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Salt Life

Ohio-class submarines disappear into the ocean for 70 days at a time, carrying 155 sailors, 24 nuclear missiles, and more hot sauce than your local taqueria.
October 1, 2018
A man stands atop a submarine and holds onto a pole; the American flag flies to his right.

The USS Louisiana, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, returns to Naval Base Kitsap after a strategic deterrent patrol. CREDIT: U.S. Navy


"The 24 D5 missiles onboard this sub are launched underwater and, after breaking the surface, travel at 15,000 miles per hour to nearly anywhere in the world."- Mark Levin

By Mark Levin

8 a.m., Hood Canal, Puget Sound, Washington

When the weather is cooperating, Officer of the Deck is the best job on the planet, and that is my assignment today onboard the USS Nebraska nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed Ohio-class submarine (SSBN).

Standing exposed on the bridge at the very top of the submarine’s giant tower, my job is to “drive” the submarine out of our homeport, Naval Base Kitsap, through the watery network west of Seattle that empties into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and then into the Pacific Ocean, where the boat will slip underwater. I feel an underlying excitement that is rivaled only by the feeling returning home will give me, 70 days from now. I feel alive.

Driving the submarine means I am responsible for the safe navigation of the ship; I “steer” the ship by giving rudder orders to the helm (the person who turns a wheel to position the rudder). Because the helm sits below deck and I am on the bridge above deck, the experiencing of driving the submarine is often compared to blindfolding the driver of a car while a passenger stands through the sun roof and instructs the blindfolded driver how fast to go and which direction to turn. 

I order one prolonged blast on the ship’s whistle, and we are underway, embarking on a 10-week strategic deterrence mission. Carrying 24 D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) armed with Los Alamos-designed nuclear warheads, the Nebraska will prowl the depths of the ocean, its exact location unknown to everyone but its crew. Our mission is to remain hidden at sea with our SLBMs, so as to deter a nuclear attack on the U.S. by demonstrating to other countries that the U.S. has an assured second-strike capability—a survivable system for carrying out retaliatory nuclear attack.

A missile emerges from the sea and into the air after being fired from a submarine.

An unarmed Trident II D5 missile launches from the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Nebraska off the coast of California.

Looking down, the top of the submarine’s black steel hull stretches ahead of and behind me, totaling nearly two football fields in length. We approach our dive location—the point at which we’ll submerge—on time. To dive the ship, crewmembers must rig the submarine for dive, which means each component that is exposed to water must be positioned and sealed correctly, checked by an enlisted person, and checked again by an officer. Because this task is so huge, the Nebraska started its rig yesterday.

I begin rigging the bridge for dive with an enlisted lookout. We have done this task many times together, sometimes even in the dark, so we move quickly. As I climb down the long, vertical ladder from the bridge into the belly of the submarine, I check the bottom hatch and announce, “Last man down, hatch secure!”

As the submarine descends slowly below the surface, the crew shifts quietly into its new normal: the underway routine. 

As we descend, I feel the boat rolling gently in the surface waves and know the slight rocking will dissipate as we lower to patrol depth. But even deep underwater, a submarine moves more than most people think, and I can recall multiple times an entire crew has been seasick—but thankfully today is not that type of day. 

My next stop is the “sonar shack,” a tiny room with no lights. Behind the closed door, five watchmen monitor for slight changes on sonar displays. These glowing electronic screens graphically display underwater sounds that are picked up by the boat’s sensors (sonar technicians can also use headphones to listen to the raw sounds). The crew relies on these displays to provide clues about the surrounding aquatic environment—sonar (short for SOund NAvigation and Ranging) is essentially the eyes and ears of the submerged boat. I have spent years developing my skills at reading sonar displays, but our sonar technicians have far superior abilities. Despite today’s modern navigation equipment, one of the best direction-finding instruments onboard is the experienced sonar technician’s ear. 

Before departure, the officers and navigation team have a good idea of where the patrol is headed. The mission is not necessarily to lurk ominously offshore of other countries but rather to remain undetected in the depths of the ocean.

The navigation team updates the number of miles traveled every day. There’s not much interest from the rest of the crew in total miles traveled or our location. Most crewmembers are content to know we are somewhere, undetected, in the 64-million-square-mile Pacific Ocean. (By contrast, subs that depart from the base in Kings Bay, Georgia, patrol the smaller, 41-million-square-mile Atlantic Ocean.)

Of course, no matter our location, one crucial part of our mission always remains the same: to launch nuclear missiles only when authorized by the president. The 24 D5 missiles onboard this sub are launched underwater and, after breaking the surface, travel at 15,000 miles per hour to nearly anywhere in the world. We have the power to destroy an adversary’s military, infrastructure, and everything in between. As the sea-based delivery system of America’s nuclear triad, Ohio-class subs also have a greater chance of survival from a first strike. Once an SSBN goes to sea, it is a high-priority target for other nations, so staying undercover is crucial for our safety.

