Why this Kansan bought a deep-sea submarine

Salina's 'crazy submarine guy' refitting deep sea Pisces VI

Scott Waters bought a deep sea submersible that was in storage and has formed a team to refit the 1970s era submarine with modern technology. He plans on it being used for scientific research or the film industry.
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Scott Waters bought a deep sea submersible that was in storage and has formed a team to refit the 1970s era submarine with modern technology. He plans on it being used for scientific research or the film industry.

Chickens peck in the dirt at the end of the rutted drive.

Out back of the house, a rooster crows. And in a building that looks like a fine place to park a combine, a crew works on a submarine that can go 8,000 feet deep in the ocean.

Only a half-dozen or so subs in the world can do that. The others are owned by governments and research groups in Russia, France, Japan and the U.S.

Then there’s Scott Waters, 29, the head of his family’s chain of hardware stores. He found his submarine in storage in Wisconsin, loaded it on a flatbed truck and hauled it home to Salina.

Its name is Pisces VI and it can go where light can’t, down to an undersea world of legend and fantasy, the part of the planet we know least about.

And Waters is here on a gravel road in Kansas wheat country.

Some people know him as the “crazy submarine guy.”

Fascinated by the deep sea since boyhood, he got hold of a blueprint and built a two-man submarine from scratch. Took him five years. It can go 350 feet deep. He named it “Trustworthy” and not long ago put it in Milford Lake, near Fort Riley.

Worked just like it was supposed to. But he didn’t see much down there.

“Some old tires, mud, tree branches and a few catfish,” Waters said, a boyish smile under the brim of his ball cap.

Hardly Jules Verne stuff. Waters needed more. So he looked the world over and found Pisces VI. Back in its 1970s Cold War heyday, the spherical submersible was used for research and oil exploration in the North Sea.

Its owner, International Underwater Contractors, wanted $500,000. After nine months, Waters, apparently quite the negotiator, got the price down to $30,000. That was in December.

Now, instead of the bottom of Milford Lake, he hopes to someday see undiscovered species, lava flows from underwater volcanoes, bright-colored sponges the size of washing machines and who knows what else.

The plan is to take Pisces VI apart and put it back together using new digital technology to come up with an ultra-modern submersible for scientific research and the film industry. His business plan calls for an investment of $250,000, which he thinks he can make back in two years.

Because a lot of funding has been cut for exploration programs, Waters thinks he can offer Pisces as a cheaper option for scientists and film crews.

He’s a smart guy. Smart enough to know he can’t do this one alone like he did Trustworthy.

So he put together a team of 10, including engineers, scientists and master machinists. One did electrical engineering for NASA.

One is from England, and the rest hail from all over the U.S. Two or three times a year, Waters gathers them at his place north of Salina for a week or two.

The retrofit is well underway. Waters thinks he can have the Pisces ready to launch two years from now. It will first be tested at the University of Pennsylvania, which has a tank that can simulate pressure.

The challenge to the whole thing is that the sub was built in 1976 and has been sitting in storage for 25 years with old saltwater having its way with vital parts.

Safety, contingency and craftsmanship are fairly important.

“Because at 8,000 feet, ain’t nobody coming to get you,” project crew chief Vance Bradley said when the team got together recently.

Pisces will have room for a pilot and three passengers. It will be powered by two 7-horsepower thrusters that can propel it at three knots.

The team works during the day. At night, as stars shine bright over Kansas farmland, they sit in the big outbuilding Waters had made specifically for Pisces. They drink Corona and Labatt Blue, smoke cigars and swap stories about a shared love — the mystery of the deep sea.

Bradley, who lives in Florida, actually worked on Pisces VI back in the day.

“This thing will put footprints on the ocean floor and a hundred years from now they’ll still be there,” Bradley said. “How cool is that?”

Grace C. Young is the project’s science ambassador. She will be the link to research groups and networks such as Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Young graduated from high school early, earned an engineering degree at MIT and now is doing thesis work on oceanic imagery at the University of Oxford in England.

Question: What made her come to be part of this?

“People asked me that when I left Oxford — ‘Kansas? Really?’ It’s because we all believe in what Scott’s doing. I’m very interested in climate change, and the oceans are a big part of that.

“This is very important: This submarine and what he wants to do can change the world.”

Then there’s the Salina guy, master machinist Ryan Brax Johnson, who went to high school with Waters. Early on, he was one of several locals who helped take the sub apart. The others left when that job was over.

Johnson kept coming back. With a background in robotics, he can invent a tool on the spot and then make it. He can’t match the others in academics or tales of the sea, but he makes that up with zeal and pride to be part of something like this.

“I’m the walk-on, the greenhorn,” he said. “But I’ve scraped my knuckles plenty.

“I’ve earned my ride on this thing.”

‘Scott’s dream’

Waters studied at Kansas State University but dropped out because he knew he was destined to take over the family business.

“I figured what better training could I get than to work here and learn how to do things,” he said.

