Life on a Submarine

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Living in a submarine is uncomfortable. The environment is hostile, and its crew must adapt to coexistence in minimal spaces, lack of light, bumps, little physical exercise and a special diet. This is the day to day in the ‘Tramontana’, one of the three submersibles of the Spanish Navy.

It resembles a child’s high chair, only that it is not subject to long legs but to an anchorage located at the highest point of the submarine’s tower, the so-called sail. In the small removable seat sits the commander as an omniscient guide. It occupies its place of privilege in the center of that cylindrical and metallic universe when the ship enters or leaves the port. They are trances cataloged as “critical maneuvers”.

The wishes of the boss are transmitted to the command post located a few meters below by a cornet connected to a hollow drive that opens flared near the helmsman’s ear. That’s how the voice goes. In few cases, the qualification of wireless technology is justified. At the same time that it transfers the orders of the commander to the navigators, this conduction, as primitive as infallible, links the modern navigation of today with the reality of other, more traditional times. More heroic, some would say. Those who work in it, the naval family that lives in it, fondly call it “the tube”.

To name this 68-meter-long vessel that was built to dwell in the depths is fairly tight. Except for the tower or sail, the form is unequivocal. The Tramontana submarine is one of the last three of its kind in the Spanish Armada. The only three submarines in service in the armed forces currently, waiting for the arrival of the new submersible S-80, which has suffered so many delays.

Submarines are made to go underwater. Normally, any submersible such as the Tramontana usually navigates in the so-called periscopic level, which oscillates between 12 and 16 meters deep but can also do it between 55 and 300, depending on the mission. While they are submerged, their way of moving is optimal, on the surface, they behave more clumsily. They swing more. A submarine is an antinatura habitat; something heavy that runs underwater and with a finite atmosphere. The environment is somewhat hostile. It is narrow, angles and outgoing unfriendly, and corners and hollows used to the maximum to gain storage capacity. There can be nothing left to occupy in the bowels of the beast. They create in those few empty spaces cajoncitos or small compartments where it fits as much as it can fit. During the long days under water, there are many tools that can be missed. Nothing is within reach of the crew if it has not been loaded on board before.

With this spatial economy, we seek to create an illusion of comfort that is difficult to achieve; a comfort that neither has the commander’s camera, the noblest room without a doubt, the only single bedroom, where table and closet share service and mechanisms.

One of the beds located in the officer’s cabin is known as the grave because it is at ground level and you have to lie down before accessing it. It seems the only effective way to do it. The space between the tomb and the litter immediately above is minimal, and that gives it a greater affinity with a sarcophagus, as jokes the lieutenant of ship Francisco Dugo Reyes, electronic and intelligence officer of the submarine and occupant of the aforementioned bed.

Certain parts of a submersible like the Tramontana evoke the sharpness of design of some habitable trailers; small and multipurpose furniture. “My wife has wanted a motorhome for some time, but of course, I am resisting for the moment”. The reaction of First Corporal Antonio Palma Martínez is easily explained. Outside the tube, he craves another way of relating to the three dimensions. It has been destined in the submarine weapon since the year 2000.

The crew of the Tramontana is composed of 78 people, of whom eight are women.

It happens that not all personnel board at once. For a short-term patrol, usually, 50 sailors do it. On longer missions, such as two months, 65 troops are on board. The constant is that they always board three of the women.

The destined ones in this submarine of the Galerna class avoid the obstacles of their interior with dexterity. They do it with coordinated movements that result from an intensive internalization process. They have loaded in their memory the map of the obstacles. This does not prevent that, as in any instruction, the trial and error procedure is adopted. “Sooner or later, we have all learned here based on blows and bumps,” confesses Lieutenant Ignacio López Nevado, chief engineer of the Tramontana.

It is easy to understand, therefore, that the displacements within the submarine are uncomfortable and that they end up being limited by questions of order and service needs. It can be said that life inside the ship is done in a narrow corridor in which it is preferable to wander as little as possible. When running through the narrow corridor and meet someone in front, it is inevitable to rub with more or less intensity. There are almost no entrances in the corridor where you can get away from the one that comes in a kind of burladero. The impassive way in which these physical contacts are addressed is another of the expressions of those automatisms acquired by the endowment. “Here you’re always in the middle except when you’re in your bed,” smiles commander Jaime Bellido Martínez, commander of the Tramontana submarine.

