Even hardcore sailors think ‘they’ are crazy, but they do so with great regard. Any man with the Dolphin pin on his lapel deserves all the respect and some more, for they are submariners; men who volunteer to lock themselves up in a windowless, cramped, steel contraption of a vessel to work tirelessly for one and a half months at a time with 250 ft of sea above them. When they enter the submarine and the hatch closes above them they know fully well that there are no exit doors for them in the event of danger. Yet, they step down the ladder bravely with their heads held high. Spending a few hours inside INS Sindhugosh one soon realises that submariners are a special breed indeed!
Submarines dock at particular jetties inside ports for replenishment and refueling. INS Sindhugosh was on one such ‘replenishing trip’ to the port when we got a chance to partially experience life inside the submarine. From the jetty, we walked through a launch pad to the top deck of the submarine. We then gingerly made our way along the side of the submarine, towards the conning tower. What welcomed us was a cylindrical staircase dropping 10ft down into darkness; as we climbed down we could feel the air being sucked out of our lungs — call it the psychological effect of entering a submarine. Beyond the stairwell was man’s modern marvels cloaked in jet black-valves, gadgets and machinery all required to help the submariners guard the waters of the country. The heart thumps and the lungs expand, greedy for oxygen. One cannot help but look up at the hatch — the last source of sunlight.
SPACE INSIDE THE SUBMARINE GIVES THE PHRASE PACKED-LIKE-SARDINES-IN-A-TIN A NEW MEANING. FILLED WITH GADGETS, VALVES, GAUGES AND OTHER INSTRUMENTS THERE’S HARDLY ANY SPACE FOR THE CREW. “IN SOME AREAS YOU CANNOT EVEN WALK STRAIGHT AS YOU COLLIDE HEAD ON WITH THE HEAVY EQUIPMENTS,” EXPLAINED A CHIEF PETTY OFFICER.
Once everybody climbs down, the door at the conning tower is sealed and secured. Now, you feel like you are inside a fully packed tube. If you are claustrophobic it is at this point that you are willing to meet your Creator. If not, you would fill your lungs with as much air as you can (though you can actually breathe normally inside a submarine) and proceed bravely. The submarine is filled to the brim with machinery and a few men. You have to squeeze your way from one deck to the other with your heads bent down; when you pass through the circular passages of each of the seven decks in the submarine you are quite literally making the journey on all fours. You tend to get nauseous as the submarine makes its way down the ocean and when it is nearer the surface of the sea. But it is relatively calmer once it reaches the depth of around 280 ft.
Irony Aboard Surrounded by water, the most precious commodity inside the submarine is water. “ None of us take a bath till we reach a port for replenishing,” explains a junior officer of the Indian Navy. Since water is precious, it is used only for drinking and cooking. Even though there is provision to convert sea water into potable water, it is only used as a last resort. The crews uses disposable, medicated clothing, which they change once in four-days.
Close Quarters Space inside the submarine gives the phrase packed-like-sardines-in-a-tin a new meaning. Filled with gadgets, valves, gauges and other instruments there’s hardly any space for the crew. “In some areas you cannot even walk straight as you collide head on with the heavy equipments,” explained a Chief Petty Officer. Even though the entire submarine has air cooling facility, only two decks are air-conditioned. The temperature in the rest of the submarine is around 30-35 degrees and the crew works in sweltering heat. The quality of the air is monitored constantly for impurities. Yet, as we expose ourselves to chemical gases at the same temperature for several weeks, our hair acquires a tinted brown colour. Lack of sleep and intense work makes our eyes swollen.” Lack of sunlight for longer periods of time also affects them. Though submariners are provided with berths or racks to sleep, many often sleep where they work.
“Once you are inside the submarine, there is nothing which can be defined as private. The berths are nothing but a dormitory of not more than 15-20 sq ft space per sailor to sleep and keep his belongings.” “It so happens that we often stand in a queue waiting for our turn to use one of the two toilets available inside the submarine for ablutions,” explained an officer. Submarines usually carry up to 75 personnel on board during its journey into the sea. Though submarines are equipped with entertainment facilities (satellite channels, DVDs, music) there is not much time left to enjoy those facilities. “The entire unit is run on diesel power and it is important to conserve fuel and energy for offensive and defensive purpose. The electricity is generated through batteries that are charged by switching on the engine,” explained an electrical officer of a submarine. So they are always conscious about the use of ‘power’.
