Submarine Workers Share What People Don’t Understand About Being Deep Down Under

By Andie Wood
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Photo Courtesy: Adam/Flickr

Submarine workers and sailors took to the internet to share what it’s like exploring the deep, dark ocean and to clear up some misconceptions—we don’t all live in a yellow submarine, after all. And according to them, it’s not all fun and games down there.

Submarine workers deal with poor circulation, harsh sleeping conditions and disgusting food. At the same time, however, some of them have managed to forge heartwarming memories with friends they made for life. Keep reading for some unbelievable stories from under the sea.

What’s the Deal With Submarine Food?

I served on a Sturgeon-class in the early to mid-’90s. It wasn’t as claustrophobic as it seems. You just sort of got used to it. It’s extremely still, since there are no waves like on the surface, and you’re not going very fast at all. It feels like you’re standing still most of the time. The food is good at the beginning of a deployment. By the middle, it descends to five-year-old cans of three bean salad. It is relatively “unmilitaristic”. We took our jobs seriously, but they had to remind us not to refer to the officers by their first names.

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Photo Courtesy: Salvation Army USA West/Flickr

Unfortunately, You Can’t Instagram the Cool Views Down Below

I served on a Virginia-class. The best way I can describe the smell is that of a dirty McDonald's. It’s due to the CO2 absorbent. We all go nose blind to it in a few days, but the smell gets into all our clothes really bad. The air flow is actually really good. There are fans that keep everything circulating. Five-minute showers are a thing. The reason is that creating potable water is a slow, somewhat noisy process. The other reason is discharging dirty water is also a noisy event.

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Photo Courtesy: Intel Free Press/Flickr

Our only communication with the outside world is through e-mail. There is no internet access. The ship periodically downloads everything then distributes it. Upsetting e-mails are withheld until the boat comes into port so the sailor can continue to function until it is possible to get a flight home. When the boat is on a mission where stealth is mandatory, there might not be any communication at all for over a month.

Yes, Radio screened our e-mails.

Talk About Trauma…

I remember a colleague at work had three sons. One became unexpectedly ill and was thought unlikely to recover. His youngest son was on a sub and was never told. I think he lived long enough for the brothers to meet up, but not by much.

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Photo Courtesy: Gianfranco Blanco/Flickr
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It’s Quite a Bonding Experience

A nuclear engineer friend who served five years once told me he never will eat coleslaw again. I asked why. He said to imagine 300 or so sailors all sick with food poisoning because of bad coleslaw at the same time in a sub. Enough said!

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Photo Courtesy: Thomas LeuthardFlickr

Talk About a Lack of Vitamin D

I served on a Los Angeles-class. There are no windows, and only a couple of people get to use the periscope, so I sometimes tell people that the longest I went without seeing the sun was 52 days. I’m sure there are others who have gone longer.

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Photo Courtesy: Gulcinglr/Pixabay

This Guy Explained How They Find New Forms of Entertainment

My dad served on the NR-1 in the ’90s — it wassuper tiny nuclear sub. He said that before they deployed, they’d go on grocery runs to load up on packs of purple Kool-aid powder, Doritos and ice cream bars. Then, they were so bored they’d have competitions to see who could drink enough purple Kool-aid. I also heard stories of having to dig a cherry out of a very hairy guy’s belly button. Clearly, they were busy.

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Photo Courtesy: Athanasios L. Genos/Marines
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Just Like Sardines!

Personal space. There is no extra room on a sub, to the point that you are constantly brushing against other crew members all the time. Even just going down the hallway. You may develop a little bit of unease when you pull into port and you are no longer sardines in a can. For a few days pulling into port, you’ll notice bubbleheads (nickname for submariners) staying awfully close to each other.

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Photo Courtesy: Terry Whalebone/Flickr

I Sometimes Do This Anyway

Submarine days are only 18 hours long, so sometimes, you’re eating spaghetti for breakfast and omelets for dinner. Corn dogs and hamsters (chicken cordon bleu) make the best meal.

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Photo Courtesy: Travis/Flickr

Silence Is a Bad Thing

There’s always a constant background noise or vibration when the ship is underway due to fans and equipment running. It becomes such a constant that minor changes can tell you about what’s going on with the ship. One of the first indications of a major problem is the sound of the fans coasting down after they’ve been tripped off. I once woke from a dead sleep to find myself dressed and running toward the engine room where I worked because I subconsciously heard all of the fans near my bunk drop off. No thought, no processing, just pure instinct, and muscle memory.

