By Keili Bartlett

Local Journalism Initiative

Whether you’ve just spent a summer by Kootenay Lake, or if you have a keen eye on the Nelson Buy and Sell pages on Facebook, you’ve may have seen a one-of-a-kind vessel pop-up: a homemade submarine.

The man in the machine? That would be Hank Pronk, who has built eight submarines in his lifetime – all without formal engineering experience. Pronk launched the first when he was around 20 years old.

“I was probably in over my head,” he said of his first underwater project.

While Pronk doesn’t remember the details from the test dive of that submarine, he said it was “pretty darn scary.”

His interest in underwater vessels surfaced in his teens, and Pronk credits the internet with giving him the tools he needed to bring his dream to new depths.

“That’s the beauty of the internet. Before the internet, it was really tough. But once we got the internet, I mean, you can find out anything you need to know.”

Pronk also joined a submarine group made up of other home-based builders, called the Personal Submarines Organization, who share their knowledge and experience.

“I just find them extremely intriguing,” Pronk said of submarines. “I think I like building them more than using them, actually. But using them is pretty fun too.

“I just use it to explore the lake, and I also donate my submarine and my time to science groups.”

With Innerspace Science, Pronk has helped scientists reach the depths of their research. He’s been on two dives, one in California and one in Montana, to get to the bottom of studies with grad students.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Pronk used his time to work on two submarines. His deep-diver goes 3,000 ft. underwater. It was originally scheduled to go under in the spring, but the pandemic delayed those plans. In the meantime, Pronk put his second sub together, just to have something to work on in isolation over the summer.

That is the submarine he now has up for sale. Since posting the vessel for sale, Pronk has had several people contact him, although not all inquiries have been serious.

Anyone serious has to have an understanding of life support systems, similar to a rebreather diver.

“I’ve never been in a submarine unless I built it,” Pronk said. “They’re just not around. Where would I go to get a submarine ride?”

While some tourism operators offer rides in large submarines, they’re far away and Pronk prefers one or two-person research subs anyway.

Smaller submarines are also much cheaper to build. Pronk is involved in every stage of the build, making his own acrylic windows, doing his own welding, everything from engineering right down to painting. This also helps keep the costs down. While his hobby may be unusual – it’s certainly not pandemic breadmaking – it’s cheaper than buying a new motorboat or a pair of 4x4s, he points out.

The Invermere resident often tests his new equipment out in local lakes.

“Kootenay Lake is really perfect for the small subs that don’t go really deep, because I can send it down 450 feet right at Boswell. I send them down unmanned and then they just automatically return to the surface. I also go to Kuskanook Harbour for the shallower tests. Kuskanook Harbour is just such a nice facility for that, with two ramps that you can back down, you’re not holding people up. It’s just a really nice lake to work with,” he said, adding he’ll frequent Slocan Lake in New Denver for dives close to shore.

“I see a lot of mud. And I see a lot of plants. We don’t have a lot of history here for the kind of wrecks that they have in the Great Lakes,” he said. “If you’re looking for a wreck, it’s pretty boring here. Having said that, there’s a nice wreck that we are going to look at in Crawford Bay in the spring.”

Pronk and his submarine will be exploring the S.S. City of Ainsworth, which sank in 1898. The wreck was first visited in 1997, marking the deepest dive in Canada at the time.

“I’ve never been in outer space, but I can imagine that it would be very similar to that, because with the lights off, it’s completely pitch-dark. You’re just floating weightless in the water column. It’s just you and the machine,” Pronk said. “It’s just very calming. It’s very relaxing for me.”

While Pronk usually stays submerged for around four hours, he said his submarines can stay underwater for 72 hours in an emergency.

“Quite often I’ll just sink to the bottom of the lake and eat my lunch and have a coffee and watch the fish swim around.”

There have been two occasions when Pronk has been towing his submarine to a lake for diving and other drivers have turned around, curiosity getting the better of them, to find out what he’s doing.

“A lot of people are quite intrigued, of course,” Pronk said. “For the most part, everybody’s really nice. People are even helping me load it and unload it. It’s really quite a nice experience running into the people I meet.”

Pronk also has his own Youtube channel, where he shares videos of his dives, interior tours and in-progress projects. His son encouraged him to join the platform, and through it Pronk has enjoyed sharing his experience.

“Plus, it gives me a chance to brag a little,” he said.

If you don’t spot Pronk and his subs submerging or emerging from a Kootenay lake, you can find him on his Youtube channel, “Hank Pronk“.

This segment originally aired on Kootenay Co-op Radio’s Kootenay Morning show on Oct. 19. Find episodes here.