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A Sense of Smell

The sensations of entering the submarine were overwhelming. The sinister shape, the black and dark gray colors of the deck and the sail, the general silence of the deck of a submarine tied to a pier, all these signals told me very clearly that I was entering a different world. But the most striking sensation of this new home of mine was the fragrance, the peculiar, pungent aroma that clearly, uniquely identified this as a conventional submarine.

Everyone who knew anything about these old fleet submarines, in any of their variations of their later years, knew about the smell. The odor was not something that we were proud of, but we made no apologies for it. We just accepted that it was our lot to endure an intensity of fragrances that was not acceptable in any other environment.

Over the years many writers, both knowledgeable and otherwise, have written of the mystique of submarines. But they have said relatively little about the quality of life aboard the pigboats. And almost nothing has been said about hygiene.

A diesel-electric submarine lacks one important feature of a steamship, whether that steamship is a submarine or a skimmer, nuclear or fossil-fueled, oil or coal. (Oh, yeah, "skimmer" is the term that submariners use to describe surface ships, and surface sailors. You know, the people who skim around on the surface of the ocean and never really get down into it.)

What all those ships have, and what conventional submarines lack, is the ability to distill sea water into (reasonably) fresh water. Almost all surface ships, and all nuclear powered submarines, use large stills, euphemistically known as evaporators, to "make water" for use in the steam plant. A side benefit of these stills is the ability to make water for showers for those lucky crews.

All of our hundreds of conventional submarines, on the other hand, used electric powered stills to make fresh water for the needs of the boat and its crew. But the boat itself had first priority on the water that was available. Some of the fresh water was used in the water seals on some of our pumps, centrifuges, and other equipment. And sometimes we took fresh water and we ran it through the stills again, to get the water pure enough that we could add it to our huge lead-acid battery, just as you probably used to do for your car battery.

Even the water that was left over for use of the crew was first used for cooking and drinking, for washing dishes, and for providing showers for the cooks and the mess cooks. So hygiene on the part of the rest of the crew was the lowest priority for any use of fresh water aboard the boat. The officers were no different from the enlisted submariners in this regard.

And our electric stills were very small. We did not have enough energy stored in the main batteries to operate the stills for very long. The stills also required a full-time attendant, and we did not have enough extra staff to run them as much as we might want, even if the power was available for making water.

These old boats had originally put to sea with a crew of sixty good men. By the time I got aboard thirty years later, there were eighty people in the crew, because so many additional specialists were required to operate and repair the modern electronics and other equipment that had been added to the boat over the years.

We developed many techniques to help us tolerate the environment. After a month or so at sea, most of these civilizing touches had lost their effectiveness. But we tried to maintain a sense of dignity. It was not uncommon to smell someone enter the compartment, before hearing them or seeing them. We did not comment on such things.

Did I mention that, of course, we did not have a boat's laundry? Sometimes when I got to port I threw away all my clothes in the dumpster on the pier before I even got to real land, and I went to the exchange where I bought new underwear and khaki uniforms.

Eventually I survived an experience that had been joked about for years on the old sewer-pipes. It was trite but true. I was reviewing a checklist in the control room in the middle of the night, while we were running on the surface. I got way back in the corner behind the trim manifold. I smelled someone behind me, so I turned around to see who it was.

I was alone.

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