The Submariner’s Wife

A submariner’s wife is unlike any other woman in the civilian or Naval world.

You get used to:

…your husband being completely incommunicado when out on ‘patrol’ or an ‘exercise’ (sailing) which can stretch from 4 days to 45 days. In a world of tweets, texts, Facebook, email, chats, it takes some getting used to.

…being left alone to cope with situations your man is usually in charge of like getting the fridge, car, air-conditioner, toilet, water filter fixed.

…no SAT COM on which to talk to your husband every other day, unlike some other lucky wives

…running the household like a hotel because your husband is only home for two day visits before another ‘patrol’.

… your week is measured in the length of the sailing period.

…the days he is home are celebrated like it’s the weekend.

….saying, ‘I don’t know’ to holiday plans, visits to/by family, dinner plans because you just don’t know the sailing schedule in advance.

…birthdays and anniversaries being occasions you will potentially not be spending together.

…the fact that your dog is the only person you’ve spoken to since he went sailing.

…your dog/cat/child falling sick, getting injured, getting into trouble at the precise moment he leaves harbour.

…rushing to the harbour to see the boat coming in (with dog/cat/child in tow)

…being a tour guide in your own home because your husband can’t find anything in the house as he’s constantly away and can’t remember where things are.

…his total panic when having to wear ‘The Whites’ (as they are so used to ‘The Blues’)

….terms like ‘turning’ doesn’t mean the whole submarine is turned (rather, all instruments are checked) , ‘close up’ is not a brand of toothpaste but an order to take over a duty post and ‘blowing the heads’ doesn’t mean that people’s heads are exploding but that the toilets are being flushed out.

…roughing it out and not complaining because you know that he deals with so much worse on a daily basis.

…his office is on board a submarine – hot, stuffy and cramped.

…his strange bowel movement timings conditioned by the night watches.

…eating alone in bed when he’s away because you couldn’t be bothered setting the table for one.

…your husband coming home with giant crabs and prawns from passing fisherman who had a  great catch as the sub came in to harbour.

…putting a career where you have to travel on hold because you have a dog/child/cat that you can’t leave alone.

…living in cities/towns where you are unlikely to know anyone at first or have family close by.

…your husband sleeping like a narrow unmoving tube because he’s so used to sleeping in a narrow bunk rather than a bed.

…treasuring what ever little time he has with you onshore before casting off again.

…(but) having a fight, major or minor just before he leaves for sailing and then feeling terribly guilty about it. Fights are usually an expression of the sadness you are feeling that he is going away again and has nothing to do with what you are fighting about.

…changing out of your fancy ‘going out’ clothes because the crew and boat could not be secured on time.

…reminding yourself of all things you have to tell him, sometimes weeks worth of news.

…he proudly brings home his chocolate rations so we can share it together.

Entering the Torpedo Deck

What you don’t get used to:

…the smell when your husband returns from sailing. It has to be smelled to be believed – a combination of sweat, grease, bilge, feet.

…not hugging your husband when he comes home, no matter how long he’s been sailing because of the smell. Only our dog can greet him with over the top enthusiasm.

…fearing it’s bad news every time the Navy phone rings.

…complete admiration for how he survives the conditions on board and still comes home smiling.

…knowing that your husband has not bathed the entire time he’s been sailing (2 weeks to 40 days)

…visiting on board and marvelling at all the strange pipes, wires, smells, hot air, the tiny galley and close quarters.

…not being able to tell your dog when he’ll be coming home.

…seeing your dog wait for him by the front door and the disappointment when he doesn’t come home that night or the next, or the next.

…cooking for one.

…if the worst happens and they have to evacuate the boat underwater, your husband (the Executive Officer) will be the penultimate person to leave out of the 80 people.

…your wedding champagne transported from Russia in the torpedo tubes.

…the intense loneliness you feel in your heart when he has cast off.

…despite the smell a submariner’s homecoming is one of the sweetest moments in a submariner’s wife’s life.

…feeling supremely proud that he is a real man who needs nothing of life’s luxuries, survives in the most basic living conditions all to keep his family and country safe.

