What Would You Take With You?

One of the questions almost always asked during one of my submarine life talks is about sleeping on the sub. Most people who have been around sub sailors have heard about hot racking and I will have to admit to doing so a few times in my career as a lower rated enlisted man. Getting qualified and getting a few extra stripes on your left arm are keys to being able to avoid this. Sometimes I think that in itself is the main motivator for a guy to advance.

That question always brings back memories of getting ready for patrols (or Spec Ops when on the fast boats). I would have to say that most people I know were very careful about what they would bring with them and for a very good reason. Up until the Trident Class submarine, the average sailor was limited to two storage areas for their stuff; the bed pan beneath their rack and a small foot locker which is really nothing more than a place to store shoes when not in use.

The bed pan was really your only “owned” space on the boat. If you are really lucky, your COB (Chief of the Boat) will have a list of suggested things you should bring with you. You quickly find out that your sea bag (as issued in Boot Camp) will probably not all fit in the pan. The one that I was issued had blue wool jumpers and bell bottoms (not very useful in the South Pacific) as well as the white cracker jacks. But if you did pull into a foreign port up north (Japan for instance) you may be directed to have an alternate set of uniforms with you.

The rest of the space needed to be carefully thought out. The bunk itself is fairly compact. At its longest, its about 6 feet, 3 feet wide, and about 2.5 feet to the bottom of the next guy’s rack (or the overhead stuffed with wiring and cables). The bunk pan itself was only 4 inches deep so you can see that you will have to be judicious. Once the hatch is closed, there are no stores on board the ship and you don’t typically pull into the Stop and Go Quickie Mart for a junk food fix.

Compounding that problem, most subs are limited in their laundry abilities. It is made worse if there is a “quiet” operation during your division’s time to wash.

There are specific Laws concerning stowage on a submarine that must be respected. This list is not all inclusive (and I am sure to this day they are still updating it). But here is what I believe were the Cardinal Rules:

1. If you bring it on board, you must stow it in such a manner not to annoy the COB or the XO or bring unwanted attention to your Chief.

2. Stowage space is in direct proportion to your rank, qualification status and your physical intimidation status. There are no appeals. This applies to the few “hooks” on the bulkhead where the ever present poopy suit hangs between watches.

3. You will not get it right the first time you sail. You may as well not even try. All of the older sailors will have filled you with typically useless suggestions if for no other reason to see your discomfort when you realize that canned soda takes up way too much space and there is free stuff on the mess decks anyway.

4. You will make continuous improvements each time you sail (unless of course you are under the impression you can somehow beat rule #1) In any event, your ability to plan and pack will be greatest on your last patrol before you leave the boat (which adds to the list of useless skills you have acquired).

5. Regardless of how many times you sail, you will not have everything you need. In fact, you can almost be assured that something you desperately need will come to your attention at the breakwater before the first dive. Hopefully, this does not include enough skivvies.

6. If you are married or in a committed relationship, you will lose some of that precious space to inanimate objects of someone’s affection to remind you of them for the entire patrol. They will invariably be drenched in some kind of perfume that renders them almost impossible to hide for very long. (Note to any former San Francisco Sailors from the early eighties: I have had several discussions with one of our old shipmates regarding a certain bear that went missing… thirty years have not erased the pain and as you fall asleep tonight, remember that… I’m just saying, sleep lightly dudes… you know who you are)

7. If any of your shipmates discover any intimate unmentionable inanimate articles you will face an inordinate amount of laser like harassment. These objects can and will end up as fodder for the traditional half-way night festivities. (If the “delicate unmentionables” are actually yours you will be pleased to note the coming change to the Navy’s DODT policy – but I would still wait for a bit before you put on your eye shadow and come out to the crew.)

8. If you smoked (back in the day that was actually allowed) you will never have exactly enough cartons of cigarettes to make the actual length of the patrol. Your best intentions about cutting back will disappear (in a cloud of smoke on the first mid-watch) and the panic that occurs to all who are addicted will continue to increase as your now inadequate supply dwindles. As the end of patrol approaches (especially on an extended run) you will find that you could fit quite well into the beggars colony of Calcutta and your soul is stripped bare of any dignity you have ever had.

9. Up until the advent of the IPOD and other mass storage devices, you would quickly discover you also did not bring enough personal music on board with you. Going way back before Sony perfected the cassette deck, some of us even thought it was a wonderful idea to bring aboard our shiny new eight track tape machines with the awesome Koss headphones (that vaguely resemble small coconuts on either side of your head.) These ultimately resulted in power supply wars (limited outlets in berthing) bargaining with the electricians to get the coveted “safety tag” and of course you could only bring along so many tapes. To this day, I am unable to listen to “Bread” and Summer Breeze makes me want to go screaming from the room to the nearest open hatch for air.

10. The only commodity on board which had equal or more power than cigarettes were “adult” magazines. I am not sure why they call them “adult” since it was mostly boys spending any time reading them. These dog eared magazines became a sailors best friend once the hatches were closed and the air was let out of the ballast tanks. Another sign of the changing times is that now, you aren’t even allowed to hang Miss September in public viewing areas like your bunk. Although the lights were off most of the time, field days would reveal a glorious display of all manner of flowery creatures draped in nothing but your imagination.

If you ever want to really know what its like to sail on a submarine for a patrol, gather everything you think you will need and try and stack it into a four inch high, three foot wide, six foot long area. No cheating now!

You may want to remember your soap, razors (no shaving cream… sorry… against the rules), socks, undershirts, skivvies, spare uniforms, candy, and much of the aforementioned gee dunk. I have to admit in retrospect that preparing for a run is actually an art. You had to be as lean as humanly possible or you would pay some kind of price for your lack of it.

