I’ll get the first question about submarines out of the way: during my time as a U. S. Navy submariner, I never saw one legitimate case of claustrophobia. I did see one phony case where a young sailor didn’t want to go on patrol because he found a new girlfriend. He was making his case of a fear of enclosed spaces to our corpsman who wasn’t buying it since the young sailor never complained on the three previous times at sea. The Navy screens their submariners for claustrophobia long before they get to the ship. So what is it really like going to sea on a submarine?
When you approach the ship you see only the top part of the vessel because most of it is below the surface. The ship is painted black for camouflage. You walk aboard via the gangway to topside to a round hatch where you step down onto a shiny metal ladder, and climb down about 8-10 feet to the deck below. Seasoned sailors will slide down the sides of the ladder. If you don’t get a fear of enclosed spaces now, you probably won’t. To your left you see a closed hatch to the engineering spaces where, if you are on a nuclear submarine, the reactor compartment and engine room are located. Your first turn to your right is likely to a stairway (“ladder” to sailors) to the crew’s mess. Most living spaces have only a little less than a seven foot clearance which is why most tall sailors are bent over. The galley is all stainless steel and the crew’s mess is just large enough to feed 30-40 sailors at a time depending on the class of ship. Below crew’s mess is another ladder to the torpedo room which doubles as a sleeping area in addition to storing torpedoes. Walking to the forward part of the ship you’ll find a sleeping area, a diesel generator, showers, heads (restrooms), laundry equipment, and much more equipment hidden in the walls of the passageways. There may be a few offices for the yeomen and there is, of course, the ward room, or officer’s quarters. Back up above is the control room where you see periscopes, helmsman, planesman, the weapons control system, and the chief of the watch. If you walk back to the engine room, you could get a view of the machinery, but as of this writing, it is still classified. For fleet ballistic submarines there is a missile room between the living quarters and the engine room.
When you get underway, there is little movement sensed within the ship. There may be a shudder if there are tug boats or the screw (propeller) cavitates. Other than that, the ship is very quiet. But as you get out of the harbor to sea you sense a slight rocking due to wave action. Submarines don’t have surface stabilizers and thus in rough seas the tossing and turning can turn into tossing your cookies. But soon after you leave port on a nuclear sub, you’ll hear: “Dive, Dive!”, then a sound resembling a squealing metallic pig (it’s the best description I can think of) is activated twice, followed by another “Dive, Dive”. I recall my first dive experience as “do we really have to do this?” But soon the rocking subsides and things become quiet except for the buzz of fans and subdued talking of the crew members. You may sense a slight trim as the ship noses very slightly downward, the ballast tanks fill with water, and the propulsion system pushes the ship deeper. Once below the surface, the submarine becomes very stable and quiet. You don’t have a sensation of motion unless the ship is near the surface.
After that, it’s pretty boring. The submariner’s day is now 18 hours instead of 24 hours, that is, the average sailor will stand watch for 6 hours, be off for 6 hours (or working), and then sleep for 6 hours before the cycle starts over. However, the lighting onboard is changed from normal white light to red light during night hours in order to maintain a sense of when night really occurs. Sleeping (if you were of the higher ranks) consisted of a bunk or “rack” about the size of a large coffin, stacked one upon another, mostly three high, with a curtain for privacy. The mattress is only a couple of inches thick. You have an area a few inches high below your rack (you can lift the mattress up on a hinge) where you keep personal effects and clothing. Otherwise (if you were of lower rank) you slept “hot bunk” style in the torpedo room where you share your rack with someone else, that is, while you are sleeping, they would be on watch and vice versa. This made for a good incentive to study and raise your seniority. The dress code with the ship underway is Navy blue coveralls, known by sailors as “poopie suits”, with Velcro openings instead of buttons, which makes it easier to doff if necessary. The collars have the applicable rank and name tags are above the front pocket, though everyone on the ship knows everyone else. Movies were usually every night. A consensus usually determines which movie you watch. Sometimes the movie would be talked about for days with your fellow shipmates imitating the characters or quoting lines from the screenplay. If a bawdy movie was shown, it usually is requested again several times. Church services are held on most ships on Sunday mornings in the crew’s mess with a lay leader conducting the services. From day to day, life is routine. Most sailors who exercise look for an open area to do calisthenics; some ships have equipment. Card games are almost continuous be it poker, bridge, spades, hearts, canasta, etc. You tend to forget about the outside world since your whole existence is that ship and keeping it operating. As long as the ship is healthy, you are, too. Maintenance is performed without fail. If a piece of equipment does break down, a man is usually assigned to work on it until it’s fixed. How long does a submarine stay underwater? It depends on the mission, but the longest I was ever underwater was 45 days, though I have heard of submarines staying underwater much longer.
There are four meals a day, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and mid-rats (midnight rations). Submariners get the best food in the military. Eggs are cooked to order along with pancakes, biscuits and gravy, ham, bacon, sausage, potatoes, orange juice (it may not be fresh squeezed), and lots of coffee. There are coffee machines throughout the ship except in those compartments where food is not allowed, though the engine room did have its own coffee machine on our ship. There was a joke that after a while I drank so much coffee that my right index finger became crooked from holding a coffee cup. For lunch and dinner you didn’t have a menu and you may have one or two choices for a main course. Mid-rats were usually soup and cold cuts and the trimmings that you could make into cold sandwiches. The only limiting factor for submarines remaining submerged is food. The reactor provides virtually limitless power (our ship sailed off and on for 10 years before its first refueling), the sea provides all the water we needed (we convert sea water to fresh water), and air is refreshed by rising near the surface and sticking a snorkel up to revitalize the air in the ship (simply put: in comes the good air and out goes the bad air); otherwise, we could burn oxygen candles and scrub the carbon dioxide from the ship’s air and pump it overboard. Because the limitation for returning to port was food, cans of rations were stored everywhere; the engine room, every compartment available, and even in sailor’s bunks. It wasn’t surprising for your bunk curtain to be opened and someone saying “excuse me” reaches over to take a large can of peaches out of the compartment next to you. One of the really neat perks is the occasional “lobster night”. Usually, the senior petty officers become the mess cooks and servers, the best in the world, and the tables are covered in linens. The lobster is usually all you can eat though there are other choices for those with crustacean allergies.
You’ve probably seen movies of submarines bursting out of the ocean almost like humpback whales; these are called emergency blows by the crew. What does an emergency blow feel like to the sailors on the ship? Well, first, they do give you a warning and sometimes there is a countdown. Depending on where you are on board, you can hear the high pressure air filling the ballast tanks followed by a vibration throughout the ship; then it is quiet for a few seconds. Then the ship pitches up to a pronounced angle and you hang on to the nearest stable object. Depending on what depth you start, the climb may take a minute or so. You have the sensation of being on a very fast elevator tilted at a 30-40 degree angle. There is no ear-popping. Then suddenly, you feel your stomach lift and a slight feeling of weightlessness as the ship breaks the surface and then levels out. That’s it. No other sound occurs except for the pots, pans, and other stuff sliding off the tables resulting in crashing noises everywhere.
Coming into Port
This is the best part; coming into port or coming home. When the ship ties up to the dock the first thing that comes aboard, wherever you are, is the mail. Despite what you may have heard there is no foul odor from the ship being away at sea. When liberty is called, sailors stream topside meeting their wives, girlfriends, or parents. The single guys either head for the barracks or the bars. I recall one young sailor met by his girlfriend and parents. The first thing he did was smooch his girlfriend as his parents watched. Then, after a minute or two, almost like he thought about the moment, he stopped and looked at his parents, took off his jacket and handed it to his mom, and then went back to smooching.