Cooking up a storm Preparation of food is yet another challenge. “Space is a constraint inside the 300 ft long and 30 feet wide three story submarine, but still we have a galley spanning 4X6 sq mts equipped with minimum devices to cook decent food for the crew. Cooking begins everyday at about 3:45 am; there are two cooks on board. Though it is hot in other decks, it is hotter inside the kitchen with temperatures going up to 38 degrees. Other than packed food, we do prepare chapathis, rotis, pizzas, bread, rice, dal and other cuisines. Sailors usually take turns to eat because of the limited space at the dining hall,” explained a cook attached with a submarine.
Regular work day A submariner goes to work the minute he steps inside one. Every day is a week day, till he reaches port after three months. A normal work day inside a submarine is not the same as the 24- hour regime that we adhere to on land.
SUBMARINES USUALLY CARRY UP TO 75 PERSONNEL ON BOARD DURING ITS JOURNEY INTO THE SEA. THOUGH SUBMARINES ARE EQUIPPED WITH ENTERTAINMENT FACILITIES (SATELLITE CHANNELS, DVDS, MUSIC) THERE IS NOT MUCH TIME LEFT TO ENJOY THOSE FACILITIES. “THE ENTIRE UNIT IS RUN ON DIESEL POWER AND IT IS IMPORTANT TO CONSERVE FUEL AND ENERGY FOR OFFENSIVE AND DEFENSIVE PURPOSE.
“For the functioning convenience, the crew is divided into three groups. Our days are made of 18 hours. Each of the three groups will work for six hours at their designated locations and spend the remaining 12 hours keeping a watch. On few occasions we hardly sleep. Otherwise we do sleep for four to six hours,” reveals a submariner.
Dolphin family Submariners may have different last names, but inside the submarine they are a family. They might live in silence for months together and speak only when necessary, but they are bonded by the invisible chord of trust. “Everybody is family in here. There is a strong bond that ties us all. There is no privacy or secrets here. We talk to everybody otherwise isolation will eat into our lives,” explains an officer newly commissioned into the submarine wing.
The chosen ones It is not that anybody can work in a submarine. It requires a systematic mental and physical conditioning, which helps your body cope with the hardships of submarine life. “You are an astronaut of the deep and with the kind of technology we have on board our submarines, experience is akin to that of any space shuttle. Being part of the submarine fleet will test your limits and endurance,” explained a senior officer of the submarine wing of Indian Navy’s Western Naval Command at Mumbai. According to them the submarine service is a voluntary service for any sailor or officer of the Indian Navy. The only opportunity for the submariners to get a breath of fresh air is when the submarine goes for snorting at periscope depth. “Sometimes to recce the surface water, the submarine comes up to surface level and launches its periscope above the water surface. Through the periscope you will get a 360 degree view of the sea surface and the sky. At the same time, fresh air is also sucked into the submarine through a snorkel,” explained a technical officer.
Losing count of their body clock within a few days of joining the service; long periods in closed quarters with no fresh air or sunlight; being away from family and friends; following a work-life routine very different from the regular; loss of appetite… all these are said to make submariners dull, reticent and constipated men. Yet, submariners are an exception; they are sharp as a whip and their reflexes are close to being super-human.
These men with a dolphin badge are one of the striking forces of our naval strength with razor sharp senses, ears and eyes. They function and strike at the enemy target at a pace, which is faster than that of a second needle of the clock. Sitting inside a menacing contraption, deep under the sea, fully aware of the dangers lurking in the waters, submariners are the bravest men of our country, safeguarding our nation from seaborne threat.
The author is the Principal Correspondent of Bangalore Mirror (The Times Group) and this article was first published in the same publication in its edition dated 16 October 2011 under ‘The Sunday Read’ section.