Duluth man will explore Lake Superior in his yellow submarine
Driver after driver craned their necks for a better look as the sleek steel machine passed by them on Highway 61 through Two Harbors.
Top hatch, rear propeller, bottom ballast tanks, bright daffodil color -- could it be? Yep, it was a real-life home-built yellow submarine, on its way Thursday to the Knife River Marina for a test of its lake-worthiness.
Lifelong tinkerer Dean Ackman and a crew of friends and family slipped the submarine into the water and came up with some good news and some bad news. The good: The 6,000-pound submarine was nicely balanced in the water, bobbing steadily up and down and not side to side. The bad news: A new leak had sprung somewhere in one of the main ballast tanks. Oh well, Ackman said. It was no reason to be discouraged.
"If it was easy, everyone would want to do this," he said as he and the crew secured the submarine on the trailer for the 30-mile trip home.
It's taken Ackman nearly three years of cutting, rolling and welding sheets of high-density steel in his workshop in Brimson to get this far. Aside from a car headlight, the electronic equipment and some salvaged Trex decking, Ackman has had to hand-craft each part of the two-man sub.
"You have to enjoy doing that," Ackman said. "There are no submarine stores."
Ackman said he has long loved exploring beneath the surface of Lake Superior. But scuba diving in the lake's 39 degree waters is cold and uncomfortable, and divers can spend only a limited time in the depths.
His solution: build a personal submarine. When all the bugs are worked out, Ackman said he will be able to spend up to six hours at a time tooling around the lake. With help and advice from other members of the worldwide Personal Submersibles Organization, he has brought his latest dream almost to the launching point.
Ackman's son, Adam, said he wasn't surprised when he learned his dad was building a submarine.
Years ago, "he started with a remote-controlled submarine," Adam Ackman said. The six-foot-long sub dipped just a few feet below the water, but it worked.
Dean Ackman has piloted just one submarine in his life. Two years ago he took a spin in Lake Michigan in one -- also painted yellow, like most personal subs, for high visibility -- and he was hooked.
"You're free and loose," Ackman said. And safe, he said; personal submarines have multiple safety factors built in. The submarine runs on batteries, but doesn't depend on the batteries to ascend and descend. And even if every other safety factor fails, a submarine pilot can always slip on a scuba mask and tank, open the hatch and swim for the surface. Once the leaks are all sealed, Ackman will start a series of up-and-down dips, called "tea bag tests," he said, "until you get comfy."
He needs to find a horn for the sub to be in full compliance with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource's watercraft registration guidelines.
Then he will spend the winter smoothing and polishing the yellow steel hull, waiting for spring and dreaming of hour after hour moving free and loose beneath a big, cold, exciting lake.