Juneau's Captain Nemo

Local mechanic builds personal submarine

Posted: Wednesday, August 07, 2002

Cal C. Giordano has been building a homemade submarine in a garage near Juneau Airport since late June. Recently he took the 20-foot craft, made from an industrial buoy and a large propane tank, for a test float in Auke Bay.

"And I came home with a Coast Guard escort," Giordano said, chuckling. "I didn't have my AK (boat registration) numbers yet."

The homemade submarine, christened Arch Duke Grand Excelsior Ruler of the High Seas, looks like a enormous, wingless, extra-terrestrial mosquito, with a propane tank abdomen, a buoy head, and three oversized port hole eyes. The outboard motor in the back makes it hum.

"The design is 100 percent my own," Giordano said. "I'm an artist, I come from an art background, plus I have a pretty good grasp on physics. (The design) combines my love of art with basic submarine science."

Giordano is a self-described "ace mechanic master craftsman" who taught himself welding and boat mechanics. He hasn't taken a science class since he was in high school in Bethel, where he grew up. He learned most of his submarine-building physics from experience, reading books and watching the science shows on cable television.

"The Discovery Channel and the Learning Channel, that's about it," he said.

Giordano said he has designed and built some cannons and several other vehicles, including a steam-powered go-cart and a steam rocket. He started drawing a sub in a notebook in his spare time, and after a while the idea took off.

"I didn't stop designing it until it looked real neat," he said.

Then, he decided to build it by his 37th birthday on July 25. He makes a living as a boat mechanic, so he had to work on the Arch Duke in his off hours. Sometimes he stayed up all night.

"I decided I would build it on the old military schedule, go from plans to finished in one month," he said. "Some mornings I was really tired."

The craft cost about $2,500 to make, and many of the parts were salvaged or sold to him by local businesses at discounted prices.

"The only real cash outlay was for the portholes and the buoy," he said.

The buoy, which is 48 inches in diameter, was ordered from a company in California. Giordano has turned it into the pilot house. Inside, he mounted a plastic seat, throttle and steering wheel. Eventually there will be a bilge pump, he said. The propane tank in back is a completely separate chamber that can keep the pilot house afloat if the front compartment were to take on water, he said.

The run-in with the Coast Guard last week ended with the inspectors warning him to get a license and proper safety equipment.

"They were really nice about it and asked if they could take pictures," Giordano said.

Aside from the minor Coast Guard snag, the Arch Duke's first dip was a success. The boat was stable and could right itself easily when tipped. People from the harbor gathered to watch him come in.

"She passed with flying colors," Giordano said, beaming. "When I came in, people were saying, "What the heck is that? Hey, that's cool!' "

Kurt Iverson was walking the Auke Bay dock on his lunch break on Monday when he saw the Arch Duke moored there.

"My first thought was that it was a submarine and then I saw an outboard motor on the back and I noticed the wheels on the bottom and I had no idea what those were for," Iverson said.

The wheels, which Giordano is particularly proud of, are part of the Arch Duke's built-in trailer. Giordano has been hauling the craft with a Peterbilt tractor. The wheels, which look much like those on a small airplane, are filled with water and antifreeze to keep them from disturbing the buoyancy balance of the craft and to keep them from freezing. Giordano has built the boat to withstand freezing temperatures. The bow is designed to break ice, he said.

The next step is to submerge the Arch Duke. Giordano plans to test it at a depth of eight feet with the help of an internal propulsion system, basically the outboard motor installed inside the propane tank, which he has yet to construct. His oxygen will be supplied by a snorkle-like tube that will extend above the surface of the water. Another tube will release exhaust. Eventually he plans to have an oxygen supply attached to the pilot house.

Giordano realizes being inside a small metal buoy under water could be dangerous, especially if something were to go wrong when he takes the boat deeper than eight feet, where the water pressure is high. Giordano stressed that he has built and tested the boat with safety in mind.

"The one thing I try to rely on is safety being the main factor," he said. "It will go deeper than any depth I will ever take it. I don't want to get killed, so I will never take it as deep as it will go."

Giordano also wants to make some cosmetic upgrades on the Arch Duke, including welding a large metal shark fin on the back, and mounting a 137-pound brass cannon on the fin "for nostalgia and looks," he said. The cannon will be removable.

"I can't leave no cannon in the harbor, but it will be real nice to have on there, and good for holidays," he said.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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