I was a Reactor Operator onboard the USS Los Angeles from 2001 to 2005. That means that I spent a majority of my time watching numbers on a panel in a tiny room hundreds of feet underwater.
Since I got out, I’ve found that every time I bring up the boat (subs are referred to as boats, surface ships are ships), I’m asked the same general questions over and over. What’s life like on a Sub? Did your captain have a dog underway? Did you hear the pinging sound over and over?
So, in the interest of curbing that for the foreseeable future, I’m going to try to answer them here, starting with the most obvious:
Normal Life is Weird
Life on a sub goes against every basic instinct we have as people. You’re locking yourself in an enclosed space underwater with 125 strange men for weeks at a time. You make your own electricity, air and water. You’re living right next to your sewer and trash systems.
You have to learn a new language on a sub. Floors are decks. Hamburgers are sliders. Ice cream is cow. Hats are covers. Your friend Brad is ET1 Wilcox.
Oh and there’s a Nuclear Reactor in the middle of everything.
None of that is normal.
There’s an old practice submariners do to mess with the new guys (which never ends btw). They take a string and tie it from one end of the hull to the other so it’s tight. On your first underway the string is pointed out to you by all the vets. You can’t figure out why they want you to look at it. Hours later, after you’ve submerged, they point out the string again. This time instead of being tight, it’s become very, very slack. Why? Well ocean pressure pushes the hull, making it shrink. That’s right, the walls around you are closing in.
Normally, this would cause a person to immediately shit themselves and demand the Voodoo curse be lifted. In this case, most shrug it off. Why? Because you’re too tired to care. You see, as soon as the hatches are shut, the Oxygen levels in the air are turned down.
This results is a more sedate and lethargic crew.
During my time on the boat, the only time O2 levels were in specification was during drills and cleaning.
Which brings me to my next point:
You’re constantly cleaning
As every Sailor will tell you, this is not limited to just submarines, but it’s such a huge part of sub life I couldn’t leave it off.
Every boat in the fleet has a day set aside for cleaning. This is called field day. For most Americans, field day is that glorious day at the end of the school year in elementary school when they got to drink Gatorade and run races and not do math. It stood for something wonderful. In the Navy, it’s the opposite. Field day sucks.
More than Corn Nuts.
Screw Corn Nuts.
Field days are set aside to clean the hard to reach areas, like inside the battery well, or underneath the main engine or below the decks in the Seawater bays. If you’re having a hard time picturing these locations, just picture the grossest thing you can think of in your house and add oil and salt to it.
Each sailor is given what amounts to a roll of paper towels, a metal brush and a spray jar of toxic smelling poison called Simple Green. You then spend the next 6 hours brushing, spraying and wiping. Does it look any better when you’re done? Sometimes. Will it look exactly like it did before field day mere hours after? Definitely.
On top of that you spend 2 to 8 hours every other day cleaning something.
The thing is, no matter how much you clean…
Submarines are Disgusting
The first thing you notice when you get on a sub is the smell. There’s a specific chemical used to purify the air on a sub. It’s called Amine. The number one attribute of Amine is its ability to odor soak into every part of everything. It’s hard to describe the smell exactly. Think part diesel gas, part litterbox, part charcoal, part cigarette smoke, and part attic. Now imagine that smell in your hair, your clothes, your food, hell, even your driver’s license smells like it when you leave. And it never goes away.
Add that smell to the smell of 126 men who are showering once every 3 days or so and you’ve got a sub!
But that’s not it!
There are about 100 racks, or beds, on a typical sub. As I said above, there are about 126 guys assigned to the sub. Of those 126 people, usually around 120 or so go underway. That means that we have to find a place for an extra 20, or so, guys to sleep. Unlike what you’ll see in the movies (I’m looking at you U-571 and Down Periscope) we don’t string up hammocks for people to sleep in. No, we do something far, far worse. It’s called hot-racking.
