Living on a Stealth Sub

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by the “21st Century Stealth Sub” production crew

Long before I ever set foot on a submarine — or had any notion that I’d ever get to — I had decided that it was not someplace I’d ever like to be. All I knew of submarines was what you seen in the movies, and it seems like those subs are always sinking or leaking or running out of oxygen. Trapped in a tin can hundreds of feet underwater. No thanks. I’d rather be in a boat on the surface.

Underwater Cruising

When you’re in a sub, though, cruising on the ocean’s surface, you can’t wait to get underwater. A sub isn’t meant to be on the surface. It rocks and pitches and sways horribly. With no fresh breeze to stand in or horizon upon which to fix your gaze, the telltale symptoms of motion sickness manifest themselves quite severely. Everyone on board prefers to be down deep where it’s calm.

And it is calm. Steady. Smooth. With no windows to look out of, and no perceptible motion from the seas, there’s nothing to indicate you’re underwater at all. You could just as easily be in an underground facility somewhere. It’s that smooth. Likewise, the engine on the submarine is imperceptible. In almost every mode of transportation, the passenger can feel the engine’s effects. On a submarine, all is quiet, still, free of vibration.

Sure, there are noises on board. It’s quite loud, in fact. But the noises are those of carbon dioxide scrubbers cleaning the air, of cooling fans at work, of men walking the halls. None of the sounds indicate you’re on a submarine.

18 Hours a Day

Underwater there is no connection to the Earth’s natural circadian rhythms. Day and night do not exist. The concept of a 24-hour day loses all significance. The environment is 100% artificial, and has been tailored to the needs of the crew. Even the length of the day has changed.

Over the years, the Navy has found that an 18-hour day is more efficient than a 24-hour day. The “day” is split into three six-hour rotations. Every day, a sailor has a six-hour watch, another six hours of work — quite often maintenance or training — and a final six hours for all their personal business. That includes sleep.

Then they start all over again.

The days are punctuated primarily by the meals. There is a meal every six hours to mark the change of shifts. Breakfast is served at 0600, lunch at noon, dinner at 1800, and at midnight they serve a meal called “mid-rats,” which is short for “midnight rations.” The food at all of these meals is widely considered the best in the entire US Navy.

It seems strange to think that you can get a better meal 300 feet underwater in the middle of the Atlantic ocean than you can on a Navy base on dry land, but it’s absolutely the truth. I’m speaking from firsthand experience. I’ve eaten a lot of forgettable meals on a lot of different Navy bases. I’ve also eaten haddock stuffed with crab and BBQ pork chops on a submarine.

As strange and contradictory as that might sound, it really makes perfect sense. The root of it can be traced back to a common saying, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” On a submarine, you have no contact with the outside world. You see no sunrises, no sunsets. Months pass without a fresh breeze blowing across your face. It’s an unnatural state of affairs for man, and it’s easy for the crew to get depressed. The simplest and most effective way to bolster crew morale is with meals. A well-fed crew is a happy crew. It’s as simple as that.

I spent some time filming the USS Florida‘s galley. The chief cook told me briefly that when the mood of the ship sours for any reason, the first course of action is to preempt the regular meal menu for something really special. Usually a good meal is all it takes to right a listing ship.

Video Preview: A Submariner’s Life

Don’t miss the all-new episode Naked Science: 21st Century Stealth Sub, this Thursday June 24 at 8P et/pt.