The ladder leading down into the HMCS Chicoutimi submarine is surprisingly long. Taking the first step feels like entering a manhole, but the bottom is a world unlike any other.
A maze of white pipes and shiny valves line much of the dimly lit walls, making it look like a spaceship that’s preparing for take off. Aside from a periscope, there are no windows to see what’s going on outside as the submarine plunges into the darkness of the ocean for days on end.
This is where Petty Officer First Class John Janssen and Lt. Phil Fordham come to work each day. The pair can’t imagine anything better than working on a submarine.
“It’s definitely one of the coolest things you can do in the military,” said the 28-year-old Fordham, who began working on submarines when he got bored with surface fleet.
“With subs, there’s always something different. You get to be a lot more involved with everything you’re doing for operations.”
A member of the Canadian navy for 30 years, Janssen has spent 17 of those on surface fleet and the rest on a submarine.
Like Fordham, he needed a change and jumped at the opportunity to work on a submarine when he heard they were getting placed on the West Coast, even though he had never been on one before.
But when Janssen stepped onto a sub for the first time he was overwhelmed. Despite his training, he wondered what he had gotten himself into. So did Fordham.
“I looked at all the pipe work, the valves — it’s the most technologically advanced thing besides a spaceship,” Fordham said.
Canada’s fleet of submarines has had its share of ups and downs. In 1998, the Canadian navy purchased four used diesel-electric long subs from the British navy for nearly $900 million, and they’ve undergone a series of costly repairs and upgrades since then.
A fire on board the HMCS Chicoutimi in 2004 killed Lt. Chris Saunders and injured eight others just hours into its maiden voyage, and in 2011, the HMCS Corner Brooke ran aground off Vancouver Island. The sub is now undergoing maintenance and upgrades that won’t be ready until 2017.
Last February was cause for a celebration when the HMCS Victoria became operational, patrolling waters along the B.C. coast with the HMCS Chicoutimi.
The HMCS Windsor operates out of Halifax.
Officials say the vessels significantly extend the Navy’s tactical and strategic capabilities, and are ideal for surveillance and gathering intelligence. Travelling at speeds of 12 knots at the surface and 20 knots when submerged, the submarines are capable of operating in the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic approaches to Canada.
At 72 metres long and 15.9 metres high, the subs can carry a crew of 48 people and typically have enough food for 28 days. Most of the crew are on watch 12 hours a day, conducting operations such as compiling sensor information through the sonars and periscope.
Janssen has patrolled the waters of the Arctic and East Coast, and conducted drug interdictions in tropical waters. The subs use sonar to detect a contact that gets passed on to patrol, then edges closer to pop up the periscope and take pictures, depending on the mission. The information all gets sent back to shore to determine whether that’s the contact officials are looking for.
“We feel sneaky. You can easily tell if a ship is doing something illegal because they don’t know that you’re there, but you know that they are there,” said Janssen, whose longest mission was 29 days.
After spending that much time submerged under the ocean, both Janssen and Fordham are anxious to see what they’ve been missing on land.
“There’s very minimal news coming in (to the sub). You come back and movies have been advertised, been released and gone through theatres in the time it takes you to get back,” said Fordham. “There’s a whole new world of hit songs on the radio that you’ve never heard before. You are just really out of the loop, entirely isolated.”
One of the biggest challenges of living and working in such a cramped environment is the lack of exercise and not being able to shower every day. Those on board take turns using the two tiny showers. The cook and doctor are the only ones that get to shower on a daily basis.
Although Fordham and Janssen love what they do, working in a cramped environment cut off from the rest of the world and surrounded by nothing but ocean isn’t for everyone.
According to Fordham, some sailors are fine until the sub dives and there’s a column of water above them. It always takes him a few days to get settled in whenever he departs on another mission.
Despite the criticism of Canada’s submarines, Janssen maintains they are a valuable component of the navy and submariners are making a difference.
“People want to know what is in Canadian air space, they want to know what is in Canadian territorial water on the surface, why would you not want to know what is actually underneath the water?” he said. “It’s the best thing I ever did. This is my cup of tea.”