Hot-racking is when 3 sailors are assigned 2 racks to sleep in. At any given time, the 2 racks are occupied while the 3rd sailor is working. Once his shift is done, he goes to the rack, which had just been vacated by one of the other two for their shift. Instead of getting the nice cool sheets that Stuart Scott loves to talk about, he gets the nice warm and sweaty sheets from the last guy.
Told you: Disgusting.
So how do you know when you are supposed to be sleeping or on shift?
Subs have 18 Hour Days
As soon as you leave port, each sub switches their clocks to Greenwich Mean Time. This is a function of not having the sun around to keep track of time for you. The day itself is broken up into 6 hour blocks: Midnight to 6 am, 6 am to noon, noon to 6 pm and finally 6 pm to midnight. Your shift, or watch, lasts over one of those 6 hour periods.
When it was your turn, you’d be woken up, or racked out as it was called, about an hour before your watch. You took this time to get ready and eat. From there you’d stand your 6 hours of watch, then, go eat again.
The 6 hours after a watch were spent cleaning (always with the cleaning… God I hate cleaning), eating and taking care of any maintenance or paperwork you had to do. This time is referred to as “Off-going”.
Once that period was done, it was time for bed. This was your six hours to sleep (most of the time. Sometimes you had drills or a field day here. Then you just stayed awake…. My blood pressure is rising just thinking about this again). This time was called “On-coming”.
The end result is you would start off at in the 6am to noon slot for watch, then the midnight to 6am slot, then the 6pm to midnight slot and so on.
All of this leads to a real confusion on actual time. Since you’re not sleeping during normal times of the day and you don’t have the benefit of looking outside, you’re never really sure of what time it is. Really the only way to tell is by the food. If they’re serving eggs, it’s the morning. If they’re serving hamburgers, it’s Monday afternoon. If they have pizza, well that’s Friday night’s dinner. And if it’s cold rice and chicken nuggets, that’s midnight, day of the week unknown.
All of this leads to the most obvious conclusion…
Submarines are Stressful
I know what you’re saying, stop bitching, everything is stressful. But as any military vet can tell you, there’s a special stress when you’re deployed. You can’t leave. Ever.
That guy who yelled at you during watch cause you screwed up? He’s sitting next to you when you’re trying to wind down with a game of Cribbage. That piece of equipment you spent 6 hours working on? It’s 20 feet away from you while you’re sleeping. Want to wind down with a nice jog? Sorry, Lt Superman has been using the treadmill for 2 hours and he’s still got 2 more to go.
Add in the extra stress of being confined to what amounts to a loud sewer tube and you get Michael Jackson levels of crazy.
I remember watching a grown man, a father of 3, well up with actual tears because he wanted to watch Kangaroo Jack and nobody else did.
Once, on a particularly bad underway, I saw one of our Chiefs threaten to kill a guy over a coffee cup.
Another time I saw a guy get so mad, he started pulling his hair out with a set of pliers, THEN HE STARTED EATING IT. Only a submarine can make a guy “eat his own hair” mad.
These aren’t things that happen in normal life. But they do on a submarine.
Which brings me to my final point:
Movies are Bullshit
Tony Scott can go to hell. The Hunt for Red October guy can too. Submariners don’t spend all day in red lights listening to sonar pings. Mostly we’re in a loud, hot and stinky engine room cleaning and bitching about our bosses.
There’s no way we’re standing at attention in the pouring rain to castoff a boat at midnight while the Captain gives a stirring speech about our duty. Save that shit for the rest of the military.
We’re not dropping down to do pushup for the Supply Officer, even if he is Tony Soprano. The Supply Officer, or Chop, has almost no authority over anyone. His only job is to be the human personification of Amazon.com for the rest of the boat. That’s it.
And finally, there’s no submariner in the world who would clean up after the Captain’s dog took a shit all over the decks.
Not even for Gene Hackman.
Nate is a writer, performer and director at ImprovBoston. He credits his time served on the submarine USS Los Angeles and his 2 sons as the source of his “comedy.” Nate has been known to be self deprecating from time to time. Please love him.