I’ve always felt everyone onboard understood the gravity of the mission and accepted responsibility for their part of the mission. I came to terms with my role before my first patrol nearly a decade ago, and I am ready to play my part in launching a nuclear weapon if asked. 

Authorization to launch would come from an Emergency Action Message from the president that two junior officers would decode. (Junior officers have just completed the Navy Nuclear Training pipeline and Submarine School and are reporting to their first submarine.) In order to launch, the two junior officers, an executive officer, and the commanding officer (CO) must agree that the message is authentic. The CO would then authorizes the launch, and the weapons officer would pull the trigger that launches the missile. 

Only some of the nation’s nuclear-armed submarines are on alert (ready to launch nuclear missiles) at any given time. However, those not on alert are still fulfilling a vital mission because they can transition to alert status within 24 hours.

A missile trail in the sky over the Golden Gate Bridge.

In November 2015, the USS Kentucky launched an unarmed D5 missile in the Pacific Test Range off the coast of southern California that was visible from San Francisco. Photo: Abe Blair.

Alternate reality

Submarines don’t have windows, so crewmembers have no sense of time of day (not that windows would help tell time in the dark depths of the ocean). Instead, our day is illuminated by fluorescent lights and structured by eight-hour rotations punctuated by meals. For example, I’m on watch for eight hours, I perform routine maintenance or have free time for eight hours, and I sleep for eight hours.

The meals are the biggest clue to the time of day. We eat breakfast, lunch, dinner, and—everyone’s favorite—midrats. Midrats, short for “midnight rations” is the midnight meal and consists mostly of leftovers from lunch and dinner. Corn dogs are universally accepted as the ideal midrats treat, and morale peaks when corn dogs are served. If the word spreads quickly enough, some crewmembers will wake up in the middle of the night just to eat corn dogs. 

Our submarine’s half-dozen cooks prepare these four meals in a broom-closest-sized galley (kitchen) using only a grill, two ovens, two fryers, and four steam kettles. The cooks serve food cafeteria style to the 140 members of the enlisted crew, who must eat quickly because the seating area has only a 36-person capacity. The 15 officers eat in the 10-person wardroom, where food is served family style with dishes passed around the table. Although the locations are separate, the food is the same for all crewmembers.

The food taken while we are underway is all that’s available for 70 days (to remain undetected, the submarine isn’t restocked at any point during patrol). Fresh fruits, vegetables, and milk last about seven days. Eggs are wax coated, stored in a frigid room with ventilations fans and cooling coils, and supposedly last 45 days. In my opinion, you are rolling the dice if you choose the egg selection at breakfast after day 14.

After all the fresh food has been consumed, the frozen and canned stash is opened—at which point food becomes known only by its color.

Question: “What vegetable is that?”

Answer: “That is the green option.”

The green option is most likely broccoli, asparagus, or spinach, but it doesn’t matter because all green vegetables are boiled into the same tasteless slime. Fortunately, adding hot sauce makes anything edible. Hot sauce is religion onboard a submarine.

Procuring hot sauce for the officers is entrusted to the newest officer and is a very important duty. Before departure, he must figure out what flavors and levels of hotness will ensure the morale of the officers remains high. A smart procuring officer asks what everyone prefers; a cocky one may assume he knows best. If the officer chooses poorly, he will be endlessly hassled until he turns the job over to the next new guy. It’s a learning experience.

Thankfully, on this patrol, we are fully stocked with sriracha and my favorite, Frank’s Red Hot Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce.

Dolphins jump out of the water in front of a submarine.

Dolphins lead the way as the USS Tennessee returns to Naval Base Kings Bay. Photo: U.S. Navy.

Law of Finite Happiness

Today—and every day—I wear the uniform set by the CO: navy blue, U.S. Navy-issued coveralls. My Asics running shoes are the only optional part of the uniform (along with the University of Illinois T-shirt underneath my coveralls, but no one can see that). Shoe choice is based on comfort, style, durability, and style. Above all, the shoe must be able to survive the patrol, which means surviving oil, water, and solvents that might leak from onboard equipment.

Hats are not required, but we are allowed to wear them. Most crewmembers wear ball caps of their favorite sports team, which says a lot about people and where they’re from. The submarine receives limited radio messages, the messages that do come sometimes includes sports scores. The folks relaying the scores do not always share our enthusiasm for this “holy grail” of message traffic and frequently cause undue heartache when scores are incorrectly reported.

Ball caps can also sometimes invoke the Law of Finite Happiness during playoff seasons. The Law of Finite Happiness is a fact of human interaction and occurs on all submarines only after all watertight hatches have been closed. The law dictates that only a finite amount of happiness is stored inside each person onboard a submarine. When one submariner “steals” happiness from another, he becomes stronger and the other person becomes weaker. 

The law commands that submariners have a thick skin and not show emotion. For example, if one submariner mocks another about his hat choice, the submariner being pestered cannot show any signs of it bothering him, or the tormenting will continue, and the person doing the mocking will tell everyone else so they can join in.

Thankfully, I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan and have enjoyed many a successful baseball season and therefore plenty of happiness.

