What it's like to live on nuclear submarine HMS Victorious
As Royal Navy subs prepare to let women join crew, our reporter takes her maiden voyage
Up periscope: Our Allison tries out a nuclear submarine
The sailor stands in front of me... looking his new shipmate up and down.
Then, pointing at my handbag, he says: “Ma’am, I’m afraid I need you to give me your perfume please. And your deodorant. And your mobile phone. Thank you.”
Bag emptied, he glances at my shoulder-length locks and adds: “And your hair really needs to be tied back.”
It sounds like a robbery at sea. In fact I’ve just become the first woman to receive orders aboard a nuclear submarine.
Three months ago Defence Secretary Philip Hammond announced the lifting of the ban on females serving on subs.
And the first woman captain will take command of a Royal Navy frigate in just eight weeks.
The Sunday Mirror was given exclusive access to a submarine to see what lies in store for the new wave of female recruits.
I join the 160-strong male crew on HMS Victorious, one of four Royal Navy subs that carry Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Trident ballistic missiles.
She spends three months at a time sneaking around the ocean at walking pace, her exact position known to only a handful of people. If another vessel comes near, she is undetectable and slinks off into the abyss.
Within minutes of boarding, I am left in no doubt of the life-or-death nature of the crew’s job.
After being led to the control room, senior members of the sub’s crew point me towards a safe.
Inside it is another safe. And inside that it is a handwritten letter from David Cameron to the boat’s captain, Commander John Livesey.
It can only be opened if the PM dies in a nuclear attack and contains his orders for what to do next. No one knows what they are...
Hardly surprising, then, that safety is an obsession. And I soon learn why I was “stripped” of all my girlie essentials.
Sailors cannot use aerosols because they release chemicals that cannot be removed by its air-conditioning unit. Lashings of perfume and aerosol deodorants would contaminate the atmosphere, which is constantly monitored.
My phone is locked away because if there was a gas leak, a spark from a mobile could light it.
My hairstyle comes under scrutiny when I learn how to put on a huge rubber oxygen mask and plug it into the sub’s emergency air supply.
The sailors were concerned the hair might slow down putting on a mask in an emergency, so I must tie it back.
There’s no make-up or nail varnish either. You’re there to fight for your country, not fiddle with eyeliner.
HMS Victorious is a claustrophobic warren of corridors, messes and cabins, with steep ladders linking the decks. It’s a war machine, not a cruise liner, so nothing is signposted.
Messes are far too small for everyone to sit down at the same time, so sailors grab their meals then move on. It’s no surprise not everyone on board knows each other.
“You see someone towards the end of a patrol and think, ‘who on Earth are you?’” says Able Seaman John “Neep” Edward, 33.
“You can start a conversation with a friend at the beginning of a patrol, not see them for five or six weeks, then pick it up again where you left off.”
The only contact the crew have with the outside world is in the form of two 60-word “family gram” messages a week from home. They cannot reply as a transmission could reveal the sub’s position.
“You have to treat a family gram like a postcard. It’s more to help morale. It’s to know life’s still going on,” says Petty Officer Michael “Knocka” White, 41.
No one is told if a loved one dies until HMS Victorious returns to port. She cannot surface to let them leave for fear of being detected. “It’s a 24/7 commitment,” says Lieutenant David Boulton, 28. “You just have to get on with it.”
In the sleeping messes, dozens of bunks are stacked three high, with an aisle just wide enough to walk down. Drawing the narrow bed’s curtain is the only privacy the junior ranks get.
A 15-bed female mess with two toilets and a shower will be built in HMS Victorious by 2015, when women will make up about 10 per cent of the crew.
As the only woman on board I get a spare officer’s cabin with two bunks, a sink and a desk the size of a laptop.
The conditions are so cramped I have to do a three-point turn to get from the sink to the doorway.
During my three days on board with no sunlight I soon slip into this top- secret world. There is no TV and both alcohol and cigarettes are banned, as is touching a member of the opposite sex.
Lying in my bunk at night I constantly hear people quietly moving and working around me.
There is the distant laughter of the night watch, early morning intercom broadcasts as the boat surfaces and a clatter from the galley as chefs bake the day’s bread.
To keep up with demand for clean uniforms, two washing machines churn non-stop, getting through 160kg of Navy-issue washing powder per patrol.
Crew often pack their own floral conditioning tabs “to make everything smell a bit sweeter” – a bit optimistic given the vessel’s stench of machinery.
To purify sea water for drinking it is heated into steam by the nuclear reactor which powers the sub, then cooled, with the salt removed.
A submarine the size of HMS Victorious can make up to 10,000 gallons of water a day. Dirty water is stored in bilge tanks which are regularly emptied.
But on one of my days on board, the water purifying process has to be halted. All I get to sort out my armpits is a small basin of water... a shame given that my smellies are still under lock and key.
But in the end it isn’t missing home comforts that gets to me. It’s all those steps. To reach the hatches to get outside you have to climb terrifying-looking cold metal ladders.
And using them requires the use of shoulder and leg muscles no exercise class has ever reached.
Luckily I’d been warned to bring big sturdy boots with rubber soles.
They come in handy to meet the men with one of the most important jobs on the submarine... the watch keepers, who stand on the bridge when the submarine is on the surface.
To reach them I climb a long slog of three ladders. My reward at the top is an icy blast of wind and a 360-degree view of the sea with white-topped waves and small Scottish islands in the distance.
“If it’s really bad and waves are crashing over the top of the conning tower, we have to be harnessed in or we could be swept away,” says watch navigator Lieutenant Anthony “Ginge” Drummond, 28.
Nearly everyone works defence watches of six hours on, six hours off, seven days a week without breaks.
Sitting with the crew, I immediately feel part of the team. Before boarding I’d read comments suggesting women might not be welcome.
“Hope they don’t ask them to reverse a sub,” said one blogger.
“Not sure how they will cope without a Tesco at the bottom of sea,” another wrote.
But the men on HMS Victorious are all relaxed about the arrival of women.
What matters to people like Chief Petty Officer Robert “Rab” Burns, 46, is that the job gets done... safely. “I don’t have a problem with women starting, they’re entitled to do the job,” he says. “They’ll be just as good – and just as bad – as us.”
Commander Livesey, 40, points out that women already serve in US, Norwegian, Danish and Spanish boats: “I think it will only be an issue if we make it one.”
Any concerns that these guys might not quite be telling the truth is dispelled as I leave the boat.
As I scramble up the ladder my leg gets caught and I fall flat on my face at the feet of the commander.
But my Bridget Jones moment isn’t met with laughs or mickey-taking. Instead he simply puts his head to one side, smiles politely and salutes me on my way...
“Safe onward journey, Ali.”