Nova Scotia

HMCS Windsor submarine spends up to 1 month without surfacing

At any given moment on HMCS Windsor, you can reach out and touch another person. Space is at a premium on the submarine, and even the most experienced crew members admit to bonking their heads every once in awhile.

Life aboard the sub is cramped for the crew of about 50

HMCS Windsor performs sea trials in the Bedford Basin in Halifax on Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

At any given moment on HMCS Windsor, you can reach out and touch another person. Space is at a premium on the submarine, and even the most experienced crew members admit to bonking their heads every once in awhile.

It's a work environment that wouldn't appeal to most people, but for the crew of Canada's only fully operational submarine, being submerged in a tin can is a way of life.

'It can be overwhelming for some'

"There are some people that technically and professionally would probably be very capable of doing this job, but it can be overwhelming for some. It's not a job for everyone," said Lt. Devin Matthews in a recent interview onboard Windsor, roughly 57 metres below sea level off the coast of Nova Scotia.

"But for those of us who love what we do, we always say that diesel gets in your blood."

The Canadian Navy recently invited The Canadian Press aboard the Halifax-based HMCS Windsor for an overnight voyage to meet Matthews, the sub's executive officer, and his 47 fellow submariners.

Sleeping next to torpedoes

They're a select group of Canadian Forces members — a dedicated, knowledgeable and sometimes quirky bunch of sailors that can spend up to a month working in the cramped, fast-paced environment beneath the waves without surfacing.

Guests slept next to long, black torpedoes on torpedo racks in the weapons storage compartment and brushed elbows with submariners in the control centre, listening to a pod of dolphins over its new state-of-the-art sonar system and peering through the periscope at the vast Atlantic.

Dozens of tiny red lights faintly illuminate the operations room at night, allowing commanding officer Lt.-Cmdr. Peter Chu to see out of the periscope in night-vision. A few drips of sea water fall from the conning tower as the rotating periscope moves up and down.

A knife fight in a phone booth

A sailor counts down from five during a simulated torpedo launch before Chu yells, "Fire!" The blowback from the blast filled a first-floor room with a dense, cold fog.

Chu compared submarine warfare to a knife fight in a phone booth.

"When you're in that phone booth, the first one to stab wins," said Chu, referring to enemy submarines firing torpedoes at each other.

The risks of submerged sailing are high, but so are spirits among the crew — eager to talk about their duties and show off their life aboard HMCS Windsor.

'Food is how we relieve stress down here'

In the sub's slender, steel-clad kitchen, master seaman Thomas Forrester blasts music from a tiny speaker as he cuts up scallops. It's steak night, which means a hardy dinner complete with mushrooms, onions, carrots, potatoes, salad and a homemade roll.

"Food is how we relieve stress down here. Anything can go wrong and you rely on each other to save each other's lives. Because of that fact, it builds a very tight-knit community," said Forrester, one of two cooks onboard.

"We're the morale base for the entire crew. If we're not happy, the crew will know we're not happy. It shows through our meals as well as through our attitude so we try to be as positive as we can and keep the crew as happy as possible."

A team and a brotherhood

The majority of submariners, some of whom work 16-hour days fuelled by coffee, volunteer for the role. Many on HMCS Windsor seem unaware of just how unusual their job is.

"You don't notice (that you're underwater) too much. If you're not a smoker, you're not worried about going outside," said petty officer second class Tony Hamilton. "We just try to sleep as much as we can. Go to your time machine, we call it."

Matthews said submariners are a team and a brotherhood. They know how to do each other's jobs and they help each other professionally and personally.

"This team has a serious submarine addiction. Everybody here is passionate about what they do, passionate about helping each other and passionate about the program, the mission and the submarine," said Matthews, who has a wife and almost two-year-old son.

"But inside every submariner is a seven-year-old kid that's giggling saying, 'I'm on a submarine.'"