NAVY NEWS, JUNE 2011
short of exemplary’
won’t get more than four and a half hours sleep in any one go. And the routines – 7am-1pm, 1pm-7pm, 7pm-1am, 1am-7am – make for sharp contrasts with skimmer world.
Change of watch means the boat is buzzing at 12.30am as the oncoming watch wash and dress. Most of skimmerland is fast asleep. You’ll hear grunts and groans in the small hours as one of the crew pulls away on the rowing machine, squeezed between banks of computer processors. There is no gym per se
aboard Tireless. What little ‘dead space’ exists is filled with rowing or cycling machines, even a punchbag. There’s no running machine (there’s no compartment high enough). And you are going to want to work out during your ten months away, for you are very amply fed. A team of three chefs, led by LCH Mark Hamilton provide three meals a day for a mere £2.40.
For the chefs there’s the possibility of a lie-in – or at least more than six hours’ sleep – as they work 12 hours on/off. But those 12 hours on are 12
hours on their feet. Overnight it’s preparations, baking bread, by day there’s lunch and evening meal to prepare. And a few treats in between.
“If you’ve been on a long
patrol of four or six weeks and the lads are a bit down, the boat needs a pick-up,” says Mark. Enter plates crammed with
fresh donuts or flapjacks. “You don’t even have to eat them – the smell can be enough. It goes through the entire boat.” Curry, pizza and steak are also winners. Crew make a point of walking past the galley after scran to give thumbs up or pass on their thanks.
If what Mark and his shipmates cook doesn’t go down well with the lads – marmalade and orange crumble won’t be a dessert that’s repeated – it goes down Peter the Eater, the waste disposal machine. Mark doesn’t like switching it
on. There’s professional pride, of course, but the machine’s noisy: you have to get ‘Permission for Peter’. (He’s not to be confused with Harry the Hydrosounder or George the Autopilot…).
YOU don’t want loud noises on a boat.
Loud noise gives your position away to the enemy. There are posters throughout Tireless urging crew to remain quiet – one David Cameron admonishes Tireless’ crew not to stomp on the ladders, for example. The design of the boat and those Space Shuttle-esque black tiles covering it are designed to minimise outgoing sound; the tiles also absorb incoming sound – sonar possibly searching for Tireless. As a hunter killer, it’s the
boat’s first duty to hunt (and if necessary kill) potential threats. You have to find them first – and for that you need sonar. Radar is pretty self evident.
Blob in the centre is you, blips around are contacts.
But sonar has always
appeared baffling: a daunting green ‘waterfall’ display. The reason it’s not circular, like radar, is that the forward- facing sonar only covers two- thirds of the water around the boat: 120º either side of the bow. The thick green bands between the fuzz on the screen are the contacts – shipping, submarines, even aircraft. It’s down to the sonar operators to identify the bands. There are some thick (and very classified) volumes, a sort of Encyclopaedia Nauticalia, which can help.
But most of the time an experienced hand like PO Robbie Roberts uses what’s in his head: he can count the number of propeller blades thrashing away and, even more impressively, he can count the number of revolutions per minute (up to the mid 300s…). “Nothing sounds the same in
the ocean,” Robbie explains. “If there’s a beat there, that’s the difference.” Apart from being able to count blades and revolutions, the senior rate can also distinguish between
porpoises. [David Attenborough mode on] The former sound happy, porpoises sad, apparently. [David Attenborough mode off.]
The days when merchantmen (noisy) used to be easily distinguishable from warships (not noisy) are going; the former
are becoming more modern, more efficient, quieter. Warships are generally driven by two screws with five blades per propeller.
The jewel in the crown – and boat’s raison
as it was when it was built 25 years ago – is finding another submarine.
“In the middle of the static
you’ll hear a clink or a tingly noise. If they change depth, then it sounds like a budgie chirping,” explains Robbie. “If you’re tracking another boat, you’re buzzing. The hours pass just like that. It doesn’t get any better – that’s what we train for.”
At the operator’s console in the control room – the submarine’s counterpart to an ops room – you’ll hear a couple of hisses audible over the headphones. He has provided Spearfish with all the information the torpedo requires – the target (surface/submarine), speed, bearing, the depth to run, the course to take. It takes a series of click and point menus to input all this, turn the Safe to Fire switch, press the big red shiny button (Fire Push), which kindly flashes to tell you the torpedo’s in the process of leaving the tube.
JUST in case the sonar team does pick up another boat, there’s always a tube loaded with a £1.8m Spearfish torpedo.
This too isn’t like Das Boot.
You are waiting to hear an explosion, of course – but you’re also constantly providing Spearfish with fresh information about its target courtesy of a narrow cable or wire. If the computer can’t ‘talk’ to the torpedo via the wire, that’s an indicator that it’s hit (the sonar chaps should also pick up a rather loud bang…)
Spearfish leaves one of five tubes in the weapon stowage compartment (more commonly the ‘bomb shop’), thrust
syringe-like with a blast of water inserted into the back of the tube.
