford — ‘Kansas? Really?’ It’s because we all believe in what Scott’s doing. I’m very interested in climate change, and the oceans are a big part of that.

“This is very important: This submarine and what he wants to do can change the world.”

Then there’s the Salina guy, master machinist Ryan Brax Johnson, who went to high school with Waters. Early on, he was one of several locals who helped take the sub apart. The others left when that job was over.

Johnson kept coming back. With a background in robotics, he can invent a tool on the spot and then make it. He can’t match the others in academics or tales of the sea, but he makes up for that with zeal and pride to be part of something like this.

“I’m the walk-on, the greenhorn,” he said. “But I’ve scraped my knuckles plenty.

“I’ve earned my ride on this thing.”

‘Scott’s dream’

Waters studied at Kansas State University but dropped out because he knew he was destined to take over the family business.

“I figured what better training could I get than to work here and learn how to do things,” he said.

He started an event planning line that today is a key part of the hardware chain’s business.

He likes his job. He’s respectful of the duty. But friends will say his mind reaches far beyond the nuts and bolts of a corporate world.

Then he announced he was building a submarine.

“Sure, people thought I was probably crazy,” he said of Trustworthy. “It took me awhile, but I got it done.”

His dad, Jim Waters, laughs when he tells about the state inspector who showed up at Milford Lake to sign off on the homemade sub the day it went into the water.

The guy from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism hadn’t come across many submarines so had Scott explain how he built it and what everything was. The man approved it.

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