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Monday September 28, 2009

Life in a metal tube

Submariners live in a confined space, eat only boiled food and have to share just one toilet with some 30 others.

JERRY Koyoh can vividly recall the sheer terror of his first dive in a Cold War-era submarine that took a 300m descent in the Atlantic Ocean some four years ago.

The creaks, loud buzzing and drops of leaking sea water sent shivers down his spine as he and his crewmates in the 1970s-made training submarine submerged off France.

But the 34-year-old got a grip of his fears and sized up the situation as he came face-to-face with the reality of his new line of work as a submariner with the Royal Malay­sian Navy.

Local stop: Malaysia’s first submarine, the KD Tunku Abdul Rahman, docking at Port Klang in Selangor before proceeding to Sepanggar Naval Base in Sabah. – K.K. Sham / The Star

Today, working and living in a submarine has become second nature to Sabah-born Koyoh, who is among Malaysia’s first 32 qualified submariners who underwent and passed an intensive four-year training course in France.

“The condition of the training sub scared me but you slowly learn to ascertain the risk factors and how to handle them,” said the Chief Petty Officer, after the welcoming ceremony for the sub at its permanent base in Sepanggar Bay, Kota Kinabalu, on Sept 17.


An ethnic Kadazandusun from Kampung Mandap in Kota Belud, he is one of three submariners who constantly monitor oxygen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels in Malaysia’s first submarine, the KD Tunku Abdul Rahman.

“My team has to ensure there is sufficient air in the submarine by closely monitoring the air levels in the electronic panels,” he said, explaining that the French-made Scorpene would surface for fresh air if needed.

For Koyoh, who formerly served on patrol vessel KD Musytari based in Kuantan, the shift from a deck to underwater boat has not been easy.

“Everything in a submarine is computerised and we have to learn a lot of technicalities compared to serving on a combat ship.


“It took me some time but slowly I’ve learned and I’m still improving my understanding of the various technical aspects that will ensure not only my survival but all of us on board,” said the soft-spoken submariner who never thought that he would be part of the Navy’s historic submarine team.

“I only have an SPM, and today I am back in my home state serving onboard Malaysia’s pride,” he said.

Koyoh and his colleagues on KD Tunku Abdul Rahman under commander Capt Zulhelmy Ithnain (who with 24 years of service received his promotion as Captain when he arrived in Sepanggar) have come a long way from the day they volunteered to join the Navy’s elite submarine squad.

Different lifestyle

From adjusting to eating fresh (or rather near-raw meats and fish) French food to learning to master the complex operations of the submarine, they have forged a special bond – a brotherhood that is vital since they will be spending very long periods in the depths of the oceans.

“There is no day or night, no sunrise or sunset; we work and live inside a windowless submarine for days, guided only by sonar (sound navigation).

“It is tough but you get the hang of things, and we spend most our time working and training on our trip home,’’ explained Armizar Che Morad, 31, who hails from Kuala Lumpur.

Decorated: Commanding Officer Zulhelmy Ithnain (centre) receiving his Captain rank from Royal Malaysian Navy Chief Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar (right) and his deputy Laksamana Madya Datuk Moham-med Noordin Ali (left) during a ceremony after the KD Tunku Abdul Rahman arrived at Sepanggar Naval Base.

On their 57-day trip from Toulon in southern France to Sepanggar, the submarine made six stops: Toulon, Djibouti (in eastern Africa), Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), Cochin (India) and finally, Port Klang and Lumut.

During Ramadan, the Muslim crew based their fasting hours on the sunrise and sunset times of the countries they were passing through.

“You don’t really get the same feeling of fasting as you do when on land though,” said Armizar, a father of two, who nevertheless fulfilled his religious obligations while in the submarine.

In the underwater boat, where all amenities are minimal, the prayer area itself can accommodate only two persons at one time.

The submariners have to traverse a narrow passageway that is sandwiched between equipment, hatches and panels, to special rooms for specific operations in each flank.

Over the causeway: The latest submarine, the RSS Archer, acquired by the Singapore Navy. It was built in Sweden by Kockums AB and is seen here at its launch in Sweden on June 16, 2009. – Pic courtesy of Kockums AB

Nine crewmen are rostered each time, rotating in three shifts varying from two to four hours. As for sleep, the 31 men (excluding the commander) have to squeeze into, and share, 28 bunk beds – four in each tier, with hardly a foot between them.

“You just have to lie still, you can’t turn your body much,’’ said a crewman. The crew sleep at staggered and irregular hours. The sub sticks to the time of the home base when it leaves port.

There are only two toilets – a urinal and a lavatory.

