HOLDERNESS — When Jack Head was a machinist working in Laconia, he casually mentioned to his co-workers that he figured he could build a submarine. No way, they said.
“I said, what!? Yes, I can,” he said.
That was nearly 30 years ago. On Wednesday, Head, now retired and living in Campton, came closer than ever to finally achieving his goal of a fully-functional submarine, with a test launch into Little Squam Lake.
“It’s not fully functional yet,” Head, a veteran of both the U.S. Army and Air Force, said prior to a test launch on Wednesday. “I’ve got to test how she floats, I’ve got to test the motor... I’ve got to learn how to drive it, too.”
Since 1990, the submarine – painted yellow, of course – has been something of an obsession for Head. There were many years where he had to leave it in storage during a rough patch in his personal life, but as soon as things stabilized for him, he returned to his sub.
Head is a fabricator, not an engineer, and his design is the result of trial-and-error.
He started by cutting apart and welding together old propane tanks to create the hull of his sub, which is 20 feet long. Heavy weights attached to the bottom prevent the sub from rolling over. A rudder on the stern is moved back and forth by a wheel Head can crank from inside the sub. A handful of small windows allow him to peek out at what’s around, whether above or below water.
He originally put a small car engine in it, but found after a first test run on Lake Opechee that an electric motor would be much cooler and quieter inside the sub. So he replaced the car engine with a motor from a golf cart, which can generate about five horsepower.
He first tried hooking that up to a couple of car batteries. “They went dead right away, I was just able to drive around in a circle,” he said.
It was clear that he needed to upgrade his batteries to the same energy storage units used in golf carts, and he figured he would need four of them. That set his project on hold, because the batteries cost him around $1,000 – he figures he has spent around $5,000 on his submarine so far – and it took him some time to save up the money.
He also added a scuba tank, which he uses to blow out the ballast tanks once he wants to surface. Lastly, he added a reduction gear to the driveline because the golf cart motor was spinning the propellor too fast.
The sub is registered as a boat, and has lights and a horn, making it legal on public waters.
With the recent additions in place, Head wanted to see how the sub would handle. So, last week, along with friend John Wells, he launched his home-made submarine from the Fish and Game ramp on the Squam River and, with the help of a friendly boater, towed it into Little Squam Lake.
Head was able to maneuver the sub at a moderate pace, and cause the nose to sink under the surface when the front ballast tank was filled with water. But then one of the small windows began to leak, so he blew out the tank and surfaced. He then decided to put the motor and batteries to the test, and went down the lake, about halfway from the river, he said, and headed back.
All in all, a successful test. And he has a few more things to work on. He needs to seal the leaking window, fine-tune the bow plane, and he has to do something about managing the motor’s temperature.
“I’ve got to see what I can do about the motor, it got too hot,” Head said.
After the test run, he said it felt, “Pretty good, feels good. I accomplished some forward progress with it.”
To Head, building a submarine has been an enjoyable way to take the skills he has learned and apply them in a way he never had before.
“It has been a learning experience for sure. I’ve had to figure things out,” he said. And he has learned to persevere in the face of doubt.
“My own parents thought I was nuts. A lot of people think I’m crazy, but, oh well. I don’t base what I do in my life on people who are negative,” he said.