Submarine at sea


About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden.
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40 Responses to The Submariner’s Wife

  1. lovegood says:

    Great post! I have some concerns though, as I’m seriously dating someone who is about to go subs, and I could use your help sorting through my thoughts as I try to discern whether or not we can make a future together work considering our personal goals. Is there any way you could email me? Cheers!

  2. The Other Woman says:

    You ladies forgot to mention worrying about your man cheating while on liberty in foreign ports. I know so well, because I found out after the affair that he was, in fact, married. Feeling so disgusted.

    • Dusty Wilson says:

      On the other hand, every home port has those wives, often referred to as “Boomer Widows” who troll the bars looking for a hookup as soon as the last line is cast off.

  3. Karla Cantu says:

    My husband was on subs for the first 14 years of his now 25-year career. He commissioned in 2003 and has been on surface ships since. I remember “family grams,” those 40-word (actually 38 because the first word was his name and the last word was yours); we got REAL creative with our word usage! I had a neighbor whose husband was on a surface ship and they would actually fight through the mail (they actually got mail!). I remember not speaking to her for a while because she was squandering her communications.

    I won’t say that I *had* to do these things, but I am thankful that I was *able* to fix the timer on the washing machine, reload all of the software on the computer (Windows 98), I had one child 6 weeks early (he was a month old when he met his dad), and another 3 weeks early, for which Dad was home but was gone soon after. All the trials and tribulations… I wouldn’t change a thing; it made us both stronger.

    I had to laugh at the “sub smell.” A part of that is the recycled air that they use down there. Haunts me to this day!!! When I was pregnant with my second, he had just come home and one morning, I went outside to get the newspaper. When I came back to the front door, I couldn’t bring myself to go back in the house. I went to our bedroom window and knocked. When he came to the window, I told him that he’d have to take his sea bag out to the back porch! Yeah, just foul!!

    Thanks for taking me back to a world that I truly miss!!

    • Sharon says:

      Me too! My husband came out on the redundancies in ’94. After 6 years as a civvy, working 72 hrs a week to bring in a pittance, seeing our boys less than when he was in the mob, I took him to Navy Days & ‘gave’ him to the RFA! For the last 15 yrs it’s been ‘back to normal’ except that we speak more on the phone & the smell isn’t quite as bad!

  4. Debbie says:

    Very well written and accurate! I am a “retired” submariner’s wife being that he retired 20 years ago. We didn’t have computers, e-mail, cell phones, tweets, texts or Facebook. The only communication was Family Grams that you sent and he read or very expensive long distance phone calls when the sub did pull into port. We didn’t celebrate an anniversary together for the first 6 years we were married but he certainly made up for it on the 7th when he was home. The smell you refer to is what we called “diesel smell”. You actually learn to appreciate the smell because it means that he is home. It can be lonely especially if you don’t have kids or pets but the camaraderie with other wives of the crew makes all the difference. Brought back good memories for me! Thank You!

  5. Pingback: The Submariner’s Wife « theleansubmariner

  6. john albert clake says:

    20001/2 dived the boat (hms triumph,) fired water shot went in the engine room , bridge while steaming ahead thanks son never to be forgotten day, perhaps you can provide the picture

  7. A submariner says:

    It must be a nightmare sat at home on your arses spending all these wages while we have to live in a tube with people we hate. Are you kidding? You don’t have to worry about anything. Income, food, housing, bills, nothing. Stop whining, if you don’t like it get divorced. But oh no.. You’re not going to bin us off, we’re submariners.

    • Hardly whining, extremely proud in fact. SOme of us do earn our own wages and life is not just about income, food, housing and paying bills – it’s about having someone who loves you, who can’t wait to welcome you home. Perhaps u could get a dog rather than a wife/husband – but then you’d need to get a wife/husband to look after the dog when u are sailing…(i’d say you sounded a tad whiny)

      • SarahC says:

        Hear hear! I’m assuming ‘A Submariner’ is a single man if he truly believes we wives have nothing to worry about while they are away or that the wages are high enough to support some lavish lifestyle! I still had to work to help support the family whilst spending much of the time feeling like single parent to our three children (and of course the dogs too!). Not exactly the carefree, easy life that ‘A Submariner’ alludes to.

