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When living in a crisis is a job: lockdown survival tips from seasoned pros. Part 2: Submariner

As the 'coronacrisis' poses one challenge after another, people are struggling to adapt to a new reality. RTD explores how people who endured hardships in their line of work handle isolation, uncertainty, and health risks – conditions many of us are experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic. In a series of short interviews, a cosmonaut, a submariner, and a polar explorer explain how to stay focused and even benefit from the current misfortunes.

The second hero Aleksey Marchenkov, a retired submariner, will share his stories about how it feels living inside the Kremlin Tower clock, the importance of self-control, and the beauty of sunshine and fresh air.

submarine crew
Aleksey Marchenkov (centre), submarine captain's assistant, 19th Division (retired) with fellow officers/Courtesy Aleksey Marchenkov

How does it feel spending 85-90 days in a confined space?

It's hard to go with no sunshine whatsoever. Another major drawback was confined space and the constrained movement. As for the air, technically, the air we breathed, by its composition, was like regular air. Various devices and instruments controlled the levels of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. We extracted oxygen from the seawater.

How does time pass?

Time flew by fast. Eighty per cent of sleeping hours were split into two halves. It's broken by duty watches, alarms, surfacing, military exercises, training. We cleaned the ship three times a day – and everyone took part, from sailors to officers (apart from senior officers).

What was the thing you missed the most on a boat?

submarine crew assembles boat
Head of the submarine medical service Vladimir Yakimenko (left) taking part in a ship modelling competition/Courtesy Aleksey Marchenkov

There were moments when I really missed privacy, a chance to be on my own. Only the captain, the first mate, and the engine-room commander had private sleeping quarters. All other rooms had two to six men in them. The quarters looked a lot like train compartments; the space was really tight. Almost all my time in the navy I lived in quarters for two; they were half the size of a train compartment. In such a confined space, we really lacked physical exercise; we had nowhere to walk even. Our ship's doctor advised against doing too much weight training, with barbells and such. It had a negative impact on our health – there was no use straining yourself so much in such conditions.

We used to walk back and forth in the compartment, but it was just 23 feet long.
So, you walk back and forth this narrow corridor 100 times, 200 times, you'd clock in less than half a mile per day. We had neither energy nor time to do more, the rest of the time we were busy.

How many people are there in a submarine crew? What is the right way to behave in a confined space so that everyone was comfortable?

submariners neptune talent show
Neptune Talent Show/Courtesy Aleksey Marchenkov

We had 130 men in our crew. Those were quite large submarines. As for relationships with others, I'll give one piece of advice: self-control is crucial. All 130 men are different. But in the military, people usually don't insult each other or yell at each other.

There were some tense situations, but everyone was well aware that getting nervous wouldn't get us anywhere. Everyone understood that it was a difficult and dangerous job that we did, and nervous breakdowns could not only lead to falling out between two people, but they could also lead to an accident or a disaster. Everyone knew it and tried to control themselves.

What are the dangers of being on a submarine?

There's a little red book that all the submariners are familiar with; it's called 'Damage Control Guide.' Everyone says the book is red because it was written in blood. It contains all possible emergencies that might occur on a submarine: fires, water leaks, chemical poisoning, radiation leak.

Were you ever been in a critical situation while on a submarine?

submarine crew repair water leaks
Captain of Compartment 3 Alexander Leonenko teaches how to prevent water leaks/Courtesy Aleksey Marchenkov

It got really scary during my first deployment. In the middle of the tour, our diving planes jammed. In this type of emergency, everyone must stay at the compartment where they were. It happened at night, and I was sleeping when the alarm went off. When officers embarked on a tour of duty, they used to take some treats with them that could keep for a long time. In our quarters, in a locker, we had a jar of sugared lemons. When I heard the emergency alarm, I got up, and I felt that the boat was diving, and we could get squashed. And at that moment, I heard the sound of a jar sliding to the edge of the shelf…

So, there I am, standing, holding this 3-litre jar and wondering: 'What would happen first? The jar would fall on the floor, and it'd be covered with lemons and sugar, or we'd dive below crush depth, and there would be no need in lemons anymore?'

There were times when we had a fire in a compartment. If that happened, people manning that compartment would put on gas masks and put out the fire. Unfortunately, there's just no way to get rid of all the rats on a boat, and usually, they started a fire – they could cause cable connections or panels to short-circuit.

What's the most frustrating or annoying thing in a submarine?

What frustrated us the most was this feeling as if you were inside a huge clockwork device. Just imagine that you're inside the Kremlin clock on the Spasskaya Tower. Everything is turning, buzzing, the clock strikes from time to time. My quarters were 6 feet away from an enormous electric transducer, and it was moaning all 90 days like a plane that's getting ready to take off. It took my body several days to get used to this noise. It also took some getting used to, when hands started smelling like iron after one week at sea. If a regular person would smell their skin, they'd say that it smells like soap, hand towels, just skin. And we all had this taste of iron on our teeth, and it was the hardest thing to cope with.

Do people feel anxious or desperate underwater? How do you deal with that?

The most crucial thing is to undergo psychological preparation beforehand. When I was stationed in the north, we had regular training sessions at the special training facility. There, we had fire drills, leaks, leaving a sunken submarine through torpedo tubes. We were taught what to do until it became our second nature. I guess that's the only thing that can help to overcome fear on a submarine.

What is the first feeling when the submarine surfaces?

submarine resufacing foretop crew
Coming home - the line-handling crew/Courtesy Aleksey Marchenkov

 You feel happy. But the most thrilling experience is when the boat has surfaced, and it's still 10-12 hours before we reach the base, and the commander allows you to take turns in climbing the conning tower to breathe fresh air. It's an incredible feeling. You stay there for 10 minutes, but it intoxicates you harder than a glass of vodka on an empty stomach. You feel dizzy, you can capture any scent there is, and it smells like the sea, like iodine. It's like you buried your nose in wet seaweed that washed up on the shore, and you're inhaling its smell. Also, once we've returned to the base, it's really hard to exercise for a week or two.