This month, the Coast Guard detained four men who were allegedly trying to smuggle 3.5 tons of cocaine meant for the U.S. News accounts of the Nov. 16 bust, about 90 miles southwest of Costa Rica, described their unusual vessel as a 50-foot homemade fiberglass submarine.
That caught the attention of a busy netherworld of hobbyists who build submarines in their garages.
"The captured drug-sub appears to be amateurish in construction and not nearly as seaworthy as the subs we have seen, designed and built," said Jon Wallace, a software engineer for Hewlett-Packard in Weare, N.H. In 1996 he cofounded the Personal Submersibles Organization, which now counts about 13,000 visitors per month to its Web site, psubs.org.
"Semi-submersible at best," sniffed another critic in a posting on the group's site.
After reading reports and seeing photographs of the captured vessel, hobbyists concluded that the gray drug craft was crudely constructed and not a serious attempt at building a submarine. Some said it was more a boat meant to blend into the water, skim just below the surface, travel long distances and avoid radar detection. A giveaway was that it was made of fiberglass -- which is generally not a good material for building a submersible vessel, they say. It also had a squarish design rather than the cylindrical shape required to withstand pressure and stress.
Law-enforcement agencies from Colombia to California are increasingly worried about drug-stuffed submarines slinking along beneath the seas. "We are out there actively searching for these," says Capt. Thomas Cullen, chief of response for the U.S. Coast Guard 11th District based in Alameda, Calif., which oversaw the boarding and seizing of the vessel off Costa Rica. It was the first manned sub-like vehicle seized by the U.S., according to Capt. Cullen. Authorities in Colombia have seized a couple of homemade subs in the past two years.
Costa Rican authorities say that the vessel seized this month was gasoline-powered, and that it traveled just below the surface with the crew using snorkel-type tubes to breathe. "Certainly these guys are not PSUBS regulars. Gasoline engines in a submersible are no-nos," wrote Ray Keefer, 45 years old, a computer test engineer in Gaston, Ore., and co-founder of the group. Gasoline engines would be dangerous in a submarine. The Coast Guard says its reports indicate the seized craft had a diesel engine.
Mr. Keefer and others believe the captured vessel should more accurately be called a "David boat," a type of torpedo boat used during the Civil War that operated mostly underwater with only its smokestack and a few inches of hull visible above the surface. "Mostly underwater but not a submersible," he wrote.
James Huffman, 28, a warehouse laborer in Tacoma, Wash., and submarine history buff who first got interested in submarines while playing the "Up Periscope!" computer game in eighth grade, says the craft reminded him of the gasoline- and battery-powered USS Holland from around 1900, the U.S. Navy's first commissioned submarine.
Man's fascination with exploring the underwater world dates back at least to Alexander the Great, who according to legend descended beneath the waves in some kind of glass globe. Experimentation with underwater craft continued in the 1500s through the 1700s.
In more recent history, sub-like craft were first used militarily in the U.S. during the Revolutionary War. Modern diesel and battery-powered designs appeared during the two World Wars, and in 1954, the era of true submarines that can stay submerged for long periods emerged with the nuclear-powered USS Nautilus.
Hobbyists have been building homemade subs for years with the help of plans in magazines like Popular Mechanics and designs from men like former naval submarine captain George Kittredge, whom some hobbyists consider the founder of the homemade-sub craft. The advent of the Internet brought sub fans together and let them share designs and tips.
Enthusiasts liken their submarine-building work, which can cost $15,000 or more and take many years, to building an airplane or a boat from scratch. While it is possible to buy design plans, no catalogs exist for parts. Builders have to cook them up at home. For prices ranging from about $70,000 to $1 million or more, companies like U.S. Submarines Inc. and Netherlands-based U-Boat Worx offer ready-made submarines that are popular with yacht owners looking for another toy.
Some sub enthusiasts question why smugglers would use a submarine in the first place since subs are slow and must surface. "I could see somebody towing a submersible below a cargo ship," wrote one on the psubs.org Web site and electronic mailing list. George Slaterpryce, 28, a software engineer in Ocala, Fla., suggested that "a true smuggling submarine" would "have to be something that cruises at 60 feet or so (just deep enough not to be easily noticed)," be constructed of lightweight materials and powered by a relatively silent motor and have enough air for days of submersion.
Members of the Personal Submersibles Organization recognize that the submersibles they build are not technically submarines, according to some definitions. Most homemade-sub hobbyists build one- and two-passenger steel subs that resemble 10-foot- to 15-foot-long propane tanks in shape with view ports. These subs are called 1ATMs, or 1 atmosphere subs, because they, like military subs, maintain basically the same air pressure inside as at sea level. Depending on the design, 1ATMs can descend 350 feet or more, travel at speeds up to about five miles an hour and stay underwater for at least an hour.
Alec Smyth, 42, of Alexandria, Va., a director of client services at software company Compuware Corp., has two subs of his own, one that descends to 250 feet and the other, still in construction, to 700 feet. He says sub hobbyists have one thing in common: "We all watched way too many Cousteau movies as kids."