        I tolerated my husband’s job because he loved it – despite the living conditions on board. I did sometimes ask him to leave but I think deep down I knew that if he did our relationship wouldn’t last because his career was so important to him he wouldn’t be the same man without it. Many times I wished I’d fallen for a man with a normal civilian job but we don’t get to choose who we love.

        Thankfully my husband has finished his sea service now so long goodbyes are a thing of the past. I never moved from my home town, always wanted the kids to have a stable, fixed address so he still works away from home during the week but at least he’s only a few hours away when one of the kids gets sick or the roof gets blown off the shed etc!

        As for that strange unique smell – loved that as it always meant he was home at last 🙂

    • ALSO a submariner says:

      WTF are you talking about. They go through just as much as we do. You just dont see it because you’re too busy whining about all the petty little bull shit that we deal with underway. If you cant handle it then tap and leave it to real submariners that just shut up and get the job done. Grow up, stop whining, and show some appreciation for the women that CHOSE to wait at home for us every time we leave.

    • ex Navy and a dad of a bubblehead says:

      Either you are not married or have been and not now…. with an attitude like this..
      Sub wives are the toughest breed of Navy.

    • Jennifer says:

      Way to be a douche bro.

      I didn’t care for some of the bs in the article, like I got a job and it pays me so I travel and have someone take care of my dog. I don’t feel bad for him, he signed up and is just doing his job. Small boat? Suck it up or join the army if you want a pool & Starbucks.

      BUT it’s not easy sitting in silence while your bubble head husband is out chasing whales (jk).

      Everyone’s doing their best, so quit being a dick just because some women are dependapotomuses.

  8. Srawat says:

    Loved reading your post and the conversations that followed.. right balance of facts, analysis and humour. Was looking for some information on the topic to take some decision about future, this helped a lot. I have read quite a bit on this theme (this being the only one by Indian) and realized what I already knew, happiness is not in external conditions, it is in your attitude. Your attitude and spirit is admirable. But what I have understood is (and I would like you to comment if my analysis is correct):

    A submariner’s wife has to learn to be independent and take responsibility of all household chores
    She has to build her own community (not keep husband at the centre of her life) around whom she can be happy
    Be prepared to be both mummy and father to kids at times
    Not equate husband’s presence with her happiness or she will be depressed most times
    Learn to be comfortable with uncertainty of plans/ outstation visits
    Must absolutely believe in his work and appreciate it

    Since most things around his life are non negotiable, I guess the wife has to adjust..I am really scared of making compromises to be a good wife and in the process giving up on everything that I want to do.. for example travel and work.

    I want to know.. is it easy for working girls to continue their work easily..? I love is a big source of energy in my life. Im in Development sector (you are a sociologist.. would know about NGOs)- it is possible to continue that.. travel occasionally?

    Also, do submariners get weekend offs? Is it possible for couples to go out for short trips/ 2-3 day once in 2 months? How often do you guys travel together?

    Also are the norms in Navy very rigid..? do you always have to behave in a certain way/ follow definite codes in social spaces- like informal gatherings? Or you can be casual.. just be who you are.. say what you want..?

