Meet a Spanish submariner protecting Allied waters

  • 30 May. 2022 -
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  • Last updated: 30 May. 2022 16:26

What's it like to live for up to 30 days in a watertight, airtight, pressurised tube? How do you stay focused on your vital work when you have no sunlight, no fresh air – and only one shower for 70 people? This video offers a rare glimpse at the day-to-day lives of naval submarine personnel. The crew of the Spanish Navy submarine ESPS Mistral gives us a deep dive into the world beneath the waves.

Life on a Spanish submarine - ESPS Mistral S73

It takes a special kind of person to become a submariner. Below, Sergeant Paula Osorio-Fernández, who worked as a Weapons Petty Officer aboard the Mistral, tells us more about her decision to join the crew and what life was like during her missions on board.

In the video, you talk about working with torpedoes and mines, and with navigation charts. What exactly was your role on the Mistral? Is it normal for crew members to have lots of different jobs?

Sergeant Paula Osorio-Fernández

I was posted on board ESPS Mistral for over five years, until it was decommissioned. Now I’m part of the crew of the ESPS Isaac Peral, a brand-new submarine currently under construction. We are training and learning every inch of the new submarine to be prepared for sea trials and first navigations. There are more than 30 years of difference between the Mistral and the Isaac Peral, and many technological advances, which allow the same functions to be carried out in an automated and much simpler way. But I remain in charge of maintaining all the equipment related to torpedoes, missiles and mines. My team and I make sure that everything works fine, is well maintained and in the proper state of readiness so that we are prepared to employ the weapons when commanded.

In addition, at sea, my job is to be the tactical supervisor of the watch. Even though a new modern combat system allows me to do my job in a more efficient way, my responsibilities remain almost the same. I employ the sensors to make sure that all the ships in our vicinity are properly identified and that the submarine keeps in a safe route of navigation. As you said, I have many jobs and responsibilities on board, which is normal on submarines due to the fact of having a very small crew.

How did you end up working on a submarine? Was it something you always wanted to do? Were you happy when you were first assigned to the Mistral, or did you learn to like it?

I was originally posted on a frigate, and I had never imagined being on board a submarine. Nonetheless, I am a specialist in underwater weapons, so I took the decision to apply for the submarine course even without having any idea of how they were from the inside. I have never regretted that decision. It cannot be denied that there are some drawbacks to being a submariner – it’s a tough job with many days without news from home. But I love the special environment and partnership on board. It´s like being part of a big family.

In the video, you mention that your husband also served on the Mistral, and that you would alternate being on board and being back home with your children. Were you still able to spend time together, or was one of you always away at sea?

When I was first posted on ESPS Mistral, my little son was one year old and my husband was posted on a patrol boat. He decided to apply for the submarine course so that we could coordinate our lives more easily. He is a specialist in administration and before he came to ESPS Mistral I was the one who did that job (in addition to my other tasks). Once he came, we alternated navigations and periods ashore – essentially trading off the same duties with each other when we changed from land to sea and back. Despite all the time without seeing each other, we still managed to juggle our schedules and spend time together with our two children.

Sergeant Paula Osorio-Fernández and her husband

Nowadays we are posted together on board ESPS Isaac Peral. But when the submarine launches, I will be the one who would have to be at sea during all the navigations, while he remains at home. My job and his are now completely different and therefore we cannot change roles anymore.

Did you ever serve on board together? Did you meet on the submarine?

We met each other during the course that sailors take to be promoted to petty officers. After the graduation, I was posted on a minehunter in Cartagena and he was posted at the Navy Headquarters in Madrid. We were separated for almost two years, until he got a post on board a patrol boat. Even after all these years in the Navy, we have never coincided together on board because we ask for family conciliation. That allows us to organise ourselves better and keep a work-life balance, with one of us on board and the other at home.

The video mentions that the submarine can spend up to 30 days under water. What tricks did you learn to keep your spirits up when you were under water for so long?

I learned that you must be aware of the time you are going to be isolated and leave any problems outside the submarine when the hatch closes. During your free time, it is essential to keep your mind busy with books, movies, series and music, anything that helps you to escape.

What are some of your favourite books, movies, series or music?

I was born in Brazil and I have a strong connection with my roots and the music from there (samba, bossanova, pagode, etc.). Regarding movies, I like romantic comedies and Disney movies. These types of movies remind me of my children and family when I am abroad.

What is it like emerging into the sunlight and fresh air after so long? How long does it take to adjust to normal life back at the surface? Do you ever have dreams that you are back in the submarine?

It´s a wonderful sensation! You learn to give value to something that you usually take for granted, like breathing fresh air. It takes several days to get used to your normal life. When you sail, you are assigned to a particular watch, which means that you don´t follow the daily routines anymore, you lose track of day and night, and that affects your sleep. The first days aboard you feel tired, and you can even get sore.

Before the submarine sails, I sometimes dream that I am on board and I forgot to take my suitcase, so I don't have a towel, toothbrush or things like that. The last days at sea, when we are about to return to shore, I dream that I´m back at the pier and I see my family. Usually, the night before arriving I´m not able to sleep.

How deep can the submarine go? After a while, do you develop an instinct for how deep you are at any given time?

If I told you, I would have to kill you, that´s secret! Jokes aside, when you are aboard, you do not perceive the difference of how deep the submarine is, you just continue with your routine. Going down to the maximum operational depth is a manoeuvre that requires a lot of preparation and training. The crew is warned by the PA system and tension is perceived from all crew members, not a single word is heard out of place.