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Photo Courtesy: The U.S. National Archives/Picryl
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What Do You Mean “Not Watertight?”

They are not 100 percent watertight. Getting rid of unwanted water is a constant effort. I always kept one uniform clean for pulling into port. It smelled nice and clean when I put it on. After tieing up and going topside, it smelled like the submarine… not fresh at all.

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Photo Courtesy: TNS Sofres/Flickr

Also, the drinking water never seemed to quench my thirst. At least we had an air conditioner the size of a large refrigerator that ran on steam, cooled better than reciprocating systems, and was nearly silent.

Coffee Is Taken Very Seriously

If you are in charge of the kitchen, never ever run out of coffee. You WILL be demoted. If there is the slightest chance of the mission time running long, plan for it.

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Photo Courtesy: justin_clark2119/Pixabay

This Man Has the Most Beautiful Memory

After several years of service, I got to hang with the older guys who knew what it was about. We were on maneuvering watch, which means we were traveling on the surface until we got past the Continental Shelf where we could dive. The Chief of the Boat told me to come topside with him and help secure the deck from maneuvering watch.

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Photo Courtesy: Tommy Wong/Flickr

We strapped into safety harnesses and walked the deck, turning down the cleats. We got to the bow with nothing but a harness and a rope keeping us from disappearing into the sea and looked back at the sleek sub hull. The sun was going down and it was just gorgeous. He said, “Let’s watch before we go below.” We looked at the beautiful world around us for the last time in 10 weeks, and right then a pod of dolphins started pacing the boat. We watched them for a few minutes, then went below and closed the hatch.

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Like Running Through a Giant Maze

Aircraft carriers are insane. They are enormous floating cities made of steel. There are all kinds of crazy passages and hatches that lead to different places like a giant maze. We got to stay overnight in one in Boy Scouts. There’s absolutely no way you would be able to navigate one in a wheelchair. If you’ve never been to one, I highly recommend going to see the decommission in South Carolina. It’s open for public tours and there are all kinds of other cool stuff there, too.

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This Sailor Shared Something Terrifying, Yet Awesome

Sturgeon- and Ohio-class sailor here. On the Sturgeon-class boat, we tied a rope tight athwartship (from side to side across the middle) before diving and at test depth, and it drooped a couple of feet. I never noticed how much the boat compressed before that.

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Photo Courtesy: Benson Kua/Flickr

Watch Down Periscope if You Really Want to See What It’s Like

Every submariner I’ve ever spoken with, real-world or online, has always pegged Down Periscope as the most realistic navy movie. It’s kind of amazing how well that team nailed it.

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Photo Courtesy: J.L. Lanham/The U.S. National Archives
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“I Was Literally Soaked in My Own Sweat.”

Submarines don’t just have fans for ventilation, they also have big AC units to keep the boat habitable. Something many people definitely don’t know is just how hot it gets in a tropical climate on a sunny day when some of the AC units are down for maintenance and the remaining ones break. I was on duty that day and had to live on board, where the temps were upwards of 130 degrees F. I was literally soaked in my own sweat and we were slightly salting the pitchers of water we were drinking because we were just losing so much from sweating.

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Photo Courtesy: _Alicja_/Pixabay

Not a Yellow Submarine?

I didn’t serve, but I tuned the turbine generators on Virginia-class subs for the contractor who built them. The color was surprising to me: seafoam green. Everywhere. I guess they did a study to figure out which color was least likely to drive people insane when confined for months in a steel can. Kinda made me wonder what would happen in a bright orange sub.

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Photo Courtesy: JD Hancock/Flickr

There Are Perks to Being Short

My buddy was a cook on a sub a while back. He told me that when they stock up, they load the floor up with cans and then put walking platforms over the food, making the walkways eight or so inches shorter at the beginning of the journey. Don’t be tall on a sub.

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Photo Courtesy: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay
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It Can Get Pretty Dark and Dreary Down There

I was on a carrier during Desert Storm—the USS Midway. At one point, we went 110 days without a port. There was one point where I didn’t bother going on deck for at least a month. I just didn’t see the point until I noticed that I was falling into a serious depression and was irritable all the time.

