Confinement lessons from the Royal Navy


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Confinement lessons from the Royal Navy

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In these extraordinary times where we are all learning new ways of protecting ourselves and our families through ‘social distancing’ and confinement, there are some among us to whom such concepts are not new.  One branch of the British Royal Navy, the Submarine Service, has been practising confinement, if not social distancing for more than one hundred years, something that the BizAv Services Ltd Compliance and Safety Manager Steve Bridgman knows quite a lot about.

Steve served in the Royal Navy for 25 years, 14 of those onboard nuclear powered ‘hunter/killer’ submarines of the ‘Trafalgar’ class.  Just 85 metres long and 10 metres wide, these submarines typically carried up to 130 sailors on submerged patrols lasting up to 3 months.  Steve had this to say about his experiences on ‘boats’ as they are known in the navy:

“When you first volunteer for submarines, thoughts of confinement are very secondary to getting through the intensive training schedule.  Qualifying as a submariner – getting the coveted ‘dolphins’ badge, is the single most important thing that occupies your mind.

While modern submarines are much bigger than their WWII predecessors, they also carry a much larger crew, and are packed full with equipment and machinery.  Squeezed into the 85 metre by 10 metre space are sonar machinery, weapons firing gear, periscopes and masts, oxygen making machines, hydraulic plants, diesel generators, a nuclear reactor, propulsion turbines, provisions for months under the water, and 130 men (at that time – now women also form part of the crew).

Once the hatches clang shut and the submarine sets out on a patrol, it is just you and 129 other people in a metal cigar somewhere in the middle of the ocean, under potentially hundreds of meters of water.  There is no ‘going out’, you can’t open a window, and ‘me time’ is a phase that does not exist.

If you are lucky enough to have your own ‘rack’ (bunk), it will include a curtain that can be drawn, and that is about the limit of your privacy.  If you are a trainee, your bunk will be one of the torpedo storage shelves in the ‘bomb-shop’ (torpedo compartment). You would not experience darkness in that case until you become qualified – the lights in the bomb-shop are rarely turned off”.

How on earth do people stay fit and probably more importantly, sane in such close confines?  Here Steve reminisces about keeping it together in close confinement, and recalls some experiences where confinement did affect crew members:

“You have to remember that we all volunteered for service in boats.  It was not prison – we had pretty good food, could move around the boat and had some free time of course.  Routine was vital. We all worked to a watch or shift system, certain hours ‘on-watch’ followed by ‘off-watch’ time.  Often the ‘off-watch’ time was taken up with machinery maintenance, action stations or drills, but once you got into a pattern life was not bad.

You could never ‘switch-off’ on a submarine, even ‘off-watch’.  Everybody was totally dependent on everybody else, and a serious mistake by anybody could quite literally kill everybody onboard.  That was always a stressor in the back of your mind, but you had to rise above it and do your job.

The worst times were when everything had settled down, and the boat was patrolling silently.  That was when there was time on your hands, and people started getting bored. After a while the mind can start to wander, and friction can spark up between people.  Non-events become big issues – I recall 2 guys having a stand-up, full on screaming argument because one had washed the others mug without asking!

The idea onboard was to try to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible.  Food played a huge part in crew morale, and mealtimes were purposely kept to standard times, wherever the boat was in the World.  The meals themselves were always of good quality, even though after the first week at sea the provisions were either frozen or tinned.  There were areas people could congregate (messes) for social interaction, including the screening of movies, and efforts were made to retain some level of physical fitness by the use of rowing and cycling machines, and due to the minimal space available many people used ‘static’ training type circuits to stay fit (ish!).

A lot of people onboard used the time on patrol to either educate themselves, or to enjoy hobbies to ward off boredom between watches.  Reading of course was extremely popular, and there were always promotion targets to study for, or competence tests to prepare for (in the case of the engineers).  These days submariners have online contact with their families, but the only available method of communications 20 years ago was the ‘family-gram’, a once per month message home of just a few words.  News of the outside world from outside the confines of the boat was minimal, which meant that any individual story from inside usually became the big news of the day – stories of mistakes, personal issues and anybody ‘throwing a wobbly’ being favourite.

No matter how much it was attempted to normalise the submarine routine, the simple fact though was that some crew members could not handle the confinement.  On my very first patrol planned for just 6 weeks a young man tried to leave the submarine while it was 80 metres underwater! Dressed in civilian clothes and carrying his travelling bag, he walked past me, up the ladder to the hatch and tried to open it.  It would not open under the pressure of the water on top of it, but it was a sobering reminder that not everybody was cut out to be a submariner.

My own confinement test came along a few years later.  The submarine had been on patrol for 3 months and was on the way back to base, when the boat came across a new Soviet submarine.  We were instructed to follow the Soviet boat to gather intelligence, and in the end, we did that for another 4 months underwater. Since we were so close to the other boat we could make no noise – no music, no videos, no showers, no unnecessary maintenance and so on.  We could not shave or cut our hair, and towards the end of the patrol we ran out of cigarettes, tea, coffee and were down to basic food only. There was no more studying to do, all the books onboard had been read and re-read, and boredom was driving us all pretty nuts.  In the end we all found our own ways to cope, and mine was to scrape all the years of floor polish layers off each 6-inch square rubber floor tile in the machinery control room, using a tiny penknife, one tile at a time, over the course of about 8 weeks!”

Confinement is something we are all finding our way through, and for those with children to take care of it can be an even more difficult time.  Although none of the following tips offered by Steve are much other than common sense, they are based on his personal experience and are worth repeating:

  • Accept the situation.  No point worrying about those things you can’t change.
  • Stay informed.  Try to listen/watch only the ‘official’ news reports – there is a lot of ‘fake’ news around, and even people taking pleasure from worrying people unnecessarily.
  • Try to keep busy.  Even monotonous tasks can take your mind off your troubles.
  • Establish and stick to routines.  They give you structure and a daily plan to follow, rather than flitting aimlessly from one thing to another.
  • Don’t lounge around in your pyjamas – pride in your dress and appearance helps to maintain spirits.
  • Don’t feel guilty about enjoying the simple pleasure of your hobbies, playing games, watching TV or reading a good book.
  • Try to maintain at least some physical activity – it is good for you and will make you feel more positive.
  • Remember that everybody around you in the same situation and will react differently. If you feel tension rising, go and do something away from the other person for a while.

Steve Bridgman MBE is the author of ‘My Bloody Efforts – Life in the Modern Navy’ describing his naval career from joining aged 16 as a junior mechanic, rising to the rank of Warrant Officer submarine technician, and being awarded the MBE for his actions during a nuclear submarine accident during his time on HMS Tireless.  My Bloody Efforts is available in hard back and for Kindle on Amazon.

Some Photos:

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