A submarine and crew out of the water…but still very busy!

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Navy News / June 9, 2021

Submarines are part of the unseen force of the nation, stealthy, lethal and persistent, making them ideal for surveillance and intelligence gathering in peacetime and wartime. Most importantly, the crew is critical for ensuring that submarines operate at peak performance while deployed on various exercises and operations. No crew, and the submarine doesn’t go anywhere.

But, what does the crew of a submarine do when the submarine is in dry-dock or alongside?

Her Majesty’s Canadian Submarine (HMCS) Chicoutimi, one of Canada’s four Victoria-class submarines, has been in several international training exercises and operations throughout the Pacific in recent years, contributing greatly to the over 2,300 days at sea amassed by the class since their service began.

HMCS Chicoutimi also completed a record 197-day deployment in 2017-18 in support of Op Projection, where the submarine operated in the Asia-Pacific region and was actively involved in joint exercises conducted by the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force and the United States Navy.

Currently, HMCS Chicoutimi is in the midst of a Transitional Docking Work Period that will upgrade the submarine, update the maintenance and allow the platform to adopt a new maintenance cycle, improving the overall availability and capability of the submarine. Although not unlike maintenance conducted on your car, these checks must ensure the “vehicle” is ready in all respects in order to operate while submerged in more than 200 metres of salt water and under tremendous pressure.

These maintenance periods also allow the crew a chance to have time ashore.

A submariner differs somewhat from the surface sailor, and even more from the average citizen. When they go to sea, they lack regular communication with the outside world. The internet does not exist under the ocean... nor does fresh air, privacy, or laundry machines. A nice refreshing shower is also not a regular commodity on board a submarine. Thank goodness for baby wipes and laundry buckets. And yet, most submariners thrive in that environment and demand more.  As such, it is truly an elite group within the Royal Canadian Navy which all can become a member, given the right training, work ethic and attitude.

Even though not at sea, submariners remain busy when alongside or goes into dry dock.

Every submariner is required to maintain a standard of physical fitness, and they must also stay current in submarine damage control procedures, focusing on firefighting, escape procedures, hydraulic bursts, high pressure air bursts and various electrical failures which are serious incidents for a submerged submarine. Submariners maintain up-to-date first aid training while ensuring they themselves remain healthy and ready to deploy. Time ashore provides crew members an opportunity to seek out further training to enable them to take on advanced roles.

Beyond striving to maintain personal qualifications as required by each submariner’s individual trade, the crew of a submarine actively trains future submarine candidates while concurrently overseeing the work on their submarine. They train to be ready and proficient in new systems and any upgrades that are usually the result of a work period, while taking care of the routine administration of daily life.

Seemingly standard life tasks become more difficult for a submariner at sea. While being at sea for weeks on end with limited to no communication is the norm, a submariner must proactively plan out things like when and how to pay the mortgage, how long to store personal goods, or who will take care of the pets. And back-up plans must be created in case things change, or the submarine needs to remain on patrol longer.

As submarines lack many of the amenities that surface warships have, submariners make the most of their time ashore. For instance, when in alongside outside of their home port, submarine crews stay in hotels so that they have access to regular showers and laundry facilities, and can just enjoy much-needed personal space after living in the cramped confines of a submarine for weeks on end.

Submariner Lieutenant(Navy) Nathan Haylett notes that in these situations, each submariner is given the key to their hotel room, normally shared with another crew member, as well as subsistence allowance and incidentals to pay for food and other amenities.

“We are expected to be ready to stand duty watch and work as required,” he said. “but we certainly have more freedom to explore various attractions… and eat amazing food!”

The submarine community also tries to host monthly mess events as a crew, COVID-19 permitted. These events include harbour cruises, local axe throwing events, tastings, sporting days and competitive games days. These activities help bond a small crew into a family.

HMCS Chicoutimi looks forward to returning to operational service in 2023. Until then, the crew is busy supporting other submarines and preparing to undertake any other tasks, while spending quality time with family and friends.