Submarine Workers Share What People Don’t Understand About Being Deep Down Under
Many sailors risk their lives in submarines to explore an entire world that we really don’t know much about. 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.
According to them, it’s not all fun and games down there. They deal with poor circulation, harsh sleeping conditions and disgusting food that they are forced to eat. At the same time, however, they’ve managed to make some heartwarming memories with the friends they made for life. Keep reading for some unbelievable stories.
#1 I’m Surprised There Are Even Treadmills In Submarines
If you’re tall, forget about running on the treadmill… unless you want to run bent over and wind up with spinal problems. The worst part is, it’s incredibly important to keep moving and stay active while thousands of feet underwater. What’s a tall guy to do when the ceiling of the submarine is basically touching the top of your head?
#2 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.
#3 This Man’s Rash Took Forever To Heal
The lack of sunlight makes even small cuts and scrapes take forever to heal. I remember trying to slide while playing softball and getting some road rash on my arm right before we went out for a few weeks. What was originally just some missing skin turned into a nasty thick cut that just wouldn’t go away. I think it was from the lack of Vitamin D. What’s even worse was that, since the conditions down there were so stuffy, there was always bacteria in the air. So one day, I looked at my cut and it was completely swollen while oozing black. Luckily, the medical crewmember on board had antibiotics on hand and I was able to treat it immediately.
#4 Those Who Serve Become A Bit Nearsighted
After months on patrol, your eyes don’t focus so well on distant objects. It comes as the result of not needing to focus on much beyond 20 feet while down under.
#5 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 McDonalds. 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.
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.
#6 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.
#7 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!
#8 Hope You Like Beef Stroganoff!
My dad served on the USS Kentucky way back when, and due to some logistics error, all they had to eat was basically beef stroganoff. He was like, “Alright, it’s not that bad, I can live with this.” But when you’re on a sub, and you’re cramped, tempers run wild. They started fighting with the metal knives and forks, so command took them away and gave them plastic ones instead.
The fighting stopped for a bit, but then the tempers flared again and they started fighting with the plastic knives and forks. So command took those them away and just gave them plastic spoons to eat beef stroganoff with. By that time, my dad was sick of this stuff. It’s been around 30 years and he refuses to even smell beef stroganoff. Last time we made it was in 2013, and we were on vacation. He came into the house, looked at us eating the stroganoff, and goes, “I’m ordering pizza for me.” Good times.
#9 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.
#10 Just Like Summer Camp
The lights are always off in the bunkrooms because there’s always someone sleeping (except during drills and the like). However, there’s a light in your rack that you can turn on if you want. Our racks didn’t have the glass doors, just a cloth curtain you can push back and forth for privacy. I actually loved those racks most of the time.
Being in a super tight space was really cozy. You could velcro a tablet to the ceiling of the rack and watch TV while laying comfortably in bed! The racks were stacked three-high, and the top rack could only be accessed by grabbing a bar attached to the ceiling and essentially doing a pull-up to get into bed. You get used to it.
#11 “Sup, Bro?”
I served on an Ohio-class. You don’t smell it down there, but the second you are back from deployment you realize all your clothes have an off smell. You learn to recognize noises changing. If ventilation cuts off, you know something is wrong. Food can be incredible for what we are given and is one of the most morally boosting things you can have. If the crew is sad or stressed, you’ll most likely be getting chicken nuggets soon.
Formality goes out of the window. In most militaries, all officers and higher-enlisted are greeted by ranks. Underwater it’s like, “Sup, bro?” Unless you are talking to the Commanding Officer or Executive Officer. You only talk through email, and it gets filtered. If someone in your family dies, you won’t see that email until they can get you off the submarine. Your significant other sends an email? The radiomen saw it.
#12 This Guy Explained How They Find New Forms Of Entertainment
My dad served on the NR-1 in the ’90s—it was a super 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.
#13 The Smell
Okay, smell. I was in two World War II-era diesel boats with two nukes. The diesel boats had no showers or laundry at sea. Our working uniforms were rotten from battery fumes. Sailors had been sweating through World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold War. Not the most glamorous experience, but once you get used to it, it’s not all that bad.
#14 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.
#15 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.
#16 I Sometimes Do This Anyway
Submarine days are only 18 hours long. So sometimes, you’re eating spaghetti for breakfast and omelets for dinner.
#17 What Do You Mean “Not Watertight?”
They are not 100% 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.
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.
#18 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.
#19 You Make Friends For Life
Ohio-class here. Time goes quickly. You do drills six days a week and constant training. Those months flew by. Also, you develop a closeness with guys that you don’t get in a lot of places. Underway, my watchmate was almost an enemy. Onshore, he was my best friend. You don’t find another place where you trust everyone else with your life like that.
#20 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.
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.
#21 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.
#22 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.
#23 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.
#24 Pizza Night Once A Week!
I served on a Los Angeles class. Most people are on an 18-hour day, so you’re on-watch for six hours, off-watch for six hours, and ideally sleeping for six hours. In reality, though, you rarely get to sleep for six hours. Your off-watch duties often spill over, and the submarine runs drills that involve the whole crew almost every day. Also, we had pizza night once a week. You’d have to find a buddy who will eat the same toppings and call up to crew’s mess at least 30 mins before you got off-watch, but it was pretty nice.
#25 “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.
#26 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: key lime pie 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.
#27 They Stay Up To Date On Pop Culture
They usually have pretty good movie libraries—even titles that are still in theaters.
Maneuvers can be more fun than roller coasters. On the other hand, the existential dread of being in a windowless pressurized metal tube at depth in the middle of nowhere when something adverse happens is unmatched in my experience.
Just like a prison, hard to come by items like sports scores, candy bars, and sodas served as currency.
Hot racking is not nearly as bad as it sounds because everyone brings a sack to sleep in so no linens are ever actually shared.
#28 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.
#29 Just Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame
My dad was on the New York City long ago. He said when the cruise began, they walked around on large cans of food that were laid out on the floors. As the cruise went on, they “ate the floor.” At the beginning of the cruise, people were hunched over. At the end of the cruise, they walking a little taller.
#30 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.
#31 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.
#32 “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
#33 Sailors Stay Festive
We still celebrated holidays as much as possible while underway. We would make costumes for Haloween out of “EB Red” (nuclear grade duct-tape). We would also make Christmas trees out of lock wire and washers.
#34 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.
#35 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 a wet cat. 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.
#36 Welcome To The New Age, To The New Age, I’m Radioactive, 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.
#37 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.
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.
#38 Sailors Still Have To Do Chores
Socks in the bilges. If you’re new or it was field day (hours of cleaning) you would find random, non-matching socks in the bilge. Sometimes said socks would fall out of the outer racks and go to the bottom of the bilge.
#39 There Seems To Be Mixed Opinions On Food
Lobster. Lots of lobster. We ate really well onboard.
#40 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.
#41 “Close Quarters” Is An Understatement
You could be brushing your teeth in the morning while someone was two feet behind you going #2!
#42 Space Was A Luxury
#43 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 crewmembers 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.
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.
#44 I Guess Submarines Are Not Designed For Tall People
I was 6’7” and served aboard the USS Skate, a small fast-attack. I never bumped my head once because I was always ducking.
#45 You Can’t Escape Leg Day, Even Under Water
We had a couple of treadmills and a weight machine. You could run laps around the upper level of the missile compartment.