the boy who built a submarineKarl Stanley makes submarines from scratch and doesn’t need millions to do it. His creations, he says, are built on enthusiasm.
Karl Stanley’s life changed forever one evening back in 1983. Just 9 at the time, he was reading a children’s book about a group of boys who built their own submersible. “There and then, I knew that was what I wanted to do,” he says.
Stanley got down to the actual handiwork at the age of 15, having done research, drawn up blueprints and saved money from part-time jobs. He received some help—his parents later paid for him to train as a welder—but a fair amount of ridicule, too: “I lost touch with a lot of friends.”
Eight years later, the American dived to depths of 656 feet in a submersible he’d built by himself. A year later, a hotelier in Honduras hired him as an underwater guide.
Stanley is still doing the job to this day, touring the Caribbean at depths of more than 2,952 feet in the submarine Idabel, which he designed in 2002 and spent two years building.
THE RED BULLETIN: Building a submarine usually costs anywhere between a couple of million and several billion dollars. How did you scrape together the money for your sub when you were 15?
KARL STANLEY: Little by little. First, I had to train as a welder. My parents paid for the course, but then they could no longer support me, so I got a job selling ice cream, and I dealt in second-hand books at the university library.
You can make millions of dollars selling ice cream and used schoolbooks?
I didn’t have to raise that much. All I needed in the eight years I worked on the first sub was $20,000.
How did you manage on such a tight budget?
By doing a lot of the work myself and buying the materials at a scrapyard. But one thing you should never scrimp on is steel. You need steel that’s not going to rust and that can withstand the pressure. It costs a bit more, but it saves lives.
Submarines are normally designed and built by whole teams of engineers. You were a teenager and did it all on your own. Are you some kind of genius?
No, I just had the motivation. I did my research over a long period. I read a lot of books. I met people who’d put together their own subs in the ’60s …
But surely a person could read every book about cars, talk to every engineer and still not be able to build a Ford Mustang single-handedly at home?
It’s much easier to build a sub than it is to build a car. Basically, there are only two possible shapes if you want the craft to be submersible and withstand pressure: cylindrical or spherical. And it has to be made of steel. These limitations make things easier.
So you don’t need a fortune or an elite college education, just the will to do it?
Yes. It all just comes down to determination. When I started out I didn’t have the money or the expertise. But you can earn money and save it, and you don’t have to go to college for the know-how; all you’ll learn there is boring theory. You have to get to grips with something yourself if you really want to learn. That doesn’t only apply to subs; I’m convinced the same principle applies to all walks of life.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of building their own sub?
Just hang on in there. And never doubt yourself.
Then search for sunken treasure and get rich?
Er … no. You’d soon end up in a bureaucratic nightmare, or in court. Who does the gold or silver belong to? Governments normally put a claim on it. I don’t know any stories about treasure with a happy ending.
What does make all your efforts worthwhile, then?
Adventure. I’ve always been driven by a sense of adventure. You know, I’m incredibly envious of the people who lived 300 years ago; they could just go somewhere and discover something new. That wouldn’t happen nowadays, because everything has been discovered and surveyed. Apart from the ocean. The ocean is the last place where you can still feel like an explorer.