    • Thank you for reading! I get the feeling you are about to marry someone in the navy…?!
      So here are my replies to your questions:
      Your analysis is spot on. And for any woman, navy wife or not, it is vital to have your independence and own identity. The Navy is a community and you will find your own friends here too – some of them will become very dear to you and so will the Navy. The separation from your husband and being your own person comes with a level of maturity. If you believe that distance makes the heart grow fonder then you are in luck! But the Navy gives you everything – a house, medical facilities, your daily rations and a community of friends. As for being a working Navy wife – we are not a rare breed! BUT i think it is more difficult when you have pets and/or children. It all depends on where u are posted and if you are doing NGO work like I am you should be able to fit in anywhere. Navy postings are in big cities unlike the army. So Cochin, CHennai, Vizag, Bombay, Delhi and now Karwad are the usual places. SUbmarines are BOmbay and Vizag only. Travelling for work with a man who is sailing a lot and if you have kids/pets is very difficult. I put my career on hold for 2 years till my husband got a job on shore because i have a dog. If you have parents willing to do the looking after, you may get away with it.
      Regarding etiquette etc, one does have to behave (even on online social networks) but it’s not like these formal social occasions are that often and there’s plenty more ocasions to let your hair down. There are no rules for parties in your own home or with friends. Life is definitely not rigid. People are very friendly and there is a great camaraderie. There will also be many young wives like you and finding friends within your husband’s unit and where you live will not be hard. If you like to be sociable and make friends you’ll do very well. If you are a loner, that persona will suit the lifestyle too.
      They do get weekends off and you can take days off when he’s not at sea. You can take a month long vacation as well if planned in advance. Because i work too, we are in the habit of taking month long vacations travelling around the country with our dog. Some people prefer many short breaks to one long one.

      Do keep in touch via email if you have any questions, doubts or anxieties. Happy to guide you through this. – both the navy and ngo aspects.You have to learn to adapt to new people, places and situations but that’s a great quality to develop in life anyway.
      All the best,
      nonsense girl.

  9. Synergy says:

    Same could be said for submariner’s husbands… I am a female submariner in Canada. I can relate to most of this on the side of the submariner!

    • Submariner’s husbands must be a very rare breed – truthfully i did not know that Canada had admitted women in to their submarine arm. I’d love to hear about your experiences sometime.

      • Synergy says:

        In fact there are now about 10 women in Canada who serve on submarines… not a lot I know. It’s slow going… I was one of the first 4 who qualified. I earned my ‘dolphins’ in 2006 and sailed north, south to Caribbean, and across the Atlantic on our subs. Since ours are smaller being diesel boats, we have less room for crew quarters, and we sleep in the same bunk space as the men. (Everyone sleeps in their coveralls anyway in case of emergency so it doesn’t really matter). Women shower in the Officer’s washplace since it’s basically like an airplane bathroom with a shower (and the door shuts so it’s fully enclosed). Our crews are only 60 tops and that’s with 10 trainees on board. My trade is sonar op – (same as sonar tech in the USA). It’s not an easy job, being submerged for long periods etc and the hardest part was being accepted by the men on board as one of the crew… but being one of the first women to qualify I feel like my hardships helped pave the way for future women who want to engage this challenging but very rewarding career path.

      • I’m so glad you replied. WOmen in the submarine arm is a conversation we have at most dinners when the officers and families get together. Apart from protecting oneself from the raging hormones, what is the argument about pregnancy and maternity leave. The argument here is that I will lose a crew member for x number of months… What are your views/the navy and your colleagues’ views on that issue? thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  10. Kirsty Banham says:

    I’m very proud of my husband who too was on a submarine , it’s a difficult life for the men and for the wives who then have to keep normality going at home,

  11. Oh man…even now just when my husband comes home earlier, my dog is too enthusiastic…as though my husband had been gone forever. I can only imagine what it would be like when my husband comes home from a deployment. I am also a Submariner’s Wife.

  12. Leanne Evans says:

    Im a veteran submariner’s wife (he’s out now), he was in the Royal Navy. Whilst some of what you say is lost in translation, most of it is absolutely, hilariously true. The smell never goes from the bag they take on board!

    Good luck to you all 🙂 x

  13. Linda Weber says:

    I have a son who is a submariner and I see all the problems his family has to suck it up on. I am so proud of him and his wife.

  14. Louise says:

    It is the coming home smell from the old diesel subs that was bad. The clothes stayed outside until you were ready to wash them. I still remember those days at 70.
    Thanks for the fun read.

