Inside a Submarine: A Glimpse Into the Lives of Those Serving Beneath the Ocean’s Surface

Photo Credit: HUM Images / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
Photo Credit: HUM Images / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Submarines are among the most mysterious places on Earth, with only a small number of people having experienced what it’s like onboard one. While most civilians will likely never get to board one of these vessels, the following photos offer a glimpse of what life’s like inside a submarine.

Overview of how submarines have developed over the years

USS Indiana (SSN-789) at sea
USS Indiana (SSN-789) departing from Port Canaveral, Florida. (Photo Credit: Paul Hennessy / NurPhoto / Getty Images)

Nuclear-powered submarines combine nuclear storehouses, launch pads and weapons all in one undetectable and lethal package. Prior to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the US Navy’s 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines were equipped with 24 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, each with multiple warheads. Under the agreement, each vessel can now carry only a maximum of 20.

Most submarines spend 77 days at sea, with a 90-day food supply, before returning to port for just over a month. Each of the Navy’s ballistic missile submarines house two crews – Blue and Gold – who alternate patrols, allowing for maximum ability, while requiring fewer vessels in the water.

The first-ever combat submarine was designed for use during the American Revolution. Dubbed the Turtle, the around eight-foot long spherical vessel could house one man and was entirely hand-powered. The world’s first-ever submarine attack occurred shortly after Turtle‘s development, when the submersible was able to pass beneath the water undetected, bore a hole in the HMS Eagle (1774) and install explosives in her hull.

Five US Navy sailors tie off a rope to secure the USS Dallas (SSN-700)
Sailors serving onboard the USS Dallas (SSN-700) secure the submarine at port. (Photo Credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chris Williamson / U.S. Navy / HUM Images / Universal Images Group / Getty Images)

Today, vessels like the Ohio-class are a whopping 560 feet in length and weigh over 18,750 tons when submerged. The US Navy also has a lot of them; the fleet is comprised of 53 fast-attack submarines, 14 ballistic missile submarines (equipped with more than half of the American nuclear arsenal) and four guided-missile submarines.

Those stationed on these vessels go through rigorous training and continuous exercises like Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2022, which train them on how to navigate complex and potentially dangerous environments. This type of training is important to complete, given the unknowns that come with serving beneath the surface of the ocean.

What is downtime like inside a submarine?

Sailors sitting around lunch tables while watching football on a television
Sailors onboard the USS Ohio (SSGN-726) watch the Super Bowl in the crew’s mess. (Photo Credit: Class Tristin Bomar / U.S. Navy / Getty Images)

Life inside a submarine is far from easy. Just like those serving onboard ships, sailors deployed onboard submarines must contend with tight spaces, cramped quarters and limited food choices. However, unlike conventional vessels, submarines are devoid of sunlight, and amenities like the gym have to be altered to limit noise, to avoid detection by other vessels.

Despite all this, submarine life knits crewmen together, building lifelong friendships. When you’re forced to live with servicemen within such tight quarters for months on end, there’s nothing to do than become friends and work together to ensure the success of your mission.

There are also some unexpected occurrences that civilians might not realize about life inside a submarine. The main difference between life above water and beneath it is that sailors must adhere to strict schedules to make sure things run smoothly. We’re talking three six-hour shifts: six hours on watch, six more of downtime and another six designated solely for sleep.

Dealing with deadly weapons onboard the vessel

A machinist's mate attaching a Tomahawk missile capsule to the pivot tray in the torpedo room while another sailor watches
Machinist’s mate onboard the USS Norfolk (SSN-714) securing a Tomahawk missile capsule to the pivot tray in the torpedo room following a successful launch. (Photo Credit: Renso Amari / AFP / Getty Images)

Maintaining weaponry is one of the primary responsibilities for sailors tasked with serving inside a submarine. While many of these vessels perform patrols and reconnaissance missions, there’s a reason why they carry missiles. To ensure they’re able to be deployed at a moment’s notice, a submarine’s crew must ensure they and other equipment are properly maintained.

The US Navy hopes to expand its fleet and add a maximum of three new Virginia-class fast-attack submarines each year until 2043. Some officials, like former Commander, US Submarine Forces Vice Adm. Michael Connor, believe this total is too small and think the service will need to add 66 submarines to keep up with the increasing demand for underwater military capabilities.

On top of these additions, the Navy hopes to phase out its Ohio-class submarines, in favor of the newly designed Columbia-class, which is set to have its first vessel enter service sometime in 2031.

Submarines play a critical role in deep-sea rescue

Mask with two hoses coming out of the nose piece
Pressurized Rescue Module of the Submarine Rescue Diving and Recompression System. (Photo Credit: Pablo Villagra / AFP / Getty Images)

Beyond their military capabilities, submarines are also perfect for assisting in deep-sea rescue missions, as well as deep-sea research to help scientists uncover the mysteries hidden in the darkest depths of the ocean.

To assist in rescue missions, submarines deploy deep-submergence rescue vehicles (DSRVs). The DSRVs that are employed by the US Navy can rescue up to 24 people at a time from depths of up to 600 meters, with a maximum operation depth of 1,500 meters.

These vehicles can be loaded into a “MOSUB,” or mother submarine, which carriers them to rescue sites. While the majority of submarines equipped to carry DSRVs belong to the US military, a number of NATO-member countries have also made it so their own submarines can carry the vehicles, including those deployed by the British and French navies.

Life inside a submarine means dealing with navigational challenges

Five sailors using the US Navy Submarine Combat Control System
Sailors using the US Navy Submarine Combat Control System, which integrates seven sonar systems, weapons control, command and decision, and data fusion. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Submarines are surprisingly easy to navigate, even though whoever is driving the vessel is technically doing so “blind.” Instead of seeing a visual landscape, submarines use sonar technology to track where potential obstacles are in the water. An inertial navigation system (INS) measures the vessel’s motion and constantly updates its position.

Radio or GPS signals are unable to penetrate the water, which hinders navigation, but ensures the vessel remains “invisible” to potential enemies. The INS uses measurements provided by accelerometers and gyroscopes to track the position of an object in relation to how far away it is or how fast it’s moving.

Lt. Alex Baerg looking through the USS Georgia's (SSGN-729) periscope
US Navy sailor manning the periscope onboard the USS Georgia (SSGN-729) while out at sea. (Photo Credit: Sandy Huffaker / Getty Images)

Perhaps the most iconic instrument onboard a submarine is the periscope. This device allows crew members to get a glimpse of what’s happening above the water’s surface, while still remaining hidden beneath the waves. Some periscopes can be as long as 60 feet!

Has much has changed over the years?

Five sailors looking out the bridge of a submarine + Three sailors standing watch on top of the USS Albuquerque (SSN-706)
(L) US Navy personnel on the bridge of a submarine as it enters the harbor during the Pacific Campaign of the Second World War + (R) Sailors assigned to the USS Albuquerque (SSN-706) stand watch as the vessel departs port. (Photo Credit: 1. US Navy / FPG / Getty Images 2. Jeremy Gross / US Navy / Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images)

Looking back at older submarines and comparing them to today, it’s surprising how similar modern ones are to their ancestors, especially those deployed during World War I and II. While they were slower and couldn’t stay submerged for as long as those around today, they provided much-needed support and reconnaissance when at sea.

More from us: The Japanese Battleship Kongō was Among the Most Heavily Armed When It was First Built

The greatest post-war advancement in submarine technology was the advent of the nuclear submarine in 1954. Unlike their ancestors, which ran on diesel fuel, these nuclear-powered vessels were the first to become “true submarines,” as their technology allowed them to operate underwater for indefinite periods of time.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

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