You could say Fairmont resident Hank Pronk is a deep fellow. No, that doesn’t mean he’s the kind of guy who likes inquisitive philosophic discussions over campfi res. He’s much more literally a deep fellow: Pronk builds homemade submarines and then uses them to plumb the depths of local lakes. Indeed one of Pronk’s latest submarines, the Elementary 3000 (or E3000), is in fact the deepest diving homemade crewed submarine in the world. “# ere’s one (other homemade submarine) in Honduras that is close, but it’s not quite equal,” Pronk told the Pioneer, adding his submarine has been pressured tested to depths of 2,900 feet in a pressure chamber in Vancouver. # e E3000 and a newer, smaller submarine, the AP-400 (which Pronk built as an “isolation project” this year, while stuck at home during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, are the two most recent of the eight submarines he’s made over the past four decades, stretching back to when he was 16. As B.C. and the rest of Canada emerged from pandemic lockdowns this summer, Pronk has taken his submarines out for plunges in local lakes around the Kootenay, posting YouTube videos of manned dives with the AP-400 in Premier Lake in August and the E3000 in Kootenay Lake in September. # e dives were testing the waters, so to speak, allowing Pronk to work out any bugs, and he is planning on taking the E3000 to the wreck of paddle steamer S.S. City of Ainsworth, which sits nearly 400 feet down on the bottom of Kootenay Lake sometime in March or April.
The wreck is a designated historic site: the City of Ainsworth was the third sternwheeler on Kootenay Lake and sank in dramatic conditions in a gale-force storm in 1898, taking nine lives as it did. # e depth is extreme enough that the remains of the wreck were not discovered for 90 years, and this depth plus the low visibility and potentially dangerous surface conditions on Kootenay Lake mean that only one scuba dive has successfully reached the ship. Pronk’s dive will be the fi rst submarine trip to the site. Building these submarines is no easy feat. Aside from the custom-bent occupant’s sphere, Pronk designs and creates all the submarines systems and parts himself. But then again, engineering and tinkering are the points for Pronk. “I actually enjoy building them more than using them,” he said. “Using them is often a big deal. You need a custom trailer, a boat ramp, a special compressor. # ere’s a lot more to diving a sub than just having a submarine. For me, the designing and creating are what really piques my curiosity. With all the information available online these days, you really can fi gure out how to make anything you want. For the 3,000 footer, I just really wanted to push the bar a bit and see what I could do. A homemade sub that can go to 3,000 feet, that’s about as deep as you can go. It’s a really serious depth, and making a submarine that goes beyond that depth becomes prohibitively expensive.” Pronk is part of Innerspace Science, a nonprofi t group that connects private submarines with scientists and educators. # rough this group, Pronk has volunteered in the past to take researchers to the bottom of Lake Tahoe and Flathead Lake in his submarines. “I do get around with it,” said Pronk. “One of the funnest parts of these projects is travelling with the submarine. At boat ramps, it always draws a crowd, and you end up meeting some really interesting people.” What’s it like being on the bottom of local lakes? “It’s like being in outer space. You’re in an enclosed space, just hanging weightless and you can’t see very far. For me, it feels very relaxing,” said Pronk. “At 200 feet, it’s usually pitch dark. Absolutely black. But I have plenty of lighting.” When Pronk says that the enclosed space is somewhat tight, he isn’t kidding: the sphere has a 48 inch diameter. And don’t forget, if you go deep enough in the submarine, there are 157 tons of force pushing down on the hatch, essentially — from a physic standpoint — trying to push the hatch in on itself.“It’s no problem for me. I’m not claustrophobic,” he said. Pronk’s favourite local lake to dive in a submarine is Premier Lake.“It’s only 105 feet deep, but there’s a little canyon that transects the lake bottom. It’s super narrow and quite interesting; there’s a lot down there,” he said. “Moyie Lake is also neat. # ere’s really weird channels at the bottom there, and they zig-zag all over and intersect with each other. I don’t know why they are there. It’s kind of eerie.” What inspires Pronk to build submarines instead of pursuing a more conventional hobby?“I really have no idea, I don’t have an answer for that. I just like it,” he said. “When you have an interest you pursue it.” # is winter Pronk is building an indoor swimming pool, so he can “dive” his submarines even when local lakes are frozen, and also to help train other people (he is often accompanied on his submarine dives by his son Anthony and friend Brian Nadwidney, who is a technical diver and helps with testing and safety backup) to pilot the submersibles. You can follow along as Pronk prepares for the dive to the S.S. City of Ainsworth through the videos he regularly posts to his YouTube channel.