The Smell of a Submarine

The smell of a submarine - amine, sweat, smoke, hydraulic oil,

One of the reasons I don’t post here much is because I’m writing in several other venues. Facebook, regrettably, occupies a lot of my otherwise available writing time. I periodically post to my account on Daily Kos or comment on other people’s posts. But a new writing venue (for me) is the site Quora

I can get lost reading answers other people post to the most interesting questions. Some time back I started answering questions and made my contributions to public knowledge on topics I felt I’m an expert in. Which after a lot of thought came down to the only area I’m an expert in, that people might be interested in reading about, is the Navy. So, I’ve been answering a lot of questions about the Navy, navy life, and in particular, about submarines. 

Quora allows readers to “upvote” or “downvote” an answer as a way for the readers to show their approval/disapproval.  For the most part, my answers typically do not receive more than a few dozen upvotes (if any). But recently I hit one answer out of the park.

My Question

The question was: “What is something that almost nobody knows about submarines?

After thinking a bit, I posted this answer:

The smell.

When nuclear submarines are at sea they mostly remain submerged with a sealed atmosphere. Part of the atmosphere control system functions are to remove carbon dioxide (CO2), since a build-up of carbon dioxide can become fatal. To remove the carbon dioxide submarines use a chemical called amine. When amine is cool it absorbs carbon dioxide and when hot will release it. So the amine is cycled through a machine referred to as a CO2 Scrubber, which will alternately heat and cool the carbon dioxide and pushes the gas into the ocean, keeping the atmosphere breathable.

This is a very effective system, with the downside being the amine imparts a rather “unique” smell into the atmosphere. Which ultimately permeates every part of the submarine interior including crew members clothing and even their skin.

In addition to the amine smell, submarine crews are exposed to cooking odors, hydraulic oil vapors, diesel exhaust that isn’t quite captured by the diesel exhaust system, inboard venting of the sanitary tanks, and the smell of a large number of closely confined people. The interiors become quite fragrant. Crew members become accustomed to it and after a while never notice it. But other people do.

When I was attached to a submarine I had reason to fly home for vacation wearing my civilian clothes. I was sitting in my plane seat next to an older lady, chatting a bit, and suddenly she asked me “are you on submarines?” Surprised, I asked “yes, how did you know?” She replied “my husband was on submarines. I’ll never forget the smell.”

Readers Response

As of this posting, my humble answer has received 483 upvotes and 12.3K views, by far a record for me. 

As I explained in a follow-up comment, the two things I most remember about my time on submarines, particularly on my first boat, the nuclear-powered submarine Scamp (SSN 588), was;

  1. Always being tired.
  2. The smell of my clothes and skin, most noticeable when I’d been off the boat for a few days.

Some things just never go away…

Update: As of today, September 28, 2019, my answer has received 5,682 upvotes. And the hits keep coming! Amazing. 

Update: As of today, March 23, 2019, my answer has received 2072 upvotes and31.2k Views! Still going. 

UPDATE: As of this morning, January 14, 2019, my answer had received 1036 upvotes and 19.8k Views! Yes, I know this doesn’t get me anything except bragging rights, but I’ve probably had more views of this humble story than anything else I’ve written. 

UPDATE: As of today, April 29, 2020, this humble story has received 12.4K upvotes, 172.2K views, 107 comments, and been shared 19 times. I find this incredible that so many people have enjoyed reading something I wrote.

UPDATE: As of today, July 24, 2020, this humble story has received has 12519 upvotes, 119 comments, and 19 shares. I continue to amaze myself that this one story has been seen by more people than all the stories on this blog, combined.

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