A week at sea in a submarine

    A revealing insight into life under the ocean waves

    Doug Edwards from South Turramurra, joined the Royal Australian Navy and served on the HMAS Onslow for five years from 1969 to 1974. Here’s a fascinating insight into how a typical week shaped up for him.

    On a normal Monday when under sailing orders, the submarine threw its securing lines onto the wharf at 0800. If you were one minute late you missed the boat and the punishment was the same as if you were a day late (extraordinarily severe!) I never missed the boat.

    The submarine backed out of Neutral Bay Sydney – missing the ferry with my wife on it watching the submarine go past as she went to work, and travelled the exact same route out of the harbour as it always did (I bet the Russians had that route marked!)

    My harbour station was in the control room at the base of the conning tower.  I knew all the navigation bearing calls as they came from the bridge. The bearing I spent most time fantasizing about was ‘Bradleys Head bearing 000’ – I knew from the chart that it would be possible to quickly climb up the conning tower and jump off and swim to the shore (only ever a fantasy – the sharks would have got me, let alone the Military Police).

    Once we got to the Heads we went to diving stations and it took an hour or so to prepare to dive. While we were doing this two other things happened – we all removed our uniforms (never to reappear until we returned to civilian visibility), and put on pirate rig (in my case footy shorts and bright green nylon shirt and thongs – shouldn’t mention the same undies all week – not allowed to shower as desalination to produce fresh water had not been invented).

    The other thing was that I was seasick – I always was and for some reason Monday mornings were reserved for force 8 gales.

    Then we dived (the only time the Klaxon was used) – this was interesting, or very scary is a better term, because a calculation had been made by the Executive Officer as to the neutral weight of the submarine. If we were light the thing would not go down and the Exec Officer got glared at by the Captain while he worked quickly to make it heavier – all the while wondering where his calculations went wrong. If we were heavy it sank like a stone with frantic efforts being made to get it under control – this time there was no time to wonder where he went wrong, we were going down!

    We would spend time getting to our first scheduled exercise area where it seemed to me we always played mouse for all kinds of cats  – ships/aircraft/helicopters. They were all universally hopeless. The submarine was in its element and supreme at its task. We sank them all and penetrated their impregnable screens.

    In the midst of all these planned exercises we managed to have quite a few unplanned disasters of our own. These submarine were built in the 60s using 60s technology where the metallurgy, machining tolerances, electrics and electronics were nothing remotely as good as those things are today and they broke/failed/jammed/blew out/flooded and caught fire. We got very quickly to emergency stations!

    So the week went on using a three watch system where one spent two hours on watch and four hours off watch. Sounds ok but when you consider I had a harbour station, a diving station, an action station, an emergency station, and was a member of the attack team as well as being a technician in charge of some of this fragile 60s technology – sleep was minuscule and interrupted constantly.

    I averaged less than four hours in 24 over a five day week when dived with none of it in a straight line. Fear produces adrenaline which keeps you alert and able to function.

    Sometimes mid week we would go and park overnight in Jervis Bay. An able seaman who was an avid fisherman would be asked by the Captain where we should anchor and we would have a fishing competition. This provided some sunlight for the deprived submariner and fish for breakfast. We got a bit more sleep but were still keeping watch to make sure we didn’t drift ashore (our minds did!)

    Friday afternoon usually as far south as Jervis Bay at about 1400 we would finish playing cat and mouse with the fleet ships and we would go home to Sydney.

    Great fun for the ships who would do 35 knot (60+kph) speed trials to be home and in the pub by 1630, and we would crawl flat out at 12 knots on the surface to be home by 6 with me having been seasick the whole way – AGAIN!

    So that is a normal week. Then one lost a day on duty in every second weekend and we did this type of running for 2 months straight before a month alongside the wharf in Neutral Bay.

    No computers, no mobile phones, no internet, little or no news, no sunshine, no girls!

    Doug is giving a talk on Saturday June 17 – see page 2 for details.

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