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12 Things You Didn't Know About Life On A Submarine

Retired Navy Commander and bestselling thriller writer Rick Campbell dishes about the real life aquatic.

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Forget what you know. Rick Campbell, retired Navy Commander and bestselling thriller writer—of new international sub adventure Empire Rising—is here to tell you all the inside scoop about the real life aquatic:

12. The size of submarines is not what you thought.


The U.S. Navy's submarines are nothing like the small, grimy diesel submarines you see in movies. For example, the Ohio class (Trident) submarines are almost 2 football fields long, 7 stories tall from keel to sail, and wide as a 3-lane highway.

11. Some submarines have more powerful warheads than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.


Ballistic missile submarines can carry up to 24 missiles, which have up to 8 nuclear warheads each. Each can be about 25 times more powerful than what was dropped on Hiroshima, so imagine the destructive power of a single Trident ballistic missile submarine.

10. Women weren't on U.S. submarines until 5 years ago.


In 2010, the navy finally scrapped the idea that due to privacy concerns, it would be too difficult for women to serve on submarines, and they admitted the first female officers into the nuclear power training pipeline. (As a note, this only new to the U.S. Navy. Foreign navies have had women serving aboard their submarines for decades in some cases.)

9. The food prep is heavy (literally).


A typical list of all the packed food for a submarine trip includes:

- 22,000 eggs

- 800 pounds of butter

- 500 pounds of coffee

But due to space limitations, many items are baked aboard. There's a night baker assigned to bake the bread needed for sandwiches and toast, along with dinner rolls, hamburger and hoagie buns, and all the pastries, cakes, and cookies.

8. Exercise on a sub: more regular than you'd think.


A crew member will typically work out after coming off watch or before going on. Each submarine jams whatever it can fit: one or two stationary bikes, maybe a rowing machine, sometimes a treadmill. Some of the subs that have more room have a universal-style weight machine, and a lot of submarines will have a work bench with adjustable dumb bells. You can also get a decent run in—17 laps around an SSBN's Missile Compartment Upper Level is one mile.

7. Crews get creative about leaving the family for months at a time.


There's a lot to be done before sailors depart for deployment. The simplest part is packing. The harder part is making arrangements for everything while gone. Sailors will write letters to their wives that they can open once a week, or notes to be hidden around the house. They also can't forget the special holidays they'll miss, so they have to pre-order the Valentine's and Mother's Day flowers, and buy and wrap the birthday and Christmas gifts—and can't forget the cards either.

6. The most critical piece of equipment aboard a nuclear-powered submarine is…


Well, some will say it's the nuclear reactor that provides power, others will say it's the torpedo tubes so they can defend themselves, and others will say it's the main engines that carry them to safety.

They're all wrong. The most essential piece of gear aboard a nuclear powered submarine is the ice cream machine. Submarines have a soft-serve ice cream machine that typically serves vanilla or chocolate ice cream—and that's one piece of critical gear that everyone agrees better stay working the entire deployment.

5. The toilets may explode if you aren’t careful.


A submarine has to discharge its sanitary tanks every so often. On the older classes, they pressurize the sanitary tanks and blow them overboard. This is critical: you don't want to flush a toilet while a tank is being blown overboard. The toilets are flushed by opening a ball valve that lets the toilet contents flow down into the tank, but if you open the ball valve while the tank is pressurized—see the right-side photo for what happens. And yes, it DOES happen...

4. Submariners go for social swims!


When the Captain surfaces the submarine for a Steel Beach Picnic (literally, a picnic on the deck), he'll usually authorize a Swim Call too. Break out the sunglasses, because a bevy of pasty-white submariners will head topside to catch some rays and dive into the water. One note: they're always on the lookout for sharks, so they'll post an extra lookout in the Bridge with a rifle. The joke is: he's not there to shoot the shark, just the farthest guy out, so the rest can make it back.

3. Submarines make their own oxygen.


Submarines have 1 or 2 oxygen generators that break water molecules into their oxygen and hydrogen atoms. Submarines also store oxygen in oxygen banks for an emergency in case both oxygen generators go down, or if the submarine sinks and loses power, they can bleed oxygen from the banks.

2. Traditions: You aren’t really an initiated sailor until you're a Shellback.


A Shellback has crossed the equator on a naval vessel. (A Pollywog hasn't.) If you're a Pollywog when you cross the equator, you'll have to be initiated. It's all in fun and the ceremonies used to be pretty gross, but they've been toned down. Basically the biggest guy on crew becomes King Neptune for the day, regaled with crown and scepter, and Pollywogs have to do his bidding…which may or may not include sucking a cherry out of King Neptune's belly button. Becoming a Shellback is not only a submarine tradition, but an international Navy tradition.

1. The biggest party night on patrol is…


Halfway Night: the halfway point of deployment, usually celebrated with the best meal—Lobster tail and prime rib or NY strip steak—and festivities to raise money for the sub's recreation fund, such as Pie in the Eye. Whipped cream pies are auctioned off and thrown at a favorite crew member, officers included (one night only!). Halfway Night is a time for the crew to let down their hair and break through the barrier between officers and enlisted.