Friday, October 15, 2004

Our Submarine Fleet - 15 Oct 2004

It must be hard being a submariner.

The long hours. The sharing of bunks. The lack of personal space and privacy. The stress of working in near silence. The unpredictability...

If anyone has ever seen "Das Boot", one could could feel the claustrophobia and paranoia rising, never knowing that one watch (shift) could be the last.

And sadly, the unpredictable had happened on the Chicoutimi off the Irish coast.

If there is one horrific thing that could happen to any sailor, regardless of experience and outside of war, it would be fire at sea.

Since virtually all surface combatants are made of steel, a shipborne fire could spread very fast through conduction. Translation: if there were a fire in the motor room, it would eventually spread to adjacent compartments very quickly unless a boundary could cool down the decks and bulkheads with massive amounts of water. Because ventilation runs throughout the ship, everyone who would find him-/her-self unprotected might succomb to smoke inhalation - and trust me, the smoke can be very toxic. Never mind that one might wind up out in the open ocean, battered by waves and hundreds of miles away from any semblance of help, respite and salvation.

While it's bad enough that fighting fires in the confined, claustrophobic spaces of a surface combatant can be a risky and potentially fatal proposition, fighting them below decks on a submarine can be a major fucking nightmare, especially if it were to be submerged under many hundreds of feet in water. And since a sub is not normally noted for seaworthyness while surfaced, it would take a considerable amount of regurgitation control to match the balls required to fight an out-of-control blaze.

Never mind that the gear that a firefighter has to wear can be so goddamned cumbersome that one misstep could prove fatal, since the deck would also be set ablaze. In the many fire exercises that I've participated, I've learned that practice (lots of it) can make improve things better. Not make perfect: perfect requires an extremely expedient and skillful depolyment of properly trained and kitted personnel - remember that a shipborne fire can travel very fast, therefore the personnel assigned to fight it have to dress faster than the blaze's heat conduction. An untrained sailor would panic and hyperventilate; the effects would worsen during the attack phase when there would be nothing but the attack team, the smoke, the darkness and the blaze. For me, it took a considerable amount of practice before I could be sure that a) I could put on my gear in an expedient and competant fashion; and b) I could face the fire with a considerable amount of confidence. Both factors can make a difference between life and death.

It doesn't matter what ship you're on: any fire at sea can cause a lot of damage and grief. Lt(N) Chris Saunders died of complications related to smoke inhalation while fighting Chicoutimi's fires, and in a very close-knit crew, such a loss could be detrimental. And in such a small fleet in a small navy in a big country with a small population base, the effects can be harsh, if not devastating.

What made matters sadder was that the Chicoutimi, along with sister ships Windsor, Cornerbrook and Victoria, was bought as a second-hand item from the British - they were originally called the Upholder Class. Even after extensive refits, there were still some issues to be ironed out. After the Chicoutimi fire, the subs were taken out of routine, the crews either stood-down or re-assigned elsewhere.

Presently, an inquiry into the incident will be underway. Meanwhile the survivors will have arrived here in Halifax right about now. Regardless of any eventual outcome, the brave crew of Her Majesty's Canadian Submarine Chicoutimi will have a tale to tell for generations to come.

And with that, lessons to be learned.

Respect to all the underwater brethren: it sucks to be you, but you're all better souls in the end.

No comments: