BREST, France -- What is it like, sharing the cramped and stuffy quarters in a submarine with 70 other men?
"It is a little uncomfortable at first due to the smaller space compared to that on a surface ship," said Petty Officer Bruce Juhay.
"Imagine living in a sunless room packed with equipment and people for weeks on end without ever seeing the world outside. Or being in a long queue, waiting for your turn to use one of the only two toilets available onboard early in the morning.
"We have to take turns even to eat because of the limited space in the dining quarters. I've definitely become more appreciative of the basic facilities available on land after each journey," said the Kuching-born Bruce, laughing.
The irony of working in a submarine is to be surrounded by so much water but to have very little for basic use.
"Water is so precious inside a submarine," said Lt Chan Ling Ket, 28.
"A limited amount of fresh water is supplied for a voyage and the distillation plant onboard can only process so much daily. Bear in mind the number of men onboard and the amount needed for basic use such as cooking and drinking.
"It isn't uncommon in a submarine that you go without a bath for weeks," he said.
However, Mohd Amin said being Malaysians, they were unaccustomed to going about their daily chores for days without bathing, so they resorted to using wet wipes to clean themselves daily.
"But there are times when wet wipes would not substitute.
"Initially, the Muslim crew members had to explain to the French the need for water to wash themselves and for ablution. Though it was understood that water supply was limited, the French were very understanding and accommodating.
"Each of our men uses less than a cup of water for ablution," Mohd Amin said.
He said submarine duties did not prevent Muslim submariners from performing their daily prayers, although they had to do it sitting due to the lack of space.
As for the food onboard, Mohd Amin described it as similar to a hotel menu.
"We have entrees, main course and dessert, and the ration onboard is halal," he said.
To get through the long, arduous hours working in cramped conditions of a submarine, Mohd Amin said it was important to have a good sense of humour.
"You'll notice that most submariners have a warped sense of humour. You need that when you're stuck with the crew for over 40 days and the only personal space you might get is the few cubic feet within your bunk when you sleep.
"You can't let personal problems get to you. The most important task is performing your duty while ensuring the safety of those onboard," he said.
On claustrophobia, he said none of the submariners suffered from the condition as they had been screened and those who did had been vetted out during pre-training selection.
But what about nausea and vomiting, which are common among sailors while on duty on a surface ship?
"Actually, many sailors prefer submarine duty over a normal vessel's, because down here at the base of the sea the water is much calmer, thus the ship is a lot more stable, therefore less tendency for nausea."
CHALLENGES AWAY FROM HOME
The weather was nasty when the first batch arrived in March last year.
Mohd Amin said the temperature was a lot colder in Brest compared to other parts of France, thanks to its location next to the Atlantic Ocean and the brash Siberian wind.
"We started sea training during winter last year. If it was subzero degrees Celcius outside, imagine how much colder it was underwater," he said.
Besides adapting to the weather, many Malaysian submariners find that adapting to French culture is just as easy, although they cannot help missing Malaysian food.
"Many of us have to learn to adapt to the riceless menu and raw food preparations. Rare and juicy meat slices and salads may appeal greatly to European taste buds but Malaysians are used to having everything well-done, right from the meat to vegetable dishes," he said.
But they make up for this by whipping up Malaysian dishes like nasi briyani, nasi lemak and nasi ayam for get-togethers or birthday bashes.
Mohd Amin said finding halal food in Brest was not difficult as there were several Muslim butchers in the area and hypermarkets like Carrefour had halal sections for Muslim.
Their supply of Asian herbs and spices are sourced from the numerous Chinese shops in the area.
Although there are three mosques in Brest, the submarine training school has its own spacious surau.
Mohd Amin said the greatest challenge the submariners had to overcome aside from the training was not having their loved ones by their side.
"The majority of us are married with children. When we left our family, our wives were expecting, or our children were about to step into school for the first time.
"We've missed birthdays, anniversaries and the important milestones of our children's lