Ask any submariner what one of the most common statements they hear from non-submariners is “Oh I couldn’t do what you do (or did in some
of our cases)”. The reasons are as varied as the people who make that statement. Fear of confinement, fear of the unknown, fear of being crushed or drowned, or fear of the isolation that a few months of being underwater holds in store for you. Ask most submariners what they dislike the most about boat service and you may find that the reason actually has nothing to do with any of those things. Most of the time, the real enemy is “Waiting”.

Since we are locked up in a long metal tube that is closed on both ends, waiting plays an integral part of each day. The submarines’ main mission is stealth and being ready to perform missions we pray will never be called upon to perform. The few times were things get dicey are few and far between (thankfully). Having ridden out a few typhoons and hurricanes in my days on the boats, I can assure you that unplanned depth excursions are indeed quite exhilarating. Finding yourself too near an uncharted underwater mountain or nearing a reef that appears out of no where can also lead to some fairly interesting days. Even test firing a missile or torpedo can bring its own special “thrills” as all of the potential things that could go wrong rush through your head. One of my favorite memories from years ago was feeling the rush of a Polaris missile leaving its tube on its way to a small unnamed island in the Pacific (we were within 25 feet of the designated target according to very reliable sources).

But waiting is an art that all submariners have to develop over time. They don’t teach you about it in sub school nor is it discussed in any of the school of the boat sessions you sit through. Truthfully, you actually learn the basics of waiting in Boot Camp. All sailors (and I presume our brothers and sisters in the “other” services, learn how to wait while standing, sitting, propped up against something vertical, or sitting on your backside. We learn to wait in the rain, in the snow, in chow lines, in the hot sun, in un-air-conditioned buildings and on the decks of pretend ships.


Then, when you have practiced the art of waiting long enough, you complete your training and head to your first boat. Waiting starts from the first day. You find yourself waiting to get a bunk of your own. Yep, some evil genius decided that sleeping is for “Qualified” people and all others should learn to hug a torpedo or even worse, share a rack with one of their brothers on a rotating basis known as “Hot Racking”.  (Once upon a time I literally did this with my actual brother Tom – a fellow A-ganger)

Next, you get to reminisce the glory days of basic training as you realize that no submarine ever built can feed the entire crew at once. Qualified men and watch standers of course get priority and of course the Chiefs and Officers have their own designated spaces. Funny thing though, even some of them have to wait for a second sitting. The only relief for a non-qual is when he is assigned to mess cooking duties. Very little waiting involved with that job except the general waiting involved with wishing it was over.

The sub heads to sea and in most cases the next wait is to find out where you are going. In some cases, enough people know the general direction but for junior rates, rumors are the stuff of life. If there were any political situations that had arisen before leaving, that might be the focus. But for most younger sailors, it was really about where, how long, when do we get home. Once the destination and general timeframes are published, the wait to get there starts. Again, this is broken up with field days, general drills, qualifications, and watchstanding. But there are mini periods of “wait” associated with each of these. In the old days when we relied on family grams to hear fro the outside world, this was one of the hardest waits of all. Not hearing from a girlfriend or wife over a period for weeks could drive a guy absolutely crazy. Waiting to hear about the imminent delivery of a new baby was also a challenging wait for young Dad’s to be.

The crazy thing about waiting was the amount of time spent on measuring how long the wait would be. Many boat sailors would maintain “short-timer’s” calendars. Its not bad enough that you know you have 60 plus days under the water, but some knuckle heads think it’s a good idea to count each one off one day at a time. I can tell you that many a case of channel fever has been driven by the thirst for time measurement.

What about you? Have you mastered the art of time measurement or time management? I have worked in so many locations were people were really well rewarded for their time. Yet somehow over time, they have developed a sort of numbness to what could be happening during that time. Maybe it was a bad manager or management team that caused the abandonment. Maybe it was the effect of other people around them that had numbed them through their efforts or minimal contributions. But a sad fact of life is that some of the most well paid employees I have ever worked with could give you an accurate accounting at any point in the day of how much time they had left in their day of work or in their march to retirement. Instead of being a part of a force that could extend the life of the enterprise (and maybe even personally enrich themselves and their teams) they became part of the weight that drags an organization down. Pretty sad when you think about it.

So is waiting a waste? If you are speaking purely from a lean perspective, yes it is. If you are speaking from a submarine perspective, it’s a non-value added but probably unavoidable waste. But if you are in a sticky situation that seems to have no realistic solutions at hand, it can actually be both rewarding and renewing.

One of my favorite verses of Scripture has always been Isaiah 40 verse 31: but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

I forgot to mention that I have observed something as I have reengaged with many of my old shipmates from the five submarines I served on… I have been amazed at how many have found a renewed faith. As a person whose own faith was submerged at varying points along the way, it was worth the wait to see.

Mr. Mac

Tracy Arm Special

2 thoughts on “Waiting

  1. Waiting… did you have “green bulb day” on Ustafish? We did. 30 bolts around the circumference of the RPCP. Starting 30 days before the end of patrol, each night at midnight, the green bulb (a light cover from a salinity cell or some other bit of gear) is ceremoniously moved ahead one bolt head by the RO. The XO had heard rumors of the green bulb’s existence and vowed to confiscate it, but the ever-vigilant AMR2UL watch always gave us enough warning to hide the green bulb at 0200 when he’d come charging back to try to catch us with it.

    1. Tom,
      I can’t say that I remember that but there are few things that would surprize me about submariners on patrol (if you know what I mean
      Mister Mac

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