Semper Gumby

Living quarters onboard an Ohio-class sub are the largest the submarine fleet has to offer, but they are still small. Enlisted quarters are located in the submarine’s missile compartment, almost as if crew berthing was an afterthought in submarine design. Three racks (beds) are stacked on top of one another, and nine racks are nestled between large metal missile-launch tubes. Rack curtains, which are pulled across the length of the rack, provide some privacy although they do not block sound.

Everything a crewmember needs for an underway, including toiletries, clothing, and uniforms, must fit in a rack pan underneath the mattress. Careful planning is required to fit everything you could potentially need for 70 days. There is no convenience store underway, so whatever you forgot, you have to live without or get from someone else. 

Officer quarters—aka staterooms, although that word makes them sound more glamorous than they are—are located in front of the crew quarters. Although I am fortunate to have more space than the enlisted men, I still share a cramped room with two other officers.

Although the Nebraska does have a large movie and library collection, many sailors bring their own entertainment. My rack pan is filled with music and books. To save space, I’ve opted for digital media, listening to songs on my iPod and reading my favorite Joseph Conrad novels on a tablet. I’ve seen crewmembers install an Xbox and television in their cramped sleeping area. They’d rather have their own video games, even though it means sleeping curled up in a small ball on one end of the bed.

Sleep is the most precious commodity onboard the submarine, and submarine culture is steeped in sleep lore. Some legendary junior officers have somehow managed to write themselves off the watch bill (not when they are really needed, of course) and claim to have spent 24 hours in the rack on a submarine. I have never experienced that bliss.

The flip side is hot racking—when two enlisted crewmembers have to share a bed, but not at the same time. When one person is on watch, the other person is sleeping in the bed, and then they switch. Imagine doing that for two months at a time, not to mention also having to share a rack pan. Hot racking is definitely not the norm, but depending on the mission, more crew might be required for training reasons or for support operations.

Sleep is sometimes interrupted when something breaks on the ship, and the crew has to perform repairs. There is not a deep-sea tow truck to bring a submarine back to port, so it’s all hands on deck when something goes wrong. Problems can range from a light that’s stopped working to a complete loss of communications.

“Semper Gumby” is a phrase commonly heard around the submarine. Loosely translated, it means, “always be flexible.” In the more than three years (total amount of undersea time) I have spent underway, something has always broken—but I have never once thought the crew couldn’t fix it. Each crew onboard a submarine has specialists, such as sonar technicians, radiomen, and nuclear mechanics, who can solve just about any problem imaginable.


We begin counting down the days left on patrol when we have 24 days to go. Some of the guys have fashioned a model of our boat out of discarded parts and duct tape. We hang the unwieldy reproduction on missile tube 24. The next day, the model moves to tube No. 23, and so on.

The anticipation is really apparent about a week before our return to port. As an officer, I worry about keeping the guys on task so we can get safely home, but the last week always seems to fly by, and finally it is homecoming day. We surface a few hours from Bangor, and every crewmember is assigned a specific job until we dock. The crew is in high spirits because pulling into the pier with family waiting is the best feeling. Unfortunately, that is not the case today. The boat has some maintenance issues that crewmembers must fix, and families have been asked not to wait on the pier.

I am one of the last to leave the sub, but my wife is waiting when the bus drops me off in the same desolate parking lot where this whole adventure started at 2 a.m., 70 days ago. I feel satisfied with my last patrol and what I have accomplished during this three-year tour: I am fully qualified and fairly proficient as an Officer of the Deck, I am a qualified nuclear engineer, and I have successfully trained my replacement. My job is complete, and I am ready to begin my next assignment: shift engineer at the Nuclear Training Unit in Charleston, South Carolina.

As my wife drives me home, she talks about everything that has happened in her world during the past two months, and I feel myself slipping back into a “normal” life. We don’t talk much about my patrol, which is fine by me. I always thought that if no one ever knew where we were or what we did, it was a successful patrol. I don’t need praise from the public or from politicians—our admirals always provide all the praise we need. The submarine community is closed to the outside, and I like it that way. Most of the crew also feel this way. Maybe submariners are a strange breed, but it works for our mission. 

On the highway, we pass a pick-up truck with a “Salt Life” window sticker, and I laugh. If submarines had windows, that sticker would be perfect.

Men securing a submarine that has returned to a dock.

After a three-month deployment, the USS Tennessee returns to its homeport at Naval Base Kings Bay. Photo: U.S. Navy.

About the author

Mark Levin served in U.S. Navy for 20 years. He enlisted as a submarine electrician after his junior year of college. “By sheer chance or fate, I bumped into a Navy recruiter, and he convinced me that seeing the world from a submarine was the next logical step,” remembers Levin, noting that he did not join the Navy to go on an Ohio-class submarine. “I joined to go on a fast-attack submarine, cruising the world and pulling into foreign ports, which I did do much later in my career.”

Since April 2016, Levin has worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he leads the team that operates and repairs the Dual-Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test Facility (DARHT) accelerators.