Off the Deep End

By Thayer Walker – June 2008 – Outside Magazine

Karl Stanley’s homemade submarine has sprung a leak. It’s a discovery both fortuitous and disconcerting. Fortuitous because I notice it as we bob on the surface of the placid Caribbean Sea, just a few hundred feet off the Honduran island of Roatán. Disconcerting because it’s 8:30 p.m. and we’re about to spend the night 1,600 feet down searching for the six-gill shark, an enigmatic 15-foot, 1,300-pound predator that patrols these depths.

“That’s just the O-ring,” Stanley reassures me as water wells up in the window and drips to the floor. Apparently the rubber washer meant to seal the window separating us from watery doom is feeling a touch rebellious. “It doesn’t have enough compression on it. Hopefully it will fix itself under pressure.” Stanley is a problem solver, and he casually throws me a towel to wipe up the moisture, more concerned about the corrosive properties of saltwater than the possibility of a catastrophic breach.

The words homemade and submarine aren’t commonly paired, but Stanley, a 34-year-old self-taught engineer, has built two DIY subs, safely logging more than 1,000 dives. Still, sitting in Idabel, the cramped three-person craft he built on a shoestring, I can’t help but recall that a faulty O-ring caused the space shuttle Challenger, with its NASA Ph.D.’s and multi-billion-dollar budget, to blow up. Stanley turns a handle, filling the ballast tanks with water, and we begin to sink into unexplored darkness.

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