“Well, you can guess what will happen if there is more then one person wanting to do the big job urgently – there will be a lot of door banging,” joked crewman Nik Zaaba Nik Abdullah, as he explained that sewage goes into a special tank that is discharged into the ocean when full.

The mess room can fit only 12 personnel at one time, and all food served is boiled as no cooking with oil and fire is allowed.

Home: The submariners are glad to be back in their homeland after an intensive four-year training course overseas

Maintaining health

The crew usually have the best food in the first week underwater. After that, whatever else is left will become the main menu for the rest of the journey until they reach their next port.

They reportedly even have a diet – no soft drinks or high carbohydrates as they have to watch their weight. Exercise is confined to the use of dumb-bells and light calis­thenics due to space constraints.

And lest we forget, the all-important nourishment, water, is pro­­duced on board through reverse osmosis. This is supplemented with canned mineral water and juices.

Being healthy is important as the closed confines mean it is easy for contagious ailments to spread. The only medical attention they can get is from paramedics. Serious injuries involve calling for an airlift (the request is done through satellite phone but it can then compromise the sub’s position). As their position is a security issue, they have to be incommunicado, which means they cannot even contact their families while on board.

Cabin fever

Psychological stress is another health issue as being in closed confines for long periods can give rise to “cabin fever”. The crew members have already passed a stringent psychological aptitude test as part of their selection process.

Besides a healthy diet, exercise and avenues of entertainment, said submarine operations head Navy First Admiral Rosland Omar, the crew is updated on current world news courtesy of the support team ashore.

“When they are back from a mission, the crew will be evaluated with the help of the captain; anyone showing signs of stress will be referred to a psychologist. We have had no problems so far,” said Rosland.

During their free time, the crewmen get to play chess, Scrabble and other board games. They also put on DVDs or play games on handheld PlayStations at the mess when it is not being used for meals.

But there is not much play time on board for the pioneer submariners. When they are not performing their specified tasks on board, they are in training and learning all aspects of other operations of the Scorpene submarine.

“There’s quite a lot of routine in our activities, we can get bored,” said Lt Comm Chan Ling Ket, 31, from Kangar.

“The best and coolest thing about being a submariner is that you are part of an elite group and you get to go places underwater.

“The most important requirement is to be a team player because that is the only way it works in the submarine,” added Chan.

The submariners are “Jack of all trades and master of all”, Navy chief Admiral Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Jaafar observed, and each man must know how to handle all aspects of the sub’s operations.

Service time

The Government pays special initiative allowances for the submariners that range from RM1,400 to RM3,000 for the officers, and between RM1,100 and RM1,500 for the other ranks. A rating (the lowest rank equivalent to a private) can take home a mininum wage of RM4,400 inclusive of these special allowances, while Capt Zulhelmy might see a pay packet of at least RM15,100.

The Navy is also asking the Government to double the submariners’ “service time’’ for each year served. Aziz said that if they served two years as a submariner, they could be considered to have served four years. This would be similar to benefits given to submariners in other countries where service time is even tripled for some.

The KD Tunku Abdul Rahman is the first of two Scorpene submarines acquired from a consortium comprising Armaris of France and Navantia of Spain. It is a RM3.4bil package deal that also includes a second-hand Agosta submarine for training.

The diesel-electric attack Scorpene has an overall length of 67.56m, is 6.2m wide and 12.30m high, and is capable of submerging for 45 days. It can move at a speed of 20 knots underwater and 10 knots on the surface.

Reporters covering the arrival of the Scorpene submarine at its home base in Sepanggar were allowed to take a look inside the boat but were forbidden to describe or photograph the experience for security reasons.

The KD Tunku Abdul Rahman was constructed in Cherbourg, France, while the second submarine, the KD Tun Abdul Razak, made in Cartagena, Spain, is expected to be commissioned next month and will be received by March next year.

A total of 96 men have been trained, with the second batch of 32 crewmen set to serve in the second sub, while the remaining 32 men will form the reserve submariner team.

The acquisition of the two submarines makes Malaysia the fourth Asean country after Singa­pore, Indonesia and Vietnam (which currently has two midget subs of doubtful status, but are reputed to be negotiating with Russia for delivery of six submarines) to have submarines in their navy.

The KD Tunku Abdul Rahman is equipped with six torpedo tubes which can fire simultaneously, anti-ship surface missiles and anti-submarine torpedoes, and mines.

The submarines are expected to be used for defence purposes, to patrol our waters and be a deterrent to potential threats.

As Malaysia marks a milestone in its naval history, Chan describes the task of a submariner as a “tough and long routine”, something far removed from what is portrayed in adrenalin-pumping Hollywood action movies such as Crimson Tide and The Hunt For Red October. – Additional reporting by S.S. Yoga

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