This time last week we were inside a submarine. The Onondaga , built in Britain in 1967, never took part in any battle, but was deployed for reconnaissance in the cold war against the Soviets. Decommissioned in 2000, she was towed to Rimouski's Site historique maritime de la Pointe-au-Père from Halifax last year and has only been accessible to the public since May this year. She is 90 metres long, weighs 1600 tons and had a crew of 70 men. As I put in my notes, their quarters were "a bit cramped".
From the outside she looks like a monstrous artificial whale. We stood outside looking up at her fin or conning tower with its appendages—the periscope, radar, reception, snorkel induction, communications aerial and snorkel exhaust—listening to the recorded commentary on our audioguides which invited us to board the vessel in the "after ends" (at the back). "When you step aboard, you never know when you'll be disembarking," said the guide, a supposed former sonar operator.
Here's where you'd store your beer, he said, when the hatch wasn't being used for loading. You weren't allowed any beer during the 6 hours before your watch. A series of watertight doors divided the compartments of the sub, with sealed outlets overhead for emergencies. The signal ejector, for instance, could send up coloured smoke flares, red for danger, fire or flood. There's a horrendously small Evacuation Tube through which you'd have to swim in your bright orange survival suit, if it came to that. Before evacuation, the compartment would be flooded. Imagine.
Then we squeezed into the engine compartment. Underwater the sub moved at a cautious 4 knots on a quiet, electric motor. The batteries would last for three days at this rate, but if you had to speed up to 13 knots they'd only last half an hour. On the surface the diesel engines were used. The guide mentioned that the smell of the fuel and of the men was all pervasive in this unventilated narrow tube, but you got used to it. They started with 38,000 litres of diesel in the tanks that would be gradually replaced with sea water as it was used up. The men who worked in the engine room would have to work in 60° of heat, too, and wear ear-muffs. Beneath the engines lay the snake pit (trou de serpent) that you could reach down a ladder.
You were never permitted more than a 20second shower, as water on board was at a premium, and to encourage natural "biorhythms" you lived under red light bulbs during the night, in white light during the daytime.
We inspected the instrument panels, many of which looked very modern, the sonar screens on a "glass cockpit". They played us the sounds that a sonar engineer would analyse and often immediately be able to recognise. Each kind of sea traffic had its own acoustic signature, trawlers, cargo ships; even shoals of fish make a distinctive noise on the sonar receiver.
The Sick Bay consisted of two wall mounted cupboards near a trio of bunk beds where the only privacy you get is by pulling your curtains across. To keep up the crew's morale the ship employed first class cooks who baked their own daily bread. There was no room for everyone to sit down in a canteen so crew members would tend to carry their meals away from the galley to eat them in their bunks. How they did this in the limited space available I'm not sure. All waste was expelled from the sub. through a Garbage Ejector.
The front of the ship was the business end from which they'd have launched the torpedoes, 16 of them available. On the Onondaga they had a 6km range and would move at 100kph. This was the coolest, best ventilated compartment of the vessel so it was sometimes used as a movie theatre. For blue movies, so they hinted, but "what happens on board stays on board."
Submariners are apparently proud of "their dolphins" (the badges they wear when qualified), but the service has never earned high prestige; it's sometimes called the "silent service" because of its secret habits and (literally!) low profile. At least they have no dress code to worry about. The training lasts eight months and their evacuation procedures are taught at Rimouski. They also have to learn how to operate the valves on board blind, in case the lights go out. When they pass their exams the new submariners are thrown into the water, and it's cold.
Rather them than me.