The video mentions a tradition of Spanish vessels having garlic hanging from the machinery. Can you tell us more about where this tradition comes from and what it means? Are there any other traditions that you follow on the submarine?

Tradition says that hanging garlic in key spaces removes the possibility of technical problems occurring, that´s why you usually find them in spaces related to the propulsion.

We also carry aboard the image of the “Virgen del Carmen”, patron saint of the Spanish Navy. On Sundays, we perform a small religious act before lunch. In the afternoon, the famous Mistral bingo is held, with gifts for the lucky ones. Sundays are usually more special than the other days of the week.

Oh, and I almost forgot – as a superstition, umbrellas should not be shipped on board. It brings bad luck!

The video also mentions that the crew play pranks on each other to pass the time and keep the tensions low. What are some of the most infamous pranks that have happened in the submarine?

As we have very little information about what’s happening on the surface, it´s common to make jokes over made-up news, especially regarding soccer teams. It´s common to tease someone about how his or her favourite team has lost an important match.

What sort of psychological evaluations do you have to do before you can become a submariner? Do you ever get claustrophobic or anxious about the massive volume of water that’s pressing down on you?

We pass a psychological recognition and a personal interview with the psychological cabinet before starting the course, and prior to the completion of each mission. During the course, you make a little trip on board the submarine, just a day, so that you feel what it is to navigate on board. Then, if it´s not for you, you can decide not to continue with the training.

I get overwhelmed in elevators, but I have never had that feeling on board. I think the key is not to think about the amount of water that you have around you. It´s just like when you go on a plane, you don´t think about the metres that separate you from the ground.

What sort of emergency training do you do?

We carry out training that includes all the situations that may pose a risk to the submarine and its crew: firefighting, escape what to do in case of a leak or a jammed rudder, and rescue exercises in case of sinking. All submariners must go through the escape tank, where an escape from a depth of 10 metres is simulated, while wearing an escape suit. I have to admit that people in submarines are specially qualified and trained; to be a useful member of the crew you have to be technically well prepared and resilient.

One of the crew members mentions being a tall, confident person. But it’s probably easier for smaller people to serve inside such a limited space. Is there a height restriction?

There is no height restriction, but I am 162 cm. I think it is a great advantage to be short, it avoids many blows to the head! What´s more, I have space at the foot of the bed to store my belongings. The lockers are very small.

Are you allowed to bring personal items from home? What are some of the unique or special items that you bring with you?

Yes, as long as you can keep it in your locker or in your bed, which are the only "personal" spaces that you have on board. As I mentioned before, the lockers are very small, so you don't usually bring large objects. I take a photo of my family and my son´s drawings. I also usually bring a tablet for entertainment, with headphones so as not to disturb others.

What’s it like sleeping right next to the torpedoes?

I only had to sleep once in the torpedo room. The petty officers have some 6-bed cabins, where the space is smaller than in the torpedo room, but it has the advantage that you have a little more privacy given that the beds are not next to each other. When you sleep in the torpedo room, you are not really aware that you are sleeping between torpedoes. In the end, it is your bedroom for the duration of the navigation, and you don´t stop to think about the torpedoes – you are more concerned if a companion snores or how many hours you have left to sleep and to re-enter on watch.

How do you deal with the lack of privacy on the submarine? What do you do when you just want some alone time?

For me, the lack of intimacy is the main drawback of being on board a submarine. When you have a bad day, or you miss your family, you want to be alone, and you can't. Well, when I want to be alone, I go to my bed and I close the curtains. It's my corner to think.

The Mistral was decommissioned in 2021, after 35 years of service. It will be replaced with a new generation of Spanish submarines. Did you do anything special to celebrate or commemorate this end of an era?

Several official acts were held at the submarine base, and the last petty officers assigned to Mistral made a meal and a commemorative wristwatch for each person. The watch has the silhouette of the submarine, the year of delivery and discharge, and obviously the name of the ship. 

Commemorative wristwatch

What is one of your fondest memories/most memorable moments of serving on the Mistral?

My first navigation was very special for me, because it was a completely different world from what I was used to. I remember the first time I put on the eyepatch to look through the periscope at night, just like a pirate! I remember being excited to see the dolphins around the submarine. And being on the surface, seeing the stars... These are moments that I carry in my mind.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your time serving on the Mistral?

I would like to highlight the importance of the lunchtime on board a submarine! After all these days of hard work, accumulated fatigue and lack of contact with the outside world, lunchtime is a moment of brotherhood and relaxation, where the crew gets to enjoy both time together and wonderful and tasty food that has been cooked in a tiny kitchen. There’s nothing quite like lunchtime on a submarine!

What piece of unusual or unexpected advice would you give to someone who wants to work on a submarine?

If you’re on a navigation where you make a stopover in a port other than your home port, make sure that you seal all your civilian clothing closed in vacuum bags, to prevent it from absorbing the odours. A submarine is a closed environment, and it has a strong and characteristic odour that permeates everything!

What does NATO mean to you?

To me NATO represents unity and commitment among countries that look for a brighter future – a future of peace and prosperity based on a safe environment. I proudly say that Spain takes part in a number of NATO missions and has led many of them. We have deeply ingrained the importance of international agreements as a way of finding global stability.