He started an event planning line that today is a key part of the hardware chain’s business.

He likes his job. He’s respectful of the duty. But friends will say his mind reaches far beyond the nuts and bolts of a corporate world.

Then he announced he was building a submarine.

“Sure, people thought I was probably crazy,” he said of Trustworthy. “It took me awhile, but I got it done.”

His dad, Jim Waters, laughs when he tells about the state inspector who showed up at Milford Lake to sign off on the homemade sub the day it went into the water.

The guy from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism hadn’t come across many submarines so had Scott explain how he built it and what everything was. The man approved it.

According to Jim, the guy wrapped up with: “You know, there’s never been a submarine on this lake before.”

He takes pride in that story. Don’t believe all that stuff you hear about millennials, he said. Look at his son. Look at Grace Young, who is 23.

“They want to do great things,” Jim said.

He was the fifth generation to head Waters Hardware before naming Scott to head the company of seven stores and 250 employees.

“Do I wish he spent more time running the business instead of working on his submarine? Sure,” said Jim, who remains as chief financial officer. “Retail is tough. But he’s good at it and my goal in life is to have my three children do something in life they feel really good about.

“The Pisces VI, that’s Scott’s dream. And when you look at history, most of the people who’ve done great things were dreamers.”

Scott comes off as ambitious and exceedingly curious — a young man pulled by the hope of an adventurous future while grounded by family legacy.

Many things in his life seem dichotomous. Feet on the plains, but dreams of the sea. He studies schematics on digital technology while chickens roost out his back door.

And in his garage, on the other side of the wall from Pisces VI, sits a Ford Model A pickup his great-great-grandfather — son of the hardware chain’s founder — used in the 1920s to deliver goods from the first store.

The old truck is a constant reminder of how Scott got to where he is, and ballast for where he wants to go.

“If you met Scott in a bar or at McDonald’s, you’d never know he ran a multimillion-dollar business,” said longtime friend Joel Ernst.

“He’ll wrench on this sub until 10 at night then be back in the office at 6 the next morning.”

Waters also climbs mountains, scuba dives and pilots a plane.

“If he could get a seat to go to Mars, he’d do it,” Ernst said. “And once he makes up his mind to do something, there’s no stopping him.”

Johnson nodded.

“I figure that’s why he got the thing for $30,000 — they knew he’d get it back in the water.”

‘Won’t be easy’

John Smith, science director for the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory, or HURL, was surprised to learn that Pisces VI was in Kansas.

HURL, which formed in 1980 as part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, owns Pisces IV and V. Earlier this month, the subs were northwest of Hawaii near the international date line as part of a Florida State University research project on deep sea coral recovery.

HURL once tried to acquire Pisces VI.

“The VI is actually the deepest-rated one and that’s why we were interested in it,” said Smith, who has been 16,000 feet deep in another kind of research sub. “We didn’t know this guy had it.

“It’s a classic sub, but what he wants to do won’t be easy.”

When Waters gets the sub ocean-ready, it will have to be approved by the American Bureau of Shipping, the world’s leading ship classification society. It sets standards for maritime safety and operations.

“I doubt there’s an inspector in Kansas,” Smith said.

Pisces in pieces

Late morning, a farmer’s pickup stirred the dust on the gravel road in front of Waters’ house.

Out back, the Pisces team was trying to figure a way to disassemble the latch on the sub’s hatch.

The building measures 38 feet by 85 feet and has an 18-foot ceiling. The concrete floor is seven inches thick. A gantry lift helps support the 15,000-pound submarine.

Big parts of Pisces sit around. Old wooden crates hold smaller parts.

“We have Pisces all over the place in here,” Bradley said.

A big part of job has been to dig through it all to see what can be reused. Many parts, though, will be replaced regardless with lighter ones, allowing the new Pisces to shed a thousand pounds.

“We’re going to lighten the load and have more room for crew and be able to stay down longer,” said Mike Patterson, the former NASA engineer who was brought on to work on electronics and propulsion systems.

He and Bradley were lifting parts from a heap and calling them out: oxygen monitor, electrical accessory panel, oxygen inlet flow component, starboard motor controller and so on.

Young climbed out of a crate with an electrical connector in decent shape.

She smiled.

“This is like finding gold,” she said.

She and the others turn loose their regular lives to make these regular trips to Kansas, and they stay at Waters’ place. It all makes perfect sense to them.

“This is a rare and a one-of-a-kind thing,” Patterson said, smiling.

The team also includes a welding specialist, a safety director and a documentarian.

For Waters, a prairie boy inspired by Disney’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” it’s about where Pisces VI is headed, not where they are getting her ready.

“Besides,” he said, “I’m about equal distance from the Atlantic and Pacific.”

The team works hard, bangs knuckles and gets dirty. They came together as strangers, but now gather like family.

And after supper, as they talk deep into the night, the same stars that guided ships of old shine bright above the wheat fields.

Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182