The few pictures I have of that dreadful boat have Facebook captions like, “ten seconds before five of the most uncomfortable minutes of my life. Don’t go in old soviet submarines if you value space, hygiene, safety or life in general.”
Some context, perhaps. I spent a solid month in Germany this summer. My last few days were spent in Hamburg—Germany’s second-largest city and the second-largest port town in Europe. On the night train from Bamberg to Hamburg, I made sure I had a few attractions circled for the next day, minor preparations for walking off a hangover I’d brew in one of the most famous red light districts in the world, the Reeperbahn. One of the sights that caught my attention was the Soviet submarine U-434.
A member of the Soviet Navy since it was launched in 1976, this Tango-class sub spends its retirement as a museum docked on the River Elbe. I was traveling with one of my closest friends, Mike. Mike and I share a love of submarine movies, so he didn’t need any convincing to walk the few miles from our hostel down to the docks.
As soon as I walked down the spiral staircase, I realized I could not turn around and go back out the one-way entrance. The only exit was on the other end of the ship. The ship is five feet short of a football field in length, although I only had to walk about half of that.
If I haven’t given it away, it was a claustrophile’s paradise. You could hardly manage a shuffle behind a family of Turkish immigrants and with Scandinavian tourists breathing down your neck. Crouching was a must.
Also, it made me doubt the party propaganda around the magnificence of Soviet workmanship. My only thought: “Tetanus!”
Jim Morrison coming out of my headphones wasn’t helping either, “Five to one, baby/ One in five/ No one here gets out alive.”
I left Mike behind, and he surfaced out the other end ten or so minutes later to find me sucking heavily on a cigarette.
What was most shocking was the lack of space. I can hear you saying, “Well, no ship—it is, after all, a submarine.” Yes, I had acknowledged the fact that Hollywood might have made submarines look a bit roomier than the real deal, but nothing quite prepares you for being trapped like a greasy sardine. I hadn’t even left the port—the ship was DOCKED. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be out at sea, way out away from the dock, Ahoy!
And yet, I would not turn down the opportunity to revisit any fictionalization of these metal tubes filled with sweat and Spam. Why? Well, that’s for next time. As far as my own limited experience, it has taught me to only reenter a submarine if it is through a pair of Hollywood lenses.