As the years went by, I noticed some changes in my needs. The cigarettes finally went away, the music got infinitely smaller, and the need for reading material turned to things that were more age appropriate. Our needs as people change as we mature. We still have needs, but hopefully as time goes by the maturing process helps you identify what is really important and what is not.

If you were forced to prepare for a journey where you could only consume what you brought, what would you bring? What things in your life could you live without and what could you not live without?

Have a great weekend

Mister Mac

17 thoughts on “What Would You Take With You?

  1. I have had to hotrack and believe me it was not fun. Trying to fit belongings between 2 racks because of the shifts not being able to keep just one rack to sleep in. Between the three of us we were able to have it split into three sections for each of us to keep the most needed in each bunk so we did not stink up the whole bunkroom.

    1. I feel your pain Kevin. My younger brother Tom and I were “volunteered” to hot rack on the USS San Francisco on our way to the west coast. I moved away from home so I wouldn’t have to deal with brothers (four of us in two bunks in one room). All kidding aside, you really do learn creativity on the boats from some of the most mundane things!
      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Thanks for the, still embarrassing, shout-out with Bear and I. Bear was actually returned to me some weeks later. Since I didn’t pay the ransom, $100 and a case of Beer, his throat was slit and he had been “defiled” in a manner that is still too painful to discuss.

    In an interesting side note, there happened to be a newspaper reporter for the Honolulu Star on board for a ride-along on one of our weekly Ops, shortly after the afore mentioned “Bear Kidnapping”. He was reporting, not on the technical aspects, but the “Personal” side of serving aboard the submarine. It was featured as the Headline front page of the View section. A beautiful photo of the USS San Francisco surging through the water on the surface, headed for open water and submerged Ops. What followed was an informative article on life aboard our submarine. The problem was the beginning of the article.

    Some weeks later, when we pulled in to our next port call, procedure dictates that the Captain receives the Mail Bag to check for orders or important information before letting the crew out on Liberty. Suddenly there was a ship-wide announcement. “Seaman Coutts, report to the control room IMMEDIATELY !” Captain Marshal, one of the Senior most Captains in the fleet, SCREAMS in my face “Sit Down” He then begins to read the beginning of the “Feature Article” from the newspaper. An article that was supposed to feature lots of information about Capt. Marshall and his fantastic career, culminating with his command of the newest submarine in the fleet.

    “Coutts kept his cool as they slit his teddy-bear’s throat. There it was, stuffing hanging out and everything, so it’s easy to see why he might have been more than a little annoyed.” The article went on to explain how the light-hearted attitude and playful pranks were what kept us SANE inside a tube with 114 other men for up to 6 months at a time. It also mentioned that the kidnapping had been part of a prank played on me. Capt. Marshall was LIVID ! His face was bright red and his anger filled the room like a fire about to flashpoint. He stomped out of the control room and slammed his stateroom door. The XO motioned to his stateroom where I received a good 5 minute lecture on Decorum, then my Division Officer met me at the XO’s door, and so on, all the way down my chain of command. Needless to say, I did NOT get liberty that weekend and the jokes haunted the entire rest of my tour of duty aboard the San Francisco.

  3. Thank the gods I never had to serve on one of those things (those boats that sink on purpose), but I spent my share of time on deployment, and the good ol’ coffin rack we had onboard seemed just as tiny as what you have described above. The smallest space I ever slept in was onboard USS Raven (MHC-61), a coastal minehunter only 185 feet or so in length. My wife used to joke that the only reason I started a relationship with her was so that I could sit up in a bed! 😀


  4. My first run we were extended, I didn’t smoke and wasn’t yet hooked on copenhagen, It was very interesting to see what those guys would smoke and $100 for a pack happened once of twice.

  5. It always seemed like the old guy with the Pall Mall reds was the only one left with smokes and everyone was bumming them when we inevitably got extended on station during spec ops…lol. After that happened once I made sure I never ran out again. Storing smokes was never a problem, I had plenty, and I never used my bunk pan. I was a 637 ESM Tech and I had plenty of storage outboard of my racks in Radio and ESM.

    Because of my good fortune I never sold packs for an absurd price. I gave them away. Ya know, when it came time for liberty I could drink my weight in liquor for free…Hmm I wonder why??? It was a good thing too because I was alawys in debt and out of money from all the cartons of C Store smokes!

    Many of those guys are still my friends and I see them from time to time. I still get free drinks!

    One thing I did learn was to bring enough skivies and poopy suits to last 45-60 days in case the laundry or still broke or was secured. I was lucky and worked where it was cool so I did not sweat. I could get 5-7 days out of one change if needed and it was needed on 2 deployments. Things got pretty smelly once the fans were all shifted to slow speed and we went to patrol quiet for weeks on end.

    1. Boy did you bring back a few memories with that comment. I never had the honor of riding a 637 but I love hearing your stories too. Thanks for the comment and thanks for stopping by.

  6. If you are a non-smoker, there was a real profit center awaiting you during patrol. 20 cartons of cigs could make you a rich man if you waited until after halfway night to boast of your stash. It always amazed me how many would think that quitting on patrol was in their future!

    Good blog Mac, keep it coming.

    Long live the Horse & Cow!

  7. The Horse & Cow and Tommy Cox should have its own blog. Boy does that bring back memories. I remember smoking 2 packs a watch as Diving Officer, Never a dull moment…lol

  8. The Lapon (SSN-661) always had guitar players. I bought a Guild Mark III classical guitar because I could put it on its side and it would fit in my rack with me laying on my side. An ET I jammed with had a Martin D35 and a sonar man had a Gibson and I never figured out where they stored them and they wouldn’t tell me. On Russell (SSN-687) I had a Guild 12 string. I was leading ELT then and stored it in the nuc lab.
    Anyone else store a guitar? On long runs the torpedo room had berthing, so it couldn’t be used.

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