Exploring Lake Hopatcong in a Submarine

IMG_2037leadThe fictional 1980s TV character MacGyver lives on in 18-year-old Hopatcong summer resident Justin Beckerman.

Since the age of 2, Beckerman has been combining art and science and making things, things that sound an awful lot like the things MacGyver used to make. Granted, nothing Beckerman has made (yet, anyway) has been used to save lives but the things he makes, and there are a lot of them, are all made from typical household items: string, paper plates, lined paper, balloons, landscape flags, the guts from old computers, TVs, radios and tape–lots of tape. Scotch tape. Packing tape. And of course, the tape of all tapes, duct tape. It’s still his ‘tape’ of choice.

Most recently though, Beckerman, who attends West Morris Mendham High School, has graduated from the household items to more sophisticated ones. Items he actually has to send away for, items he has to spend money on.

Beckerman is building his own submarine.

IMG_1962Dubbed The Nautilus, the one-man sub is made from a corrugated plastic tube (used as the fuselage), Plexiglas, a couple of short 2x4s and, of course, recycled electronics.

The sub is about 9 feet long and weighs, with sandbags lining the bottom, about 1,300 pounds. It has 2,000 feet of wiring, sonar, four tractor-size batteries, three ballast tanks, a 30-pound thrust trolling motor, a small compressor, a wireless camera, a two-way radio, a PA system, a bilge pump, three fans for ventilation, two paddle fins and 200 watts of LED lighting, which, said Beckerman is the equivalent of 1400 watts of halogen light. And there is some duct tape.

“This time it’s only for looks, really,” said Beckerman smiling.

His lifeline is the 30-foot tether to, what else, a homemade buoy. The buoy has the antennas for the radio, a strobe light, a siren, an indicator light, fans that direct air through hoses to the sub and a dive flag.

He sits in it upright, popping his head and shoulders into a clear plastic dome lid. His control panel looks like a miniature version of an airplane cockpit. Both the fins and the propeller are operated manually, and, said Beckerman, it chugs along at 2 or 3 miles per hour.

“I understand now what I need and how I need to make this submarine,” he said. Beckerman has made three other subs, the first when he was just 7 years old.

“I didn’t get the concept that it had to be heavier than water for it to sink,” he said. It was made from corrugated plastic and packing tape. “It worked more like a boat,” he said. “It didn’t sink.”

His second attempt came when he was 11. This time he tried to pressurize the cabin, using a compressor. It was a remote control subIMG_1975 that went 30 feet into Lake Hopatcong.

His third attempt, made a few years later, was better. He used two solid plastic containers that he glued and screwed together, and yes, duct taped as well, two motor scooter motors, inflatable tubes as ballasts and sand bags to sink it. But, he said, even at 2 feet under water, the pressure was too great for the joints and the duct tape gave way and flooded the fuselage.

Beckerman said he is confident that this latest version will work because he understands more about pressurization, airflow, electronics and battery power.

He has spent almost $2,000 on this latest version. His father, Ken, probably his biggest supporter, made a deal with him. “I told him to keep track of all his expenses, debits and credits, and I’d fund half the project. The rest is his responsibility,” said the elder Beckerman.

When her son was just 2 Jess Beckerman recalled how he took over her kitchen and created his own linear art piece, tying string from one cabinet knob to another, hanging landscaping flags from the string. It was just the first in what has become a lifetime of crazy ideas brought to life. Over the years he has combined his love of art with his love of science.

“I combine both,” said Beckerman. “It’s not just science—I make it look kinda cool too.”

“It’s interesting to have a kid like this,” said his mom, who didn’t want her son building another submarine but has always enabled him to create whatever pops into his mind.

Most recently as part of a school project, Beckerman created a light sculpture using phosphorescent light bulbs salvaged from his school’s old computer screens and scanners, and metal rods used as conductors and powered by batteries, all housed in a clear Plexiglas box. His creation won two prestigious awards, one in Morris County (Best Mixed Media, out of 600 entries) and the other at the Art Start show at William Patterson University, also Best Mixed Media.

He first started inventing with paper and progressed from there. When he was about 5 years old, he was making paper airplanes with his grandfather. These were the kind of paper airplanes we all made, a piece of notebook paper folded four or six times to look like a long triangle. But the young Beckerman was not satisfied. He told his grandfather he wanted his paper airplane to look like the real thing—wings and all. And he wanted it to fly. His grandfather told him it couldn’t be done. Twenty minutes later he showed his grandfather his paper airplane, cylindrical fuselage and wings in tack. And it could fly.

While vacationing with his family in Vermont, he was about 11 he thinks, he made a remote control hovercraft from paper plates, paper bowls, some electronics and a motor.

A few years ago Beckerman was given a 23-year old Jet Ski that was abandoned on Lake Hopatcong. Within three weeks he had it disassembled and reassembled entirely, using whatever spare parts he had laying around. He bought a battery for about $100, got an amazing paint job from an artist neighbor and now has himself a spiffy looking water toy.

Beckerman spent seven full summers, from the time he was 9, attending Camp Walt Whitman, an overnight camp located in New Hampshire. That first summer away, recalls his father, Ken, he was worried that Justin wouldn’t do well, “that he would miss all his stuff. But when we went for the first family visit we found an old laser printer stuffed under his cot. We knew he was doing okay.”

The camp also proved to be an enabler for Justin. All those summers away from his stuff here in New Jersey turned out not to be so badIMG_2013 because he had all that stuff in New Hampshire.

Justin will return to camp this summer for a week, not as a camper but as an employee. According to his mother, they really miss him. He used to fix everything for them. His reputation lives on.

“The camp director told me,” said Jess, “‘From 8 to 4 he’s an employee, working around camp, but after four he can make the lawnmower fly,’” she said laughing.

Beckerman said he is close to getting his submarine submerged. Right now his test voyages involve getting the sub off the boatlift in the family boathouse and driving it around to the bulkhead. He’s waiting for a couple of parts. He also needs to get a couple more sand bags and he’s waiting for the lake to come up a few more inches.

“I’m not nervous,” he said about going under water. “I’m very excited. I have a safety checklist, just like airplane pilots.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a young neighbor visited Beckerman, who was tinkering on his creation. The boy came flying down the steps to the boathouse, carrying a broken compressor like it was a body in need of CPR. He handed it to Beckerman and asked a silly question. “Can you fix it?”

IMG_2028Justin Beckerman navigates the waters of Lake Hoptcong in his homemade submarine.

IMG_2039Justin Beckerman makes his way back to his family boathouse after taking his homemade submarine for a test run.

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