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Photo Courtesy: staller/Pixabay

Sounds Very Similar to Prison

When we were in the navy, a buddy of mine would get temporarily deployed to subs for 10 to 20 days at a time. Before each trip, he’d load up on tiny Monster Energy shots. He said that when you’re not permanent crew, you need to make friends fast on the boat, and he’d give those away to people.

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Photo Courtesy: MarcelloRabozzi/Pixabay

“It’s Pretty Much a Time Machine.”

Time stands still when you’re three months out, receiving occasional family grams and having edited snippets of news delivered to you via a single piece of poster paper. When you come back to the real world, you recognize no movies, see that familiar buildings have changed and that the government was turned upside down. It’s pretty much a time machine

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No Showers? No Thank You

There’s a machine that makes fresh water out of seawater that supplies the whole boat. When it breaks, there is a backup, but its capacity is significantly lower than the primary. That means, while the primary is out of service, no one can take showers. I was a mechanic who owned the primary and the only time I was treated like royalty on a submarine was while I was fixing it.

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Photo Courtesy: rarye/Flickr

Cat Air Freshener, Anyone?

The air in the sub is awful, along with everything that absorbs smells, like clothes, smells like our chemical CO2 scrubber, Amine. It’s kinda similar in smell to old cat urine. You stop noticing it after a day or two, but as soon as you pull into port and leave the boat for a day, it’s really easy to smell.

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Photo Courtesy: anaa yoo/Flickr

Radioactive

The Nautilus was crazy. The general public couldn’t go into the engine room because it was so technically radioactive. Not enough to really matter, but enough for them to just limit it for liability purposes. The guy who monitored the reactor basically stood on top of the reactor and then would go behind a lead shield when not actively monitoring indications.

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Photo Courtesy: Don DeBold/Flickr
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Communication to the Outside World Was Priceless

Back in the ’80s (yes, before the internet, Twitter and email) the only communication from the outside world were messages called “family grams.” They were messages from your family and friends with a total of 80 characters including spaces sent to you.

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Photo Courtesy: Judith E. Bell/Flickr

My wife developed her own style of acronyms to squeeze as much information into those 80 character messages. If the messages were too encrypted, the Navy would reject and not send them. Example: ev1 well-kids enj sports-wmisu-ILY means: Everyone is doing well. The kids are enjoying their sports. We miss you. I love you.

We were allowed eight of these messages during a single deployment. They don’t sound like much but when you’re under the water for months at a time, they are priceless.

There Seem to Be Mixed Opinions on Food

Lobster. Lots of lobster. We ate really well onboard.

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Photo Courtesy: menglei/Pixabay

Anything Named After a Coffin Doesn’t Sound Good

In a submarine, we sleep in “coffin racks.” One night, I woke up disoriented, with no idea where I was. It was also pitch black. I reached out to the left and felt a hard surface, then reached up above me and felt another hard surface. For a couple of seconds, the only thought I had was, “I guess people thought I died and I got buried alive.” I was confused for a few more seconds before I realized I was just sleeping in my rack in the boat.

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Photo Courtesy: Ann Larie Valentine/Flickr
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“Close Quarters” Is an Understatement

You could be brushing your teeth in the morning while someone was two feet behind you going Number Two! I miss those days ...

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Photo Courtesy: Paige Bollman/Flickr

Space Is a Luxury

I didn’t serve, but I have worked on submarines. If you’re on board as a guest while underway and they run out of beds, they throw mattresses on the torpedo racks for you to sleep on. Also, every torpedo tube has a woman’s name.

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Photo Courtesy: Andrew Malone/Flickr

Golden Toilet Seat

616 Class sailor here. When the sanitary tank was full, the auxiliary man on watch would secure the heads to pressurize the sanitary tank to above sea pressure (about 75 psi) in order to empty it out. During that time, any crew members not fully in possession of their senses might occasionally stumble into the head, go #1 or #2, and flush. The flushing valve was a three- to four- inch ball valve that connected the toilet bowl directly to the sanitary tank directly below.

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Photo Courtesy: geralt/Pixabay

This would vent the pressurized air in the tank below into the compartment, covering the newly awakened sailor in his own mess. Everyone up forward on the ship would hear this. Of course, the poor victim would have to clean the whole mess up. On hump night, halfway through the patrol, the sailor who did the best job would be awarded the golden award — a toilet seat painted gold.

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