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Around The Fleet

Beneath the Waves

Life on a Submarine

Electronics Technician 2nd Class (SS) Joshua Craig pauses for a moment to think about the question, the steady hum of machinery filling in the silence.

"Anything but normal," he says, chuckling.

The question he was answering was simple; what does a normal day onboard a U.S. Navy submarine look like?

The Navy's submarine force is unlike any other community in the military, a small, tight-knit group of approximately 20,000 active-duty and reserve Sailors who spend months at a time sailing deep below the waves. Between their secretive missions and their lack of contact with the outside world, the submarine community is often a mystery to those on the outside.

"Life on a submarine is unique," said Electronics Technician 1st Class (SS) Timothy Palowski, a submariner assigned to the ballistic missile submarine USS Wyoming (SSBN 742). "You live inside a biodome that's built for sinking."

Being hundreds of feet underwater and packed into a small vessel with approximately 150 other people at any given time, submariners say personal space is almost nonexistent. Small berthings are spread out throughout the submarine, with some staggered between missile and torpedo tubes. Some submariners are even forced to "hot-rack" due to lack of space - a practice where multiple Sailors must split time between the same bunk to get sleep.

Working hours onboard are also unique; there is no day or night, only a series of eight-hour rotations: eight hours of standing watch, followed by eight hours of working, maintenance, or studying, followed by eight hours of sleep.

"You have to get used to not seeing the sun; when you're in your rack, that's your night time," said Palowski.

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"One minute you could be in the shower, or in your rack, and the next minute you have to put on all your gear and fight a fire," said Craig. "It's a very quick change, and I think submariners are the best at it."

Ballistic missile submarines can stay underwater indefinitely, producing their own oxygen and water, only needing to surface for food and supplies.

"For us, the world stands still when we leave," said Craig.

When a submarine is underway it has very limited contact with the outside world, so big events and news go unknown by the crew. Craig mentioned the unique experience of leaving home while a popular singer is young and on the Disney channel, only to return and see she's now a big success and has music videos on MTV. For Palowski, a big shock was being underway for the death of Michael Jackson; rumors spread slowly, but the crew didn't believe it was real until they returned home.

"The hardest part is leaving the family behind," said Palowski.

Palowski is married with four kids, and has completed 13 patrols on submarines. Having little to no contact with his family, he describes leaving home with his kids crawling, and returning to a kid who can walk and even speak to him.

Despite these sacrifices and the difficult nature of the job, submariners say there is a lot to take pride in as well.

"Of course [submarines] are the best part of the Navy," said Craig, laughing. "A lot of communities like to think they're the best, but they've never been on a submarine, so..."