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Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

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Thursday, February 10, 2005

some thoughts on being a submariner

i was stationed on board a nuclear fast attack submarine, from 1974 until 1981. during that time, i spent a lot of time at sea, and a lot of time in port, usually going through some sort of upkeep. that includes a refueling overhaul. so i had a good mix of experiences. i loved being on submarines. i hated being in the navy. i loved being at sea, i hated the nickel and dime bs that usually accompanied being in port. the only time i really felt like i was able to do my job was underway.
two things about the boats that stand out in my memory are:
1: real air stinks. after spending over 3 months underway, with the boat sealed up, the atmosphere becomes your norm. it's normal to smell cooking grease, feet, hydraulic oil, amines (used to scrub C02 from the air). when you pop the hatch, and real air washes down into the engine room, it stinks. of course, after a long time underwater, there are a bunch of little sea critters that attach themselves to the hull. after surfacing and transiting for just a little while, said critters die, and start to stink. that adds to the smell. but inside, the air we breathed was mechanically cleaned, scrubbed, polished, buffed to a high sheen, dust removed, and zapped through an electrostatic precipitator to get the big chunks out. remember a couple of years ago, one of the vacuum cleaner companies started selling air purifiers for the home, and the big advertisement hook was it was the same technology as used in nuclear submarines? so even if the air was foul with all kinds of hydrocarbons and whatnot, it was pretty pure. of course, the really funny thing is that when popping a hatch, if there is positive pressure in the compartment, a brown foggy haze roils out. so maybe the air in the boat isn't so "pure".

2: city water is horrible. on the boat, when we cast all lines and services off to go to sea, we didn't have a pipe running to the city municipal water supply. we made our own. as in distilled our own. as in, the water was so pure, that if there was even the slightest carryover in the evaporator, everyone on the boat could taste it. and the amounts i'm talking about are miniscule, like down around 3 parts per million salinity. as opposed to the 500 to 750 ppm salinity in the city tap water in sacramento. when we would get back from sea, one of the very first things i would do would be to take a VERY LONG SHOWER, with very hot water. when you are used to showering in less than 5 gallons of water, running the shower for 5 minutes is an almost sensuous luxury. but there was a price to be paid. that price? red eyes, labored breathing, and itchy skin, all caused by the chlorine in the water. even very lightly chlorinated water would adversely affect you until reacclimation.

some of my very favorite memories of being at sea centered around being surfaced. we didn't do that very often, but sometimes when we were transiting home, or just dinking around on training ops, the skipper would surface the boat and let us come topside to the bridge for a little "bridge liberty". one of my very favorite times was when we were in the western pacific, down in the tropics. the night was crystalline clear, with more damned stars shining than imaginable, and a big bright full moon. the air was warm, sweet, and clean. the seas were almost glassy, reflecting the moon so that it looked like we were driving down the yellow brick road, sailing towards that fat yellow orb. behind us, the luminous critters that live near the surface in those latitudes glowed, and reflected the red and green running lights, leaving several hundred yards of phosphorescent wake pointing to where we had come from. the quiet hiss of water slipping along our hull as we sailed forward added a treble pitch to the bass of the main turbines. sweet sweet music to a sailor heading home after a long deployment.

5 Comments:

Blogger Allan said...

What a great recounting.

Thanks for taking us along.

2/10/05, 10:20 PM  
Blogger Macbeau said...

Great recounting.
I guess since you were in the Navy and I served in the Army, you'd think we'd have entirely different military experiences. However, when I was with Special Ops, I was on operations (diver lock in/out and assault swimmer) off of Navy subs on three different occasions and had to go through a similar psych-eval for SOTIC and SERE (SF sniper school and Survial School). I spent many months on Marine camps (Lejeune, Gieger, Cherry Point) working with the Navy and Marines, and even did a brief stint on the Mt. Whitney. All this while I was supposedly stationed at Ft. Bragg... I, like you, always liked being "away from the flag pole" and can understand where your're coming from. As far as drinking water, if it didn't have twiggs and sand in it and taste like iodine with just a hint of urine, it just didn't seem right. Ahhh, the memories.

2/11/05, 7:10 AM  
Blogger Bubblehead said...

I know what you mean about being on the bridge; there were some watches when it was so calm and beautiful up there that I really wondered why they were paying me for it. Then there were the surfaced watches coming into Groton with 50 mph winds and waves as high as the periscope optics... for those ones they couldn't pay me enough!

2/11/05, 1:52 PM  
Anonymous Former NavET said...

Bothenook, linked over from bubblehead's blog, great post. Hit the nail on the head for me with simular memories. Periscope liberty was a rare treat also on a boomer patrol. It was nice see colors other than mushroom and gray bulkheads. Usually missed my chance though, needing to man the ESM stack.

2/11/05, 8:57 PM  
Anonymous RM1(SS) said...

Surface transit through the Gulf of Siam at night ('88) - all the fires around us from the oil rigs burning off natural gas, or whatever it is they're burning. Beautiful....

2/13/05, 7:00 PM  

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