By Richard Francis
Today I managed to score an unexpected conducted tour of one of the RAN’s latest Collins Class submarines, HMAS Sheean, alongside the dedicated submarine berth at West Wall in Fleet Base East.
On first appearance the black, sleek submarine hull seems small but sinister. On boarding and being greeted by a smart and attentive quartermaster guarding the ship-to-shore brow access, the casing appears bereft of any fittings other than the canvas-shrouded sonar transducer right forward. A screen door provides access to the conning tower, which provides (actually) a streamlined housing for the suite of periscopes, snort and assorted masts, and atop the fin is a minscule bridge or conning platform with barely room for 4 men. Access to the interior is via either the forward or after hatch, although there is provision for other accesses such as the weapons loading hatch forward.
Descending carefully down the hatch though the upper casing, which floods on diving, one reaches the first of three decks, comprising the pressure hull, which is circular in cross-section and much wider than the upper casing would suggest. Space is at a premium and the passageways are very narrow, crammed with technical equipment at every bend and corner. The top deck comprises the senior sailors’ and officers’ cabin space and recreation messes. Further aft is the control room, the nerve centre of the vessel, much the same as in earlier submarines. Apart from the periscopes, the control room resembles similar operations rooms in surface ships, except that the banks of screens and arrays seem more densely packed around the bulkheads and deckhead. Everything is clean and efficient presentation. One apparent anomaly was the standard 35mm camera attached to the periscope for recording purposes. This will be replaced by a digital camera in due course. Surpringly, our guide was also the able seaman cook, a definite character with unbelievable knowledge of the submarine’s multifarious systems and equipment.
The (middle) deck below houses the crew’s bunk spaces, recreation messes, weapons space forward, galley and cafeteria, with machinery spaces right aft. The electric galley is compact with full range, but no deep fryer (as fitted in USN boats) for sensible safety reasons. Cold rooms, cool rooms and fridges are all adjacent. One setback encountered has been the risk of contamination of the fresh drinking water system which has imposed the alternative provision of spring water casks everywhere (embarked by hand daily in port), although the existing reverse osmosis FW system can still be used for washing and showering. The cook says he showers every day for hygiene needs but the remainder of the crew tend to routinely wash every third or fourth day from personal choice. This boat has an all-male crew – there are not enough trained female submariners to extend to all six boats. We are told that all men together provides happy, high morale, harmony and professional dedicated enthusiasm. (..and it shows..) There are bunks available for all normal 45 complement crew, and spare bunks for supernumeries and trainees, for a maximum of 55 souls onboard.
The weapons bay forward (fore ends) is surprisingly spacious, with the six torpedo tubes horizontal across the bow, with warshot reloads in racks and provision for alternative weapons such as Sub Harpoon and ground mines. Also in this space the crew stow their personal gear and sports equipment, even gym apparatus. Along all passageways are valises containing emergency escape breathing equipment for the entire crew. Two separate escape hatches are fitted, together with two small inflatable liferafts (left over from delivery days) and portable damage control and firefighting gear in dedicated lockers. Comprehensive firefighting drench systems are also fitted throughout the boat.
The lower compartments comprise storerooms and stowage spaces, tanks, fuel , water and ballast. The machinery spaces are relatively spacious and very clean, with small compartments provided for tiny workshops and control positions. After an hour’s tour my mind was overflowing with facts, figures, demonstrations, explanations and solid good humour. These submariners are truly professional in training and outlook, and are all volunteers. They have to be – it is a very demanding life with few tangible rewards other than good food and generous submarine pay. Or do they? While in port, despite austerity accommodation and facilities provided in an adjacent building on the wharf, when not on duty the crew were being accommodated in the swank Boulevard Hotel ashore in downtown Sydney. (I wonder what the tourists made of these earnest young chaps clad in sinister black coveralls, with a submariner’s dolphin emblem on their baseball cap??!)