Happy Holidays. This week we are reprinting our top stories of 2020. This article first appeared online in our “Outbreak” issue in April, 2020.
I’m no stranger to forced isolation. For the better part of my 20s, I served as a nuclear submarine officer running secret missions for the United States Navy. I deployed across the vast Pacific Ocean with a hundred other sailors on the USS Connecticut, a Seawolf-class ship engineered in the bygone Cold War era to be one of the fastest, quietest, and deepest-diving submersibles ever constructed. The advanced reactor was loaded with decades of enriched uranium fuel that made steam for propulsion and electrical power so we could disappear under the waves indefinitely without returning to port. My longest stint was for two months, when I traveled under the polar ice cap to the North Pole with a team of scientists studying the Arctic environment and testing high frequency sonar and acoustic communications for under-ice operations. During deployments, critical-life events occur without you: holidays with loved ones, the birth of a child, or in my case, the New York Giants 2011-2012 playoff run to beat Tom Brady’s Patriots in the Super Bowl for the second time. On the bright side, being cut off from the outside world was a great first job for an introvert.
It’s been a month since COVID-19 involuntarily drafted me into another period of isolation far away from home. I’m in Turkey, where a two-week trip with my partner to meet her family has been extended indefinitely. There were no reported cases here and only a few in California in early March when we left San Francisco, where I run a business design studio. I had a lot of anticipation about Turkey because I’d never been here. Now I’m sheltering in a coastal town outside of Izmir with my partner, her parents, their seven cats, and a new puppy.
Shuttered in a house on foreign soil where I don’t speak the language, I have found myself snapping back into submarine deployment mode. Each day I dutifully monitor online dashboards of data and report the status of the spread at the breakfast table to no one in particular. I stay in touch with friends and family all over the world who tell me they’re going stir crazy and their homes are getting claustrophobic. But if there is one thing my experience as a submarine officer taught me, it’s that you get comfortable being uncomfortable.
My training began with psychological testing, although it may not be what you think. Evaluating mental readiness for underwater isolation isn’t conducted in a laboratory by clipboard-toting, spectacled scientists. The process to select officers was created by Admiral Hyman Rickover—the engineering visionary and noted madman who put the first nuclear reactor in a submarine—to assess both technical acumen and composure under stress. For three decades as the director of the Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, Rickover tediously interviewed every officer, and the recruiting folklore is a true HR nightmare: locking candidates in closets for hours, asking obtuse questions such as “Do something to make me mad,” and sawing down chair legs to literally keep one off balance.
Rickover retired from the Navy as its longest-serving officer and his successors carried on the tradition of screening each officer candidate, but with a slightly more dignified approach. Rickover’s ghost, though, seemed to preside over my interview process when I applied to be a submariner as a junior at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. I was warned by other midshipmen that I would fail on the spot if I initiated a handshake. So, dressed in my formal navy blue uniform and doing my best to avoid tripping into accidental human contact, I rigidly marched into the Admiral’s office, staring straight ahead while barking my resume. When I took a seat on the unaltered and perfectly level chair in front of his desk, the Admiral asked me bluntly why I took so many philosophy classes and if I thought I could handle the technical rigors of nuclear power school. My response was a rote quip from John Paul Jones’ “Qualifications of a Naval Officer.” “Admiral, an officer should be a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.” My future boss looked at me, shook his head like he thought I’d be a handful, and told me I got the job.
Confinement opened something up in my psyche and I gave myself permission to let go of my anxieties.
Nuclear power training is an academic kick in the face every day for over a year. The curriculum is highly technical and the pedagogy resembles a cyborg assembly-line without even a hint of the Socratic method. Our grades were conspicuously posted on the classroom wall and a line was drawn between those who passed and those who failed. I was below the line enough to earn the distinguished dishonor of 25 additional study hours each week, which meant I was at school at 5 a.m. and every weekend. This is how the Nuclear Navy builds the appropriate level of knowledge and right temperament to deal with shipboard reactor operations.
I finally sat down for a formal psychological evaluation a few months before my first deployment. I was ushered into a room no bigger than a broom closet and instructed to click through a computer-based questionnaire with multiple-choice questions about my emotions. I never did learn the results, so I assume my responses didn’t raise too many red flags.