Spearfish leaves not so much with a bang or a whoosh as a couple of loud hisses (the pressure in the bomb shop makes the ears pop).
The noise is enough to stir
the three lads sleeping down here – the empty torpedo racks have been turned into makeshift bunks for trainee members of the ship’s company. Their personal effects are either squeezed into the handful of lockers, or there’s a myriad of shirts and towels hanging up on an ad hoc washing line. Every inch of space on Tireless is used. Warships by their nature are a shrunken world – a small town squeezed into several hundred feet of steel.
On a boat, that shrinkage is taken to the extreme. None of the messes can accommodate all their members at one go, heads are half-size (a note on one helpfully explains they’re designed for a family caravan), there are few showers which must be used sparingly (the tap on for perhaps 40 seconds in a couple of bursts), there’s no room for a sick bay, nor most of the time for a chaplain (and most definitely not a church organ). The chaplaincy e-mails a service for one of the ship’s company to lead, music comes courtesy of ‘karaoke hymns’ on CD, and the church is one of the living spaces aboard: today the junior rates’ mess, where besides the CD the soundtrack is provided by the soft drink machine stirring the juice. There are beds for only 100 of the 130 souls on board (and what bunks there are, are 6ft 3in long, 2ft wide, 22in high); they’re stacked three deep and plunged into darkness for most of the time. Oh and part of every bunk space is eaten up by your breathing mask. Aside from ‘water in the people tank’, nothing troubles a submariner more than fire. It’s difficult to tackle on a surface ship. It’s even trickier to deal with in a boat, lumbering around in fearnought suits and breathing masks in a much more restrictive environment. And while fire in a ship is an emergency normally limited to a few sailors in the damage control parties, on a boat everyone’s wearing breathing masks – plugged into an emergency breathing air system which covers every inch of Tireless. Past experience has taught
submariners that smoke very rapidly passes through a boat, irrespective of the source of the fire. It also makes it sound like a meeting of the Darth Vader fan club...
Roughly half the ship’s company are ‘back afties’ (because they work back aft – the reactor compartment and ‘tunnel’ effectively separate the forward section from the engine room).
In manoeuvring – the reactor
control centre – it’s a ‘mere’ 32ºC; in the bowels of the lower level engine room, it can get up to the high 50s.
At that ambient temperature, the ladders are hot to touch, huge blobs of condensation drop on you and as for the sweat…
And the heat’s about to get
worse. Time for a reactor ‘scram’, simulating a failure by switching it off and running briefly on battery power. Now there are things associated with nuclear reactors you don’t want to hear or see. Bells, horns, whistles, lots of red flashing lights…
…which is exactly what happened when the thing scrammed. Back-up systems immediately kick in, but with battery power limited, only the bare necessities receive ‘juice’. Lights dim, systems close down, speed drops to a handful of knots and off goes the air-con.
And up goes the temperature in the engine room as the stokers try to sort out the problem. It can nudge 60ºC – the official term, for such heat, explains WO2 Simon Fell, is “absolute hell – horrible.” Luckily, he and his engineering shipmates receive aptly-titled sweat pay. It’s so hot down here you can – and the men do – bake a potato on the throttle. A bit of butter/cheese/chilli, the perfect midnight snack…
The engineers spend around 80 hours a week down here – not continuously, of course. Shifts last three or four hours, but every 30 or so minutes on
While routines are demanding and conditions cramped for all aboard, it’s the marine engineers who really earn their crust.
watch, the stoker down here has to take a break (and a drink) to escape the heat. If he gets caught short, there’s a urinal just outside manoeuvring. From too much information to too little…
While the skimmer world enjoys almost constant e-mail and internet access, not so the deeps. But at least the T-boats have e-mail now – available only at periscope depth, if the operation allows it – to keep in touch with home. As for the internet, best to wait till you’re alongside to do that Google search. Imagine dial-up from a decade ago, then make it ten times slower… And if comms are limited, you can always create your own. A signal ‘arrived’ for the senior rates allocating them a hotel in the emirate of Sharjah during one port visit to the United Arab Emirates. Sharjah’s a dry emirate. Good job it was a spoof. Oh how they laughed… There are other distractions
from the day-to-day routine: quiz
night on Mondays, the occasional horse racing night, a
raffle, football pools, the
ubiquitous laptops and games machines (the CO’s even been known to join in multiplayer Call of Duty…),
Such things keep morale high and, says Cdr Clay, make his job that much easier. “The crew’s performance has been absolutely first class throughout.
good humour and in particular, their stoicism in the face of a lengthy deployment have been nothing short of exemplary. “They deserve full credit for what they’ve achieved, they’ve made a difficult task look relatively easy.
“For me, the deployment represents the pinnacle of my sea going career to date, the best job by far, we’ve had a cracking time.”
We’ll leave the last word to WO2 Fell. Despite spending much of his time “in absolute hell”, he wouldn’t swap his job for the world.
“I love the people I work with – I’ll never find a better bunch. A lot of the time aboard it’s just fun.”
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