As is typical when I fixate on a topic, the interest is born out of a primal fear. Submarines terrify me. They trigger a sense of claustrophobia and a loss of free will, and the thought of touring the ocean inside of one fills my chest with a fluttery panic. They also trigger my favorite worst type of fear: submechanophobia. That is, an irrational fear of submerged man-made objects. Lordy, I can’t stand a sunken ship. Not a frigate, a schooner, nor a sloop. Hell, I once sucked in a lungful of water while snorkeling when I panicked at the sight of a sunken rowboat in less than 7 feet of water.
The fear of shipwrecks makes sense on some level, because a ship doesn’t go down unless something terrible happened. I’ve long had an irrational fear of the entirety of Lake Superior because I once sailed over the location where the Edmund Fitzgerald went down. Side note to would-be tour guides: never tell a 7-year-old that the body of water you’re currently sailing upon “never gives up her dead.” Nightmares for years.
A submarine, however, is meant to be submerged. It thrives in the water, and can go for weeks at a time without surfacing. Which means it could sink without anyone on the surface witnessing the event. While catastrophic failure during combat is probably the more likely grim ending, the scenario that grips my imagination is the slow death of a foundering vessel in deep water, beyond rescue, with drowning or suffocating as the only options.
In August of 2000, Russian Oscar-class submarine the Kursk suffered an immense internal explosion that sank the boat and killed everyone in compartments one through five, where the nuclear reactor was housed. Twenty-three crew members in compartments six through nine survived the initial blast and took refuge in the ninth compartment to wait for rescue. According to the investigation it is likely that they survived for six hours before a flash fire consumed the remaining oxygen in the compartment and killed them all. Six hours of huddling in a tiny bubble of air at the bottom of the sea. Unfortunately, due to a disabled rescue beacon the Russian navy didn’t start rescue operations until it was too late. By the time they started looking, the crew was already gone.
Grim doesn’t begin to describe it. I find myself returning to the subject of the Kursk and thinking about that bubble at the bottom of the ocean. The universal truth about bubbles is that they all eventually pop. Maybe that’s why the very idea of submarines unnerves me. Even bubbles with pressure hulls can eventually pop.
Most recently I’ve been reading about the Soviet Typhoon-class vessels that operated through the Cold War. Typhoons were largest subs ever built at 570 feet in length and 48,000 tons submerged. It’s the class that inspired the movie “The Hunt for Red October,” which incidentally is one of my favorite films. Careful, Ryan, some things in here don’t react well to bullets.
The last remaining Typhoon was decommissioned in 2012, which means I no longer need to lie in bed in a cold sweat, imagining a bubble the size of a football field sailing silently through the cold, dark waters of open ocean.
During its heyday the Typhoon class was featured in Soviet propaganda as a symbol of naval dominance, a war machine to end all war machines that included never before seen comforts in its relatively expansive quarters. The recreational areas alone were a measure beyond any in competing submarine classes.
The feature that captured my attention the most, and that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about, is the swimming pool. The link at the top of this post shows a series of photos taken inside of a decommissioned Typhoon, including a photo of the grim little tub of brown water that served as the crew’s recreational pool. It features prominently in the film linked above as well.
It was a tiny pool, barely large enough to stretch out, certainly not enough to do laps. But the crew enjoyed the opportunity to swim when time permitted. I think about those men, floating in a bath of water, floating inside of a pressurized bubble, floating in the vastness of the ocean. The recursive sequence of water-air-water (and air again if they held their breath and dove) fascinates me. It’s like a matryoshka doll of alternating life and death.
It occurred to me that the most ironic death I can think of would have to be drowning in that pool.
Drowning in a puddle in a bubble in the deep blue sea.
So I’ve been reading about submarines again, reading technical specs and records of lost boats, wondering at the audacity of mankind to ride in the bellies of our own sea monsters. We don’t need myths of leviathans of the deep to terrify our imaginations. We created our own.