Aboard a Submarine. . .

USS Asheville (SSN-758)
USS Asheville (SSN-758)

A Los Angeles-class submarine is a magnificent boat and today, for the first time, I was afforded the opportunity to go aboard one. I have no revelations that you have not heard: that it is cramped for tall people, that it is smelly, and that the crew came across as focused. The smell that I remember most was the scent of the Navy, or air scrubbed by amines:

the Regenerative Contamination Control Assembly (RSBG) removes carbon dioxide and acid gases by means of a specific highly porous ion exchange resin (solid amine) as adsorbing material. It also removes odours and off-gassing products by means of activated charcoal filters and catalysts, and removes particulates and aerosols by means of a particle filter.

There are several processes available to regenerate the EADS SPACE Transportation adsorber resin. The preferable method is by means of slightly overheated steam. This method is appropriate for applications that require a very high scrubbing performance as well as very pure CO2 release during the regenerations.

And Yahoo Answers surprised me with this very informative exchange:

 USS Santa Fe (SSN-763)
USS Santa Fe (SSN-763)

Q: What’s it like on a submarine?

I’ve always wondered what its REALLY like to live and work on a submarine. The kind where there’s 75 or more personnel. How do you vent ‘bathroom’ odors? What do you do with the bathroom ‘collection’? How’s the food? Are you allowed to smoke? Is it noisy? How do you deal with personality clashes? How long are you on the sub at a stretch? Please also give your country of origin (if you can – I know, security and all).

A: What’s it really like?

It sux.

But it’s interesting, all at the same time. It’s not something you want to make a career out of, unless you like seclusion, isolation, small spaces, bad odors and not having any women around.

I served 5 years on a ballistic missile sub, SSBN 633, the U.S.S. Casimir Pulaski. It was 425 feet long, and about 33 feet around. It had 16 Trident C-4 nuclear missiles. Our job was to cruise around in the Atlantic Ocean about 400 feet down, patrolling in circles to make sure no one was following us. We were the doomsday machine, so we wanted to make sure no one knew where we were.

I was on an older sub… it has since been decommissioned. It was built in the early 1960’s. The newer ones are much more comfortable and spacious, but still no cake walk.

We had about 125 people on board. There was nowhere on the sub that you could pass someone walking the other way without both of you turning sideways. Our sub had 7 compartments, each with a circular water-tight door. So, every 40-50 feet you had to duck and step up at the same time to go through a small circluar opening. If you were taller than 6 feet, you’d have to do a bunch of ducking everywhere you walked. Tall people bumped their heads a bunch.

USS Key West at Periscope Depth
USS Key West at Periscope Depth

Bathroom odors weren’t really that big of a problem outside the bathroom. The sub has all kinds of weird smells inside, so farts really just kind of mingled in with the other smells. Amine, diesel fuel, and other industrial smells permeated the whole submarine, making the place smell really, really bad. You don’t notice it after 90 days underway… but you notice it big time first time you go down into the sub. The smell gets into your hair, skin and clothing. I took some civilian clothes with me the first time I went on patrol…without putting them in a plastic airtight bag. I had to throw them away after I got back. You cannot get the smell out completely. Not out of your clothes anyway. It’s a very distinct smell. Any submariner knows what I’m talking about. Wheeeew.

The bathroom waste goes into a sanitation tank which is piped off board after pulling back into port.

The food on submarines is actually the best in the armed forces… for the first 6 weeks or so. Then all the fresh food has been eaten or gone bad. Eggs, milk, bacon, beef, etc. don’t last long enough to have them the whole time you’re on patrol. You’ll start off eating really well, but as the patrol goes on, the food gets worse and worse. By the end all you get for breakfast is pancakes… every day.

We used to be allowed to smoke, but they don’t allow that any longer. Not since the mid 1990’s.

It is noisy, particularly in the engineering spaces. The hum of all the motors, generators and pumps gives a high-pitched whine that is constant. It’s also rather warm back in the engineering spaces.

USS Greeneville (SSN-772)
USS Greeneville (SSN-772)]

You deal with personality clashes with humor. We all ragged each other to hell and back. Constant ribbing. It’s a bunch of guys, afterall. We used to have a book we’d pass around where we’d draw pictures and tell jokes about each other… and mainly the captain. (We just had to make sure he never found the book!)

On a ballistic missile sub, we had 2 crews…. a “blue” crew and a “gold” crew. Each crew would take turns commanding the sub. We were on roughly a 100 day rotation. They would have the sub for 100 days, then we’d take over for our 100 days. Fast attack subs never know… they might go out for a few days… or 6 months. You never know. If they go out for 6 months though, they’ll do some port-hopping. On a ballistic missile sub you rarely pull into port unless you’re pulling back into your home port to turn the sub over to the other crew.

I’m from the U.S.

All in all, submarine duty is lonely, smelly, long hours, not a lot of sleep, cramped, and time goes by really slowly. 90 days at sea can seem like an eternity. You get to learn a lot about the sub, and it can be interesting, but it’s only interesting for a short period of time… after that, you’ve pretty much had your fill.

One more thing… no windows. And once you’re underway and submerged, you can’t really even tell you’re moving unless they decide to change the angle of the ship. We used to joke that we were still tied up to the dock the whole time.

The most fun time I had while on the sub was when we did a swim call about 50 miles off the coast of Bermuda. We stopped and let everyone out on the top deck to go swimming. We stopped when the sharks started coming around, naturally. Beautiful water though.

USS Jefferson City (SSN-759)
USS Jefferson City (SSN-759)

EDIT: About the smoking. We smoked pretty much anywhere but the mess hall when I was in the Navy, back in the early 90’s. Rumor was they were banning smoking the next patrol. I just assumed that they had gotten rid of smoking altogether. Sounds like they might not have. I figured that wouldn’t fly too well.

I would never volunteer, but if told, I’d go direct support on a sub. They are interesting missions and the crew is well-trained.

Royal Navy Warship Numbers

The slow decline in warship numbers should be troubling for allied navies, in this case the Brits: Development of the numbers of different types of Royal Navy warships (including RFA amphibious ships) since 1980. Only active and commissioned units are included; consequently training and reserve vessels are not. The numbers for each year are for January, 1. The graph shows the sharp decline in numbers of frigates, destroyers and submarines as a cause of the end of the Cold War (years 1991 to 1995), the Labour austerity measures (years 2005 to 2007) and finally the Conservative austerity measures (years 2010-).

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And the same thing in Deutsch (curiously included on the page): Entwicklung der Anzahl der verschiedenen Kriegsschifftypen der Royal Navy (inklusive den Landungsschiffen der RFA) seit 1980. Ausschliesslich aktive und in Dienst gestellte Einheiten sind aufgeführt; Trainings- und Reserveschiffe sind foglich nicht einbezogen. Die Daten sind jeweils für den 1. Januar des entsprechenden Jahres. An der Graphik ist der starke Rückgang an Fregatten, U-Booten und Zerstörern aufgrund der Abrüstung in der Folge des Endes des Kalten Krieges (Jahre 1991 bis 1995), der Sparmassnahmen der Labour Regierung (Jahre 2005 bis 2007) und schliesslich der Sparmassnahmen der Conservative Regierung (Jahre 2010-) ersichtlich.