During my first year onboard, I spent all my waking hours either supervising reactor operations or learning the intricacies of every inch of the 350-foot tube and the science behind how it all worked. The electrolysis machine that split water molecules to generate oxygen was almost always out of commission, so instead we burned chlorate candles that produced breathable air. Seawater was distilled each day for drinking and shower water. Our satellite communications link had less bandwidth than my dial-up modem in the 1990s and we were permitted to send text-only emails to friends and family at certain times and in certain locations so as not to risk being detected. I took tests every month to demonstrate proficiency in nuclear engineering, navigation, and the battle capabilities of the ship. When I earned my submarine warfare qualification, the Captain pinned the gold dolphins insignia on my uniform and gave me the proverbial keys to the $4 billion warship. At that point, I was responsible for coordinating missions and navigating the ship as the Officer of the Deck.
Modern submarines are hydrodynamically shaped to have the most efficient laminar flow underwater, so that’s where we operated 99 percent of the time. The rare exception to being submerged is when we’d go in and out of port. The most unfortunate times were long transits tossing about in heavy swells, which made for a particularly nauseated cruise. To this day, conjuring the memory of some such sails causes a reflux flashback. A submariner’s true comfort zone is beneath the waves so as soon as we broke ties with the pier we navigated toward water that was deep enough for us to dive.
It’s unnatural to stuff humans, torpedoes, and a nuclear reactor into a steel boat that’s intentionally meant to sink. This engineering marvel ranks among the most complex, and before we’d proceed below and subject the ship and its inhabitants to extreme sea pressures, the officers would visually inspect thousands of valves to verify the proper lineup of systems that would propel us to the surface if we started flooding uncontrollably and sinking—a no-mistakes procedure called rigging for dive. Once we’d slip beneath the waves, the entire crew would walk around to check for leaks before we’d settle into a rotation of standing watch, practicing our casualty drills, engineering training, eating, showering (sometimes), and sleeping (rarely). The full cycle was 18 hours, which meant the timing of our circadian cycles were constantly changing. Regardless of the amount of government-issued Folger’s coffee I’d pour down my throat, I’d pass out upon immediate contact with my rack (the colloquialism for a submarine bunk in which your modicum of privacy was symbolized by a cloth curtain).
As an officer, I lived luxuriously with only two other grown men in a stateroom no bigger than a walk-in closet. Most of the crew slept stacked like lumber in an 18-person bunk room and they all took turns in the rack. This alternative lifestyle is known as hot-racking, because of the sensation you get when you crawl into bedding that’s been recently occupied. The bunk rooms are sanctuaries where silence is observed with monastic intensity. Slamming the door or setting an alarm clock was a cardinal sin so wakeups were conducted by a junior sailor who gently coaxed you awake when it was time to stand watch. Lieutenant Weiner, it’s time to wake up. You’ve got the midnight watch, sir. Words that haunt my dreams.
The electrolysis machine was out of commission, so we burned chlorate candles that produced breathable air.
I maintained some semblance of sanity and physical fitness by sneaking a workout on a rowing erg in the engine room or a stationary bike squeezed between electronics cabinets. The rhythmic beating of footsteps on a treadmill was a noise offender—the sound could be detected on sonar from miles away—so we shut it off unless we were in friendly waters where we weren’t concerned with counter-detection.
Like a heavily watered-down version of a Buddhist monk taking solitary retreat in a cave, my extended submarine confinements opened something up in my psyche and I gave myself permission to let go of my anxieties. Transiting underneath a vast ocean in a vessel with a few inches of steel preventing us from drowning helps put things into perspective. Now that I’m out of the Navy, I have more appreciation for the freedoms of personal choice, a fresh piece of fruit, and 24 hours in a day. My only regrets are not keeping a journal or having the wherewithal to discover the practice of meditation under the sea.
Today, I’m learning Turkish so I can understand more about what’s happening around me. I’m doing Kundalini yoga (a moving meditation that focuses on breathwork) and running on the treadmill (since I’m no longer concerned about my footsteps being detected on sonar). On my submarine, I looked at photos to stay connected to the world I left behind, knowing that I’d return soon enough. Now our friend who is isolating in our apartment in San Francisco sends us pictures of our cat and gives us reports about how the neighborhood has changed.
It’s hard to imagine that we’ll resume our lifestyles exactly as they were. But the submariner in me is optimistic that we have it in us to adapt to whatever conditions are waiting for us when it’s safe to ascend from the depths and return to the surface.
Steve Weiner is the founder of Very Scarce, a business design studio. He used to lead portfolio companies at Expa and drive nuclear submarines in the U.S. Navy. He has an MBA from The Wharton School and a BS from the U.S. Naval Academy. Instagram: @steve Twitter: @weenpeace
Lead image: Mike H. / Shutterstock