Submariners have been prepping for decades for ‘Extreme Isolation’.
The above tweet was the prompt for this article. Whilst, there appears to be a subtle similarity between life on board a submarine and the current way of life under a lock down, it needs to be viewed from the perspective of absorbing certain survival skills in a difficult environment and maintaining a strong collective desire towards mission accomplishment. Submariners being more prepared…. well yes, most of us are a well-trained, disciplined, optimistic and buoyant lot. Submariners all over the world have at some time or the other experienced close or unforgettable encounters, operating at depths within the confines of a steel tube and have survived to tell the tale. Indian naval submariners are a resilient bunch, often light-heartedly wishing their brethren dolphiners one more surfacing than the number of dives and a fathom below keel always as a prayer to keep returning from sorties to narrate and laugh at such experiences.
It is an alluring life, no doubt attracting the swashbuckling confident lads fresh from the training academies to volunteer and live through a different way of life. No sun or moon, canned food, stale air and endless cleaning of spaces may sound depressing but let me clarify that this is seldom the case for actively involved personnel at sea who get accustomed to the routine. Mission objectives are foremost and orders are followed to a T. Now compare this to a locked down house where tempers are on tenterhooks and any kind of directives may rock the boat to varying degrees, depending on the inmates’ temperaments and energy levels. There are no mission directives and the definition of a leader or Captain is blurred at home. Here then, a submariner’s preparedness has no cognizance in handling the situation and he would prefer to be back within the confines of his beloved boat. So, as can be seen, drawing a comparison of sorts is unlikely to find congruence even though it may sound like an accurate comparison of the restricted life during COVID isolation and of that on board a submarine.
So why did the grey Dolphin then tweet these words? It was intriguing and I probably got my answer on a WhatsApp message which narrated the response of a 73-year-old Italian veteran who was asked to pay a single day’s charge for the ventilator which had kept him going in his fight against the deadly COVID 19. The veteran cried on hearing the request and when consoled by the hospital staff said that he was not worried about the payment but wondered how much he owed the Almighty who had let him breathe freely all these years, his inability to return the favor and his regret at not having expressed his gratitude for the same. The point here is that it is a human tendency to take things for granted and to realize their importance only when put in a spot.
The message here is obvious – to select between being stressed and being grateful. A submariner learns to be grateful at a relatively early stage, along with keeping the stress at bay. Submarining allows one to counter the law of diminishing utility and acquire survival skills very early in life and in the succeeding paragraphs I would like to narrate a few ordeals which I had personally faced during my initiation as a submariner in support of this aspect.
It was a warm summer morning when I came down the conning tower of a Foxtrot Class submarine and was welcomed by the coxswain of the boat in the control room. The submarine was to cast off for a mission that afternoon for a ten-day sortie with the Commanding Officers Qualifying Course Class. It meant even more cramped environs as the available bunks were allotted to the senior submariners and greenhorns such as myself were pushed to other places like the torpedo room.
After a grueling day of preparation, casting off and diving, time came to ease oneself into the makeshift sleeping space. I was pleasantly surprised to find a course mate snugly fitting on a torpedo rack. He had joined the arm a little earlier than I had and knew how to handle such situations. I was shown the other end of the same rack and requested not to snore. As days passed, dirt and grime got deposited all over our bodies but we learnt not to complain of the odour and get sound sleep on the lovely torpedo support racks. Most of the grime was accumulated whilst standing periscope watch. Whilst the periscope allowed us to get a glimpse of the outside world, it took its toll by means of dropping hydraulic oil on our turbans. The turbans were a must; I was told that retention of one’s crowning glory depended on how good one was with tying the turban and retaining it for the full watch. The good old foxtrot periscope was not very easy to rotate and one had to go round and round, keeping clear of the mast well into which the periscope retracted before diving below periscope depth. Retention of the turban was therefore a challenge whilst moving constantly and applying force.
