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‘Life underwater – extreme isolation’ Lockdown life as a RN Submariner

Lt Penny Thackray RN

Since a lockdown was announced in the UK to help control the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve had to learn new ways to cope in isolation. For many of us, staying home and being isolated from friends and family is a new experience. But for submariners, the coping skills they have honed through lengthy underwater patrols have come in useful for the current situation.

Ahead of our ‘Life Under the Water’ webinar, we spoke to Lieutenant Penny Thackray about what life is like on a submarine, how being underwater differs from our current situation, and the ways she coped with extreme isolation:

Accepting isolation

Isolation on a submarine is rather different for what we are experiencing right now, as although you are unable to contact your family and friends at home, you have a new family of over 100 people who are all in the same boat (pardon the pun).

I qualified on HMS Vigilant a nuclear deterrent submarine and for me I found the best thing to do was to accept the whole patrol of 100 days as completed when we reached the point of no return and we wouldn’t be returning to the outside world until we were relieved by the next boat on patrol.

To symbolise this, I had my only ever grade one haircut, safe in the knowledge it would have grown back by the time we returned home. Even a haircut on a submarine is different: someone must hold a vacuum cleaner extension to your head at the same time, so stray hairs don’t block up the systems. A little different to some of the home haircuts people have been doing. It’s certainly saves on washing, but it was a bit chilly under the air conditioning at first and I had the Commanding Officer constantly reminding me I’d promised my hair would grow back before we returned home so to concentrate my efforts!

Keeping in touch with the outside world

On a V-boat we can only receive information from the outside world, we can’t send messages as this would give away our position. We receive a daily news print out, although it will have been edited if command feel the news will affect anybody on board. This is also true of the 100 words we can receive a week from family or friends to keep us in touch with what is going on at home. By the time we read it will have been checked by several people, as there is no point in receiving bad news as there is nothing we can do and it may effect our performance on board; so any bad news is saved for when we return home and everyone dreads if they are called to the Captain’s cabin on the last day.

Our current isolation with all the technology we have nowadays to keep in touch and even see family make it so much easier than being at sea. These short messages would often be kept in top pockets and read out to friends for everyone to enjoy a bit of home, although sometimes finding out your other half has spent all the money you’ve earnt underwater on clothes shopping and a fancy holiday they’ve booked, isn’t the best message you can get.

Home comforts make lockdown easier

Other advantages in our current isolation are, we get to sleep in our comfy beds, rather than stacked 3 high in a tiny cabin where people often say they dream they are trapped in a coffin. Plus, however bad your home cooking is, you don’t have to eat the food that is slowly rotting onboard, where a whole layer of rotting green mush must be removed from a potato to get to the last apparently edible bit in the middle – the smell is awful.

This isolation from home means we need to rely on the company we have, and submariners quickly form strong bonds. We tend to have quite a dark/fatalistic sort of sense of humour, which you need when you know how much water is above your head. As you’re working 6 hours on and 6 hours off you soon get into a routine, even the same jokes come round in routine, for example, we had some sub-sauce and every lunchtime when it came out: ‘sub-sauce that’s rather specific, I bet they don’t have a big market for that’. One of my favourite times was just before midnight when me and the Cox’n would go and peel 100 hardboiled eggs to help the chefs; I would imagine I was Cool Hand Luke in the film when he bets, he can eat 50 eggs, you need these little distractions to get you through.

H2:There aren’t many distractions on a V-boat

You don’t get many distractions like watching films; when you are qualifying you only get to sit in the mess (our living room) to study, the rest of the time you should be out tracing systems and learning how everything on the submarine works for your final exam board. Once qualified I would spend spare moments writing little quizzes for the guys in the comms room, who made sure we got our weekly messages. I’ve found myself doing quizzes again in isolation, with my teddy bears dressing up and re-enacting scenes from famous films for my friends to guess – so I suppose we always revert to type in similar circumstances.

Once I qualified, I also visited the attack submarines, to deliver education opportunities. On here instead of sleeping in a cabin with the other female officers, as a visitor I slept in the bomb shop alongside the torpedoes. I was given a bit of privacy, by that I got to squeeze in behind the torpedoes out of the way, but I always made sure I had my emergency breathing mask with me in case anything happened, and we needed to quickly plug into the oxygen supply around the boat. I did wake one night to a hissing sound and thought ‘oh no something is leaking’, but as the gym is also in the bomb shop it was just someone on the exercise bike – your asleep time is the middle of the day for somebody else. But we do learn to exercise in a confined space and have workout routines without the need for YouTube.

Special occasions look a bit different in isolation

I have only ever been at work once on my birthday and I spent my 40th birthday on HMS Talent which still made it quite special. We had a cake, watched a film in the evening and I had a jacket potato cooked on the heat generated from a nuclear reactor. I still had a dinner with family when I got home, which I’m sure a lot of people who have had their birthday are planning for after isolation.

Isolation is temporary

It’s often remarked it’s an easier routine in prison, you get to watch more telly, have comfier beds, the food is better, you have more communication with the outside world and your other half can’t spend all the money you’ve earnt. But I doubt they have the camaraderie. Although we are isolated right now and many of us are working from home, just take heart, you are not sharing your living room with your boss like we do at sea. Like our patrols this will end, and you’ll be back with family and friends, but the expected end date can get extended a little while you are at sea and you just have to re-adjust your expectations.

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