View Full Version : Any Submariners out there?

11-28-2002, 10:49 AM
A few episodes ago on The West Wing, two characters (hawk & dove) were having a small argument over Pentagon procurement. It came down to the old “why are we paying $200.oo for a screwdriver” & “$400.oo for an ashtray?” question. In a fit of explanation, the hawk character smashed an ashtray (sitting on his desk) with a pipe wrench. He went on to state that the object had been a “$400.oo ashtray”, and that it had broken into three blunt pieces because it was designed to do so due to the fact that it was an ashtray from a nuclear submarine. You see, the environment inside a nuclear submarine will, at times, be chaotic – with sudden battle maneuvers etc.– and things inside tend to fly around. So, as the character explained it, “you don’t want sharp pieces of glass flying around in the middle of battle.”

Okay, I get it. There really is $400.oo worth of design and manufacturing put into a “$400.oo ashtray”. My question is, do people really smoke on submarines? Especially the nukes, don’t they stay down for months? Isn’t it akin to smoking on the space shuttle?

11-28-2002, 11:09 AM
Yes, smoking is allowed in submarines. Usually in the officers quarters and the engine room only. Submarines generally do not stay underwater that long. The longest stretch I am aware of is 20 days and that was during excursions under the polar ice cap. Most submarines travel at or near the surface of the water while in transit. The deeper a sub goes, the denser the water and it takes more power to propel the sub. Even though I was not a submariner when I was in the Navy, I did get to spend a day on a sub while it was on manuvers outside of San Diego. If I wasn't so busy the two hours we were underwater, claustrophobia would have been a problem for me. When we surface and were allowed to get some fresh air, I was one of the first ones out.

11-28-2002, 11:43 AM
Former Submariner here.

I once spent 74 days submerged. Not even close to a record. Submerged endurance on a nuclear submarine is limited only by food (we can extract oxygen from seawater), and we often made a 120-day loadout.

The ashtray story is utter bullshit, BTW. We use aliminum ashtrays.

When I was standing Auxiliary Machinery Room 2, Upper Level watch, one of the pices of equipment I was responisible for operating was the CO - H2 Burner. One of the reasons the Burner existed was to deal with the Carbon Monoxide from smokers. When we brought steam into the Engine Room, the steam released from blowing down the traps would cause gunk accumulated over years of smoking cigarettes in-hull to drip down out of the overhead for a day or more afterwards. Yuk.

Hail Ants
11-28-2002, 03:11 PM
I remember, god like ten years ago now, Al Gore was on Letterman soon after he moved to CBS. They talked about some government report regarding how many pieces a glass ashtray would break into. The VP even tried it himself, donning safety goggles and smashing one on Dave's desk with a hammer.

11-28-2002, 03:41 PM
Thanks Intaglio, There are no answers straighter than from the horses mouth.

(I hope that didn’t sound vaguely insulting.)


11-28-2002, 04:05 PM
Can't speak for ashtrays, but the outrageous prices for many things the government buys don't go to manufacturing, but to support the paper trail required.

Picture a set of bolts that holds the bracket that holds the missile on a B-2 bomber together. Should those bolts shear, the missile drops loose and rattles around inside the bomb bay. Not a total catastrophe, but enough to scrub a mission.

Now if it turns out those four bolts all failed because they were made with a weak grade of steel not suited for the repeated stresses of takeoff and landing, the government will go back to the supplier with some pointed questions.

"Listen, we paid a markup of $199.50 on these 50 cent bolts, to go to support materials testing and quality control and assurance, so that these bolts meet the strength and wear characteristics in our ordered specifications. We have evidence in the field that contridicts the report sent with this shipment and we'd like an explanation."

$200 per bolt doesn't just buy a fastener, it buys the government an insurance policy that they'll have someone else to blame when things go wrong.