Fresh water was rationed and thinking of a bath was out of the question. Days passed quickly and soon we got back to harbor, having met our mission objectives. Returning to my allotted cabin at the Western Naval Command Mess that day, I hit the washroom and went straight for a shower. It was a heavenly feeling seeing the accumulated wealth of dirt get washed off and the memory remains an ineradicable one permanently etched on my mind. What changed during subsequent sorties and why was this was my best shower?!! Well, one learns quickly. Body sponging using cold condensate water from air conditioning pipelines and coolers (special areas where condensate can be collected) after that memorable sortie did not let me experience the heavenly shower ever since. The newer boats came with desalinators and permitted a bath on board every fourth day.
On another mission, we carried a group of Marine Commandos who were to be dropped off close to their area of operation. Commandos are a tough lot who can live off the land, but hitching a ride on a submarine was a totally different cup of tea. This became apparent after a few days on board. Now here I can draw a comparison of the commandos to pampered family members who seldom involve themselves in daily chores. During the initial briefings the leader had insisted that the team be dropped very close to the objective, giving reasons in detail for his request. The captain explained that the commandos would remain on board in case the launch was not feasible, in which case they would return to harbor with the boat. This entailed a stay on board for anywhere from ten to twenty days. On the third day, the submarine developed a defect on the bilge pump and needed to dewater the bilges using buckets for some reason. The commandos, who had mostly remained aloof and concentrated only on their own work, were found to be a willing lot and contributed wholeheartedly.
On the fourth day, the drop could not materialize due to tactical reasons. During the reassessment discussion, the submariners were startled when they found an extremely accommodating team leader. The launching distance from the objective was upwardly revised without any coaxing. The next day the submarine was faced with a difficult scenario for undertaking the launch, but the team leader was now found to be pleading with the captain to be let off the boat even if it meant using unconventional means to get ashore. The change of heart of the team leader was extremely reassuring, but at a working level we all knew it was the thought of staying on board which had something to do with the noticeable change in the team leader’s stance.
Social distancing is a buzzword these days, but I had learnt it much earlier on another mission. Somewhere in the North Arabian Sea, midway through its important assignment, the Captain of our boat was informed by the medical officer (MO) that the executive officer had contracted mumps. As it was crucial for the boat to complete the mission, the doctor’s advice was that the officer be isolated from the crew. Now social distancing on a boat at sea is an extremely difficult proposition, as the crew operates in close proximity, meals are prepared in a very small space and consumed at close quarters. There is no distinction drawn between recreational and dining areas and these are used extensively to keep the mind sharp and boredom away. The doctor also informed us that personnel who had never had the infection earlier were especially vulnerable to it. As everyone on board was sensitized to the need for the unit to complete its mission, the scenario on board was hilarious. We had watch keepers who sat in adjoining chairs, with torsos leaning outward like twin towers of Pisa and whenever the executive officer set foot outside his cabin where he was isolated, the personnel who did not have any knowledge of having had the disease earlier somehow vanished from the scene. Social distancing was practiced without announcements and with utmost sincerity, though without masks. The first thing which the Captain did on return, was to get all the personnel, who had practiced social distancing in all earnestness, vaccinated by the MO and praised the crew for remaining steadfast in allowing the unit to meet its goal.
There have also been instances when the rations either go bad due to water contamination or the refrigeration plants developing a defect. Submariners have always innovated and survived on the dependable “khichadi” and ensured mission accomplishment without a fuss. The lock down has at least permitted essentials to be supplied and therefore does not pose a problem for this breed of naval personnel.
To conclude, I would say that the experience of life on a submarine does work on the outlook of a person and one would find a submariner always willing to innovate, be grateful, be less stressed in difficult situations and be happy to play his role in any team towards attainment of mission objectives. Having endured the current lock down for a few weeks, most of the citizens have developed some amount of similarity with submariners and I am sanguine that we shall prevail over this pandemic and come out with flying colors.