- How large is a submarine? The one I was on was a football field and a third (425 feet), in length and it was three stories/levels tall. The submarines now are almost two football fields in length. I realize they don’t seem that big but you only see a very small part of the sub when it’s on the surface. My submarine had 16 large nuclear missiles on board capable of wreaking extreme havoc. This did create a problem for us sailors as there weren’t any exotic ports that would allow nuclear weapons to be on their islands.
- How fast can a submarine go? We generally cruised at around 12 knots (comparable to around 14 mph in a car). I’d say our top end was around 22 knots. There were Soviet submarines at the time that could do 38 knots (we can do this now), this put us at a disadvantage in some ways but the fact is it was a lot easier to hear them coming because their engines and propellers made a lot of noise so it wasn’t difficult for us to hide from them.
- How many sailors were on the sub and were there any women? We had around 128 men on board; women weren’t allowed to serve at the time. They can serve now although it’s not a popular assignment for women to pursue because it’s a difficult life with very close quarters.
- How long would we stay at sea? Usually we’d go out for about three months and then return; we would then turn the submarine over to another crew (we were the Gold crew the other was the Blue crew), who would take it out for three months and we’d just keep rotating.
- How long would we stay submerged? The longest I spent underneath the water without surfacing was 77 days. There were some scary things going on with Russia at the time so we were told to remain hidden at all times not only from them but also from our own fleets.
- What did we do when we weren’t at sea for three months? It was non-stop training. We had classes and we participated in all kinds of simulators that trained us on how to navigate up and down rivers, how to effectively shoot and run from torpedoes, and how to launch nuclear missiles. Of course the best part about being in port is that we were able to go out on the town and meet women. This is where I met my wife (Maggie), of 31 years.
- How did we get rid of garbage? All garbage was put into an industrial garbage disposer which contained aluminum tubes that were around four feet tall. We’d then shoot these tubes out of the submarine. I know that sounds bad littering wise but it was the best we could do to remain hidden at sea.
- How did we have enough water to drink? We made our own water through bringing ocean water through a distiller. It was a slow process and we were often rationing water which meant limited showers at times which wasn’t a pleasant experience.
- Where did our air come from? We had advanced technology that would constantly recycle the air getting rid of carbon dioxide; it was known as a CO2 scrubber. The air was so clean it smelled better to me than when we surfaced the submarine and smelled “real” air. Loss of power was dangerous as the scrubber could go off line creating the need to get to the surface quickly.
- Could you communicate with friends and family when you were at sea? No. When we said goodbye to everyone we couldn’t talk to them for three months. The worst part is that when we returned from sea we didn’t have anything to say to anyone because our trips were always top secret. They couldn’t know where we went or what we did…as you can imagine we weren’t the best conversationalists.
- How deep did our submarine go? In most cases we operated up to 700 feet below the surface; they go much deeper now. What blew my mind is that we were underneath the water one time around 400 feet and we felt the impact of a hurricane that was above us. Basically, the submarine was rolling.
- Since we were underneath the water, how could we tell when a ship was nearby? Our sonar was amazing and we could easily hear a ship or another submarine up to 20 miles away. Isn’t that amazing? We also had the ability to figure out sometimes whose submarines/ships they were. Basically every vessel has its own sound (called a signature), and if we had that particular sound in our database the sonar would match it and give us the vessel’s characteristics such as its name plus how fast and deep it could go.
- If a submarine sank could we survive? When I served it was highly doubtful but not impossible. In most cases if we sank in greater than 200 feet of water (which would be the norm), we wouldn’t be able to exit the submarine and live going up to the surface; basically, our lungs would explode because of the water pressure. We did have an escape vehicle on board but it would only carry a few people so by the time it could get everyone out, the ones on board would probably die from fire, flooding, or lack of oxygen (whatever tragedy caused the sub to sink in the first place). There are some deep sea rescue vehicles but they’re not always close enough to reach a submarine in time. I do remember that tragic event where the Russian submarine went down and a deep sea rescue vehicle from another country was on site but the Soviets refused their help because they didn’t want anyone to see how their submarine was built. The men survived for several days and left notes to their loved ones before running out of oxygen and passing away. How sad.
As many of you know I was a navigator on nuclear submarines from 1981- 1985. Through the years people have asked me a variety of questions so I thought I’d write some of them down to see if it’s of interests:
Author: John Mann