April 21, 2017
by Philip Howard
The World Submarine Invitational
1996, a human-powered submarine race pitting design teams from around the world,
was held in San Diego, California, 3-12 April 1996.
Twenty-two teams were entered in
the race, including Florida Atlantic University, MIT, the University of
Massachusetts, the University of California, the U.S. Naval Academy…and Calvin
Wilkerson of Ocracoke Island!
Calvin’s vision, and his design,
were unique. A 50-year-old creative tinkerer, Calvin was ready to build a
human-powered submarine. And he wanted to promote safe sex at a time when
Americans were still skittish about having that conversation. He had friends
who had died of AIDS. “People’s lives depend on discussing condoms and using them,”
So Calvin decided to incorporate
condoms in the design of his submarine’s propulsion system. “I thought this was
as good a way as any to bring condoms into table conversation,” he said.
“People might laugh when they talk about it, but hopefully the conversation
would turn more serious.”
In the fall of 1995 Calvin
Wilkerson began construction of his submarine which he dubbed the Condomed
Nautilus. Calvin had already been accepted to compete in the World Submarine
Invitational. He had less than six months to complete his project.
The vessel was to be three feet
wide, torpedo-shaped, with a round bow (reminiscent of the bulbous bows on
sea-going vessels), and a “fish tail” stern, webbed like a “Chinese fingertrap.”
One writer who saw the vessel described it “a big, blue sea slug.” The flexible
tail was designed to allow the pilot to move the tail side-to-side with his
feet in order to steer the vessel in much the same way as a fish navigates. No
rudder was necessary.
Paint rollers were arranged
inside the perimeter of the cylindrical submarine frame, and rotated by a
pedaled bicycle mechanism. In the course of their rotation, the paint rollers
pushed water through 42 condoms. The resulting propulsion mimicked the
operation of the marine mollusk, the chambered nautilus. No pump or other
mechanical advantage was employed. The idea was that the forward motion of the
vessel would force water into the condoms which were then squeezed by the paint
rollers, creating a “peristaltic” drive for the submarine. Calvin explained it
as “1950s technology with a 1990s message.”
Calvin Wilkerson inside his Condomed Nautilus:
When completed, Calvin’s
single-person vessel, built in his back yard for about $10,000, weighed 280
pounds, was 13 feet long, 3 feet wide, and constructed of Kevlar tubes. It was
a free-flooding “wet” submarine powered
by one pilot breathing with scuba gear, lying face down. Calvin was hoping his
vessel would be capable of breaking the existing speed record (2.9 knots/hour)
for a human-powered submarine without a propeller.
Condomed Nautilus & Crew:
(l.to r.: Ray, Chris, Cathy, Clark, Calvin, Tommy, Chip)
In December, 1995, Calvin called
Tommy Burruss, a former Ocracoke resident and now a film maker in New York
City, and asked him to use his professional connections to contact the
Carter-Wallace Company (makers of Trojan condoms) and Durex (also makers of
condoms) as possible sponsors for the submarine. Both companies refused.
However, a southern California thrift store, Out of the Closet, donated free
condoms for the project.
Fascinated with Calvin’s project,
and eager to be a part of the team, Tommy moved back to Ocracoke in January,
1996. By springtime, Calvin and his volunteer crew were scrambling to complete
their vessel in time to compete in the April race in California.
At the very last opportunity,
Tommy and Calvin rented a van in Norfolk, Virginia, loaded the disassembled
Condomed Nautilus inside, and drove to California. Forty hours later they were
in Escondido. The submarine had never
The submarine was tested for the
first time, in a swimming pool in California. The condoms burst, validating the
condom companies’ reluctance about sponsoring the project. Bicycle inner tubes
were quickly substituted for condoms.
The following day the Condomed
Nautilus was trucked to the Offshore Model Basin, Escondido, San Diego County,
California, for entrance in the World Submarine Invitational '96. The indoor
freshwater model tow basin, the largest in the US, measures approximately 91 m
(300 ft) long, 15 m (50 ft) wide and 4.5 m (15 ft) deep. Sponsors of the race
wanted it to be staged in a controlled environment, encouraging the designers
to challenge the medium, not the environment; and the clock, not each other.
Contestants were divided into
three divisions with four categories in each division. The Condomed Nautilus
competed in the Open Division, one-person, non-propeller.
Because of the unconventional
construction of Calvin’s submarine, and the perception that there was little
chance of its succeeding, the vessel was registered as the last entrant. When
its time came, with Clark Eddy piloting and relying only on a “spare air” tank,
the sub moved forward very slowly (at about ¼ knot per hour), proved
unsteerable, and ran into the side of the pool, knocking off the round Plexiglas nose piece. The Condomed
Nautilus never completed the race.
Calvin was undeterred, however, and
continued to work on his vessel. The next year he attempted to enter his
submarine in the International Submarine Races at the David Taylor Model Basin in Carderock, Maryland, hosted by the
Naval Surface Warfare Center. His application was rejected. According to the
ISR director, the policy of the host was that “…there can be no display of
anything that can be considered illegal, offensive, in bad taste or in
violation of Department of Defense or Department of the Navy policy. The Center
reserves the exclusive right to determine what fits into this category.”
In spite of enthusiastic support
for his project by such notables as Dr. Martin Gorosh, clinical professor of
public health at Columbia University School of Public Health and the Center for
Population and Family Health, and retired Navy Capt. Jim Stubstadt, one of the
world’s leading authorities on human-powered underwater vehicles, the Condomed
Nautilus never participated in another race.
Today, more than twenty years
after that race in San Diego, Calvin Wilkerson’s quirky and unconventional
Condomed Nautilus is still remembered fondly on Ocracoke Island, and still has
the potential to help legitimize public talk about the use of condoms.
(Many thanks to Tommy Burruss and Cathy Scarborough for sharing their memories and photos of this historic endeavor!)
We can trace the idea of
submersibles to Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th century conceptual
drawings. But it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the first
submarine (a vessel capable of independent underwater operation and movement)
was constructed. This was the single-person acorn-shaped military submarine, Turtle, invented by American David
Bushnell in 1775.
The design and construction of
submarines continued to improve. In 1864 the Confederate Navy built the H. L. Hunley, a human-powered military
submarine, the first to sink an enemy
vessel. By WWI, submarines were an essential component of the world’s major
In 1989 Stann Dunn, at Florida
Atlantic University, and Hap Perry, with the H. A. Perry Foundation, organized
the first human-powered submarine competition. The following three races were
held in 1991, 1993, and 1996. As of this writing at least thirteen races have
been held. The next race will be in June, 2017. History and information about these
races is available at http://internationalsubmarineraces.org/.
of teams participating in the WSI'96:
Cal Poly Pomona, Pomona, CA DaVinci, San Diego, CA Florida
Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL Florida International University, Miami, FL
Dr. Robert Iannello, Moreno Valley, CA Millersville University, Millersville,
PA MIT, Cambridge, MA (tentative) Penn State University, University Park, PA
Port Hueneme Aquatic Race Team, Pt Hueneme, CA Rose-Hulman Institute of
Technology, Terre Haute, IN Sub Diego, San Diego, CA SubSound, Silverdale, WA
Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, TN Texas A &M University,
College Station, TX Texas A & M University-Galveston, Galveston, TX
University of California, San Diego University of Massachusetts-Lowell
University of Washington, Seattle, WA University of Western Ontario, London,
Ontario, Canada U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD (tentative) West Virginia
University, Morgantown, WV, Calvin Wilkerson, Ocracoke, NC