Submarine Stories

I like submarine stories. They are particularly movie-friendly, as well, so there are quite a few good submarine flicks out there. This will not be a guide to those movies.

I had a girlfriend once who could not watch submarine movies. The claustrophobia, the fear, the complete forfeiture of personal space that defines submarine life was intolerable for her. Which meant that she really felt submarine movies. From a storytelling standpoint, a submarine is a prison that is trying to kill both wardens and inmates.

Every submarine movie has the part where The Submarine Must Go Far Deeper Than It Was Ever Designed To Go. “Silent running. 200 meters,” the captain says (”600 feet” echoes another captain, in another ocean). The crew glances around nervously. “220 meters,” the captain says, and the hull begins to groan ominously. The crew’s faces are shiny and the air is still, too still. They cannot speak or the enemy will find them; they can only share glances. It’s the hell above or the hell below, and they always choose the hell below.

This has been in damn near every submarine movie ever, and it still works! A bunch of people are trapped in a tin can, there are a bunch of other people trying to kill them, and the only direction that is not sure depth is deeper. Now this machine that keeps them alive is itself failing, and it is up to the crew to somehow keep everything together until they can return to the surface and its ridiculously abundant free oxygen.

But I wonder about something. Down they go, sweating and nervous and already thinking about oxygen and how nice it is to have in one’s lungs. The hull groans, then groans again, and then bang! A bolt fails on a pipe and super-pressuirzed water shoots out in a spray. Gutsy sailors fly into action with a new bolt and a big wrench, but before long more bolts are popping. There is shouting: “Medic! Medic!” and “we need a big-ass wrench right now!” and the boat begins to fill with water, systems fail, and things get progressively worse. They are trapped between a rock and a very, very firm place, where only teamwork and strong leadership can pull them through. Good stuff.

I wonder, though, what the first submarine in service was that didn’t have pipes running through it with water at sea pressure? What the hell were those pipes accomplishing? The whole scenario is so ubiquitous that I think there must be some historical veracity, but really, would you design a submarine that way? Fundamentally, you use the pressure to squeeze the joint shut, rather than fighting it with (replaceable) bolts squeezing joints together.

I am much more tolerant of the part where the crew produces massive timbers and wedges them in place to help prevent the hull from collapsing. Whatever the actual business, I have never seen a submarine movie where the time when they are Too Deep was not intense. The water hides you, the water traps you, and eventually the water kills you.

Usually boats on particularly important missions can survive much worse than the ordinary submarine. After all, from a story standpoint, the mission must be completed. A tip of my hat, then, to the boys on Das Boot, who endured all of the above and more simply to report to base in a war already lost. It is a story of honor and survival and Going Too Deep when there is nothing else left. Submariners, I suspect, like that movie.

5 thoughts on “Submarine Stories

  1. An exception to the usual submarine plot is “The Russians are Coming, the Russians are coming” but most of the action takes place on land.

  2. Not that I’m a technical expert or anything, but I’m guessing those pipes have to do with getting water into and out of the ballast tanks, so the submarine can go Too Deep and then can return to the surface after having been Too Deep.

    I recently saw a variation of the water pipe, in the novel U.S.S. Seawolf by Patrick Robinson. In that story, the pressurized water came into the sub through a leak in a torpedo tube hatch. And in this case, the event was merely a prologue to the real action, demonstrating the XO’s tendency to panic in what wasn’t really a dangerous situation — he’d probably seen all the movies.

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