  15. gkorula says:

    Fantastic news about your boxer! Dogs have a wonderful survival spirit that we can learn from. I hope you get a chance to read the adventures of our Lab Abroozi on the page Dog Days. Your reunion with your husband will be SWEEEET 😉

  16. gkorula says:

    I’m sure you’ll treasure your “proper” wedding day so much more when it does happen, purely because you can’t be sure when it will be. What’s life without a little living on the edge, eh. Your husband is very lucky to be on Trident rather than the more cramped and stuffy diesel subs we have in India. Perhaps he’ll be a little less smelly on his return!
    What breed of dog do you have? A dog is a wonderful companion when your man is away. But I’m very sorry to hear about your dog’s cancer. I hope he recovers in time. Positive energy is what you need through these times. You are superwoman – never doubt that! And when he eventually does get a shore posting, or the times when he is on shore, you will have such special memories together. Some couples can’t get used to the “intrusion” when their spouse comes back from a long time apart and others pine away desperately for their return. Balance is what you need. Glad you liked the post! Keep reading.

    • J. Darling says:

      I have a boxer dog. He’s GREAT company. 🙂 He did lose his 2 back toes and it’s been a LONG month for him, but he’s walking without a limp without the toes and his energy is back to it’s normal puppy-like state. We just got the “all clear” this morning. 🙂 I’m already looking forward to him being back, and he hasn’t even been gone a full week yet! But I have confidence everything will work out.

  17. J. Darling says:

    What a great post! I’m a new Navy wife myself and my husband just left about a week ago for his first deployment. THANK GOD I’m used to being independent and THANK GOD I have a dog! (of course, he does whine a bit more now that ‘dad’ is gone.)
    We were actually planning our wedding when we got his orders, so we eloped before hand and are planning a wedding next fall, but, of course, that’s not set in stone either – yet. He’s on Tridents, so no phone calls EVER. Could be worse though! He could be on the front lines! Stay busy and keep laughing ladies. It’ll get us through anything. (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the dog had cancer and had to have 2 of his back toes removed the week before my sailor left… and the week before deployment is SO busy, guess who worked full time, dealt with the recovering dog and the deploying husband all at once? Makes me feel like superwoman looking back on it now!) We have a little ace in our pocket though – we started long distance. My father also travels extensively for business (not military) and my folks have been married for over 40 years now. So maybe there is something to it afterall.

  18. Pingback: Submarine movie marathon « nonsense girl

  19. gkorula says:

    I’d like to add another “you get used to” …wanting to punch in the face a Surface Navy wife (who gets to speak to her husband via Satellite Phone every other day) when she cribs that she hasn’t heard from her man for 2 days…when you’ve been going on 2 weeks with no communication

    • Arthur Lane says:

      Skimmer idiots

    • Mrs B Stewart says:

      How dare u criticise surface wifes. My husband did 32yrs, of which i did 30 & a half of them yrs, i brought our daughter up, looked after the dog & cats, I lived through the Falklands war, my father died, while my husband wa down the Falklands fighting for his life,saw friends die, u dont know the half of it. I see u never mention all the extra money u get,no. My daughters best friend is married to a Submariner, her father was one, she is a strong person wirh 2 young children and she has & will survive. The only diff btween subs & surface is the communication, even though surface wives can go up to 6 wks, no mail. The rest is the same whatever rate you r in the Royal Navy, believe me, i speak from experience.

      • U are right, it is just the communication factor, and the smell, not bathing etc. We still have diesel subs here. Admittedly punch is too strong a word, i apologise. Fortunately, my country has not gone to war since my husband or I have been born. Bringing up kids with a husband or mum serving is very tough. You seem to have juggled a lot. Yes, submariners here too get a little extra for the risks they take.

  20. gkorula says:

    Glad you enjoyed it! Humour is the best way through uncertainty. The sociologist in me would love to study the marriages of Submariners compared to other people who see their spouse every day. Does distance really make the heart grow fonder…or does it induce tachycardia?

    • Karla Cantu says:

      I will tell you that I had a Holter monitor attached when my husband returned from one of his patrols. They noted “intermittent periods of tachycardia.” Ya think??? That was hysterical!!

  21. Alka Ganesh says:

    Brought real tears, and also admiration for the writer who can laugh her way through the undercurrent of uncertainty she has to live through on a daily basis. Admiration also for the “hero” who like many others in our armed forces do the unseen, often un-noticed, but most important, job, of allowing us (minus their families) all to sleep peacefully at night nary a care for modern day “Genghis Khan”. Alka

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