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Richard Humphreys: The life subaquatic

Three months without daylight, fresh food or privacy – the reality of submarine life is heaven for author Richard Humphreys

My early childhood was happy, contented and merry. I grew up in landlocked Wolverhampton – the Black Country. Summer holidays were always taken in Devon, and it was here I saw a submarine for the first time.

The family would take a boat trip round Devonport admiring the might of the Royal Navy fleet. I on the other hand thought the aircraft carriers, frigates and destroyers looked old and slightly bedraggled as they sat there desperately needing a lick of paint, rusting away into oblivion.

My head was turned though by the four submarines that were tied up alongside the ships. They were sleek, menacing, athletic even – and beautifully streamlined. A wonder of nautical engineering, they could be on the surface one minute and then disappear below the world’s oceans the next. I was hooked.

During my teenage years, I became a restless soul and hungered for adventure. I had passed initial tests to join the Foreign Legion at 17, but at that age I needed permission from my parents, which would have been a no-go. So I returned to England and joined the navy. Initial training is 11 weeks of militarisation to instil discipline and team ethic. I found it tedious, brutal and of no good use – it still lingers with me today, the absurdity of it all.

Submarine school differed though; it was heaven – classroom-based, learning the ins and outs of underwater life. Training finished with four ascents of an escape-tank trainer from different depths, which consisted of a tower filled with 100ft of water to simulate an escape from an actual submarine. The final ascent is terrifying. I was pressed sardine-like into a hatch in a pressurised hooded suit. Water rushed in and pressed me up against the tower before the hatch opened and I ascended to the surface.

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With training over I was drafted to HMS Resolution, then the capital ship of the Royal Navy. It was the lead submarine of the 10th submarine squadron; the carriers of the nuclear deterrent. I had all my books with me from submarine school as I thought the expectations would be more of the same, but how wrong I was. Nothing can prepare you for submarine life or indeed going onboard for the first time. It’s like stepping into a huge car engine surrounded by pipes, valves, dials and pumps, not to mention the smells. My mentor on board soon let me know about the realities of life. “Forget all that shit,” was his view on what had gone before. It soon became clear that I was no more than a human component to a machine that had the power to wipe out a continent.

It wasn’t a life suited to everyone, but nobody knew exactly how they’d react until they’d experienced an extensive period of time under the waves. A close colleague of mine who I’d trained with tried to open the main access hatch 300ft under the water. He was removed unceremoniously and helicoptered off the boat a couple of hours later, never to be seen again. You must be calm, collected and unflappable for a career under the ocean.

The highs and lows of patrol life were numerous. There was no natural light. Being cooped up for three months without daylight upsets the body’s circadian rhythms, like experiencing jet lag with the changing shift pattern. Keeping track of time as one day rolled into the next was extremely difficult; it was governed by food, what meal I was eating – though it was disconcerting waking up expecting breakfast only to be faced with steak and kidney pudding as it was actually 8pm. Under the circumstances, the food was outstanding. Enough meals were cooked on an average patrol to feed a family for five years. Fresh food was used for the first two weeks – salads and fruit, followed by a mixture of tinned and frozen in perfect harmony. Privacy was non-existent. The only time I had any was in my bunk, asleep, listening to music or engaging in some ‘private’ time.

There was also a constant threat of overpowering claustrophobia. Confined spaces were everywhere; you saw the same people every day, constantly ducking down and up ladders, moving aside in passageways and never focusing more than 30ft in front. This was followed by occasional dreams of being buried alive as I slept in a bunk resembling a coffin in a confined space surrounded by eight other men. It wasn’t all gloom and doom though. Entertainment came in the shape of movies, quizzes, alcohol, music, keeping fit and some dodgy porn movies, which kept the spirits up.

People went through some extraordinary times and difficult experiences on a daily basis to keep civilians safe. Submariners in many ways were the unsung heroes of the Cold War. What’s it like to be a submariner? Cramped, hot, sometimes boring, lonely, fun, rewarding, scary, exhilarating, heavy on camaraderie and totally worth it. I’d do it all again tomorrow.

Richard Humphreys’ Under Pressure is out now (HarperCollins, £14.99)