11-28-2002, 09:55 PM
Another submariner here - ditto what Intaglio said. As for when and where smoking is permitted, in my experience it depends on the boat. 2 of the 3 boats I was on allowed smoking in the mess decks when meals weren't being served. These days I'm sure lots of boats don't allow it at all.

My longest time submerged was 102 days - most of it at test depth.

As for the fairy tale logic of the magic 3 piece breaking ashtray - one of the first things that is done after reaching deep water is called "angles and dangles". This involves maneuvering the boat in such a way as to try and shake loose any gear that might not be properly stowed for sea. On a submarine, a glass ashtray (or any object) falling would be more dangerous because of the noise it makes (thus potentially giving away the sub's presence) than because of glass shards.

Speaker for the Dead
11-28-2002, 10:31 PM
You could really hear the noise of a dropping ashtray in a different vessel?

11-28-2002, 10:40 PM
Absolutely. Sound travels much further (though much more slowly) through water than through air (although the physics behind it is much more complex).

When subs operate in areas where there are known or suspected sonar platforms listening, they operate under a condition called ultraquiet. This means that all noise is kept to a minimum - if you aren't on watch you are in your bunk. The crew wears tennis shoes to dampen the sound of footsteps. I wasn't a sonar tech but I from time to time got to listen. I once listened to the clash of dishes and the tinkle of silverware as a submarine secured from their evening meal.

11-28-2002, 11:07 PM
Originally posted by GWVet
Absolutely. Sound travels much further (though much more slowly) through water than through air

Are you sure that it is slower in water? Depending on salinity, temp, and depth, I get around 1500 meters per second for the speed of sound in seawater. This is compared to about 340 meters per second for air.

Am I missing something?

11-29-2002, 03:11 PM
I get around 1500 meters per second for the speed of sound in seawater. This is compared to about 340 meters per second for air.

OK, looks like this is true. As I said I wasn't a sonar tech, so I'm not familiar with the math behind it.

The point I was trying to make was about the OP - the point that an ashtray as described in the OP would be useless because the noise transient from such an item would be more dangerous than the shards of glass is is purported to prevent against. Which is probably one reason why aluminum ashtrays are used.

Why A Duck
11-29-2002, 03:23 PM
Most subs (if not all) these days are smoke-free. A popular substitute is chewin' tabaccy (be very careful about which cup you drink out of :) ).

11-30-2002, 06:18 PM
Here is my take on the question posed in the OP, to quote myself from the following thread:


Originally posted by robby
When I was first attached to a sub in 1989, smoking was permitted throughout the boat, except in berthing areas and the wardroom (none of the officers smoked).

By the early 1990's, most subs had established a designated smoking area, or at the CO's whim, declared the sub to be "smoke free." There were no end of problems with hard-core smokers assigned to smoke-free subs; I personally knew of one officer who went UA before deployment because he couldn't take it anymore.

Soon thereafter, there was a directive that ALL subs must have a designated smoking area. While this prevented people from smoking in the control room, it also had the (unintended?) effect of eliminating smoke-free subs. The smoking area on my sub was back in the engine room, lower level, right above the bilge. It was a thoroughly miserable, dank, and smoke-filled place. It also averaged 3-10 people smoking 24/7.

BTW, you might be wondering how the atmosphere control equipment deals with cigarette smoke. There are CO-H2 burners that convert the CO to CO2 (and hydrogen to water vapor). The carbon dioxide is then removed with the CO2 scrubbers. Any other impurities remaining are generally not worried about.

11-30-2002, 06:26 PM
Originally posted by racer72
...Submarines generally do not stay underwater that long. The longest stretch I am aware of is 20 days and that was during excursions under the polar ice cap...The deeper a sub goes, the denser the water and it takes more power to propel the sub.

Both of these statements are misleading and/or incorrect.

To second Intaglio's post, I also spent 70+ days continuously submerged.

Also, water is virtually incompressible. The density of water certainly does not increase with depth so as to noticeably affect the power required to propel the sub.