The movements of the personnel inside the ship end up sticking to very scheduled itineraries. No one travels in vain or goes to points of the submarine where he has nothing to do. The displacements occur mainly when you are on duty.

Life on a Submarine

The place where more people work at the same time is the so-called PCNO (central navigation and operations station). There the navigation orders are given and the tactical part is worked on. There are the main electronic devices of the ship. The commander or guard officer is kept in a central location with the periscope at his disposal. There is also the helmsman’s area, as well as a work desk with cards. In delicate operations, in the PCNO one can overcome the dozen of people operating.

“Normally, the one that is not on duty, or rests in his bunk or works very collected in matters of computer or papers. You can not have everyone active by the boat, both for space and conservation of the atmosphere, “says Commander Bellido. “Here you read a lot and you see many series and movies”, ends the man who occupies the top of the hierarchy, the one that makes use of that underwater mount of the sail when the submarine emerges enters or leaves port. The increasingly smaller systems of data storage have changed, in a way, the free time on the ship. The economy of space is a necessity.

As you can not wander around the submersible, there are occasions when during the navigation some members of the downtime are connected in a network with their devices from different points of the submarine. Enjoy in the communion of a video game. “The new technologies have done a lot for leisure, but at the same time it has made us more autonomous,” says Commander Bellido. Amusement technology may have occupied spaces that were once common activities.

In addition to the lack of space, the lack of light is another vital condition in a submarine. Members of the crew of a ship such as the Tramontana remain between 120 and 130 days a year at sea. Sometimes, 20 days pass without seeing the sun, although in exceptional situations the submarines of the Navy have managed to sail up to 45 days in a row. In reality, the limit of duration of a navigation is marked by provisions. The supply for a month and a half is about 3,000 kilograms. In missions of greater duration, it is necessary to enter a port to ship supplies again. During an operation in Libya, within the Unified Protector mission, in 2011, the submarine spent 28 days at sea guarding the arms embargo decreed against the country once dominated by the dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

It is easy to lose track of time when you are many days in a row in the depths, as in this type of mission. The crew is stuck in the tube and except for some officers with access to the two periscopes of the submarine (one digital or optronic and another optical or attack) none of the sailors sees the light, neither reflected nor projected. The crew knows if it is day or night because at night the interior lighting is red, and in the daytime, white or blue.

The connections between present and past that occur in a submarine seem inevitable. The lighting issues influence so much in the daily operations that for example the night watch officer, 20 minutes before entering service, always puts a patch on one eye like those associated with pirates and does not take it off during all the surveillance except, of course, to look through the periscope. And only at that moment. Lower and raise the dressing with a quick, reflex maneuver, just before zooming in or out on the face of the viewfinder. It is one of the automatisms of life in the tube. If the officer did not take those precautions, he would not be able to distinguish silhouettes on the night horizon by having his sight accommodated to the interior light. The patch is always housed in a pocket.

If the light and the interior space condition the life of the divers, the combination of the lack of exercise and the good food served on board, according to the general opinion of the crew, can also have consequences. That which is taken at lunchtime is usually a recurring topic of conversation. It turns out that a more or less appetizing agape affects the morale and humour of the endowment. Sergeant Pedro Guil Soriano is the non-commissioned officer of provisions and habitability. In addition to avoiding the usual limitations of space, which in the kitchen seem to sublimate, the sergeant is responsible for designing balanced diets. “We give fruit and vegetables every day,” confirms Guil. Much like the Murcian cauldron. The crew asks for it very often, and also the cheek or the salmorejo.

The quantities and rations served are well studied. It seems however inevitable to gain some weight. “We’re not here,” says the commander. Little exercise is done. To palliate it, imaginative solutions are sought. For this reason, in the area of torpedoes, a small free space of just over one square meter has been temporarily enabled, where a little muscular work is done. “Although others choose to skip one of the meals,” says Sergeant Guil. They do it so as not to succumb to overweight.

The torpedo zone is also where the sailors’ bunk beds are. Women occupy the highest and most isolated, to give them more privacy. In such a way that, if it is necessary that someone has to pass over them to join the guard or for any other need, whoever does is always another woman.


As well as a good meal, fresh water is also a precious commodity. The bottled usually reaches for the use of the mouth, but there is not always enough in the tanks to shower every day. “Wet wipes are one of my best friends on board,” says mechanic Patricia Sanz Sanchez. It is the chief engineer who sets the frequency of the passage through the shower; by the only shower of the whole submarine, which while not used fulfills the functions of the warehouse of used packaging of the kitchen. “We are prepared to create fresh water,” says Ignacio López, the chief engineer officer, “but it’s a very noisy procedure.” And the noise is the enemy of underwater navigation.

By definition, a submarine must be as invisible as possible. Stealth is one of the maxims of this weapon of war. For this reason, on the high seas, the most delicate moments are those in which noise is made or in which the boat is exposed when placed a few meters deep. The silhouette can be detected, for example, from a reconnaissance plane, or a listening device from another vessel can detect it. In this way, this is why sometimes the so-called “conditions of silence” that are gradual and that involve the gradual disconnection of certain equipment must occur within the submarine. “Sometimes you should opt for the maximum silence; it is applied when the submarine is pursued, there is evidence that it is being tracked or when it is necessary to go completely unnoticed, “says the commander. Some silences greatly affect the habitability and equipment on board because the cooling ends very soon because it is necessary when it is left in suspense. “Food and temperature greatly affect the endowment. The heat is very bad on the psychic plane “, says Raúl Sánchez, the nurse captain of the Tramontana.

The relation of the endowment with the noise or the absence of this throws very different balance sheets. “Silence always wakes up. It’s when the current goes. Emergency lights are on. They also surprise the sounds that go out of the normal “, relates the first corporal Palma.

Stealth and discretion are imperative. But renew the interior atmosphere of the submarine, too. And for that, you have to get close to the surface. The so-called snorkelling, that is, the collection of air during the immersion by means of a tube, is the procedure used for said renovation. The boat cannot be below 14 meters to do so. Snorkelling is preferably done during night periods. It is necessary to avoid at all costs that it is possible to detect the wake that the aforementioned tube leaves on the surface of the water, something that can betray its presence. Normally, two charges are made per day, but it depends in part on the speed at which you are navigating.

The nurse captain does not joke at all when he says that his figure in the submarine is like that of a shaman. Receives inquiries daily, but not all refer to physical issues. It translates the feeling that the damage caused by the soul’s in communication is more acute than the lack of light in the human body. “Having little communication with the outside, any problem that occurs outside is greatly magnified. It’s a very common effect, “says the health official. “The lack of communication influences the mood. It sends, when you can, an email to the day, “Corporal Sanz is sincere.


Without light, with little water to shower, without being able to burn calories and sleeping with the upper bunk pressed to the face, the fights between the members of the crew seem to be served. But all say that is not the case. Faced with disagreements, which sometimes arise, there is very little to do. There is nowhere to hide from the other. “You have your partner head on the bunk and you come across whoever he is at all times. If you get along with someone, it’s impossible to live, “summarizes sailor Víctor López Pascual. “I like life here, it’s like a small family,” says Corporal Sanz. Lopez agrees with her. He is from Cartagena, where the base of the Tramontana is located. Although many divers opt for this specialty because they have always wanted it, they have been attracted to it, others do it because they are natives of that Murcian city and so they stay close to home. It gives the sensation, nevertheless, that in the end, they end up catching also the life in the tube.

“In all the cameras there is someone who is a catalyst for the group. They are very important people, “says Captain Sanchez. The coexistence is shaping up with the passing of days. The most critical moments are the days before the arrival to base, the return home as it were, but in general people are very respectful, have a lot of endurance and always avoid confrontations. I must say that it holds cars and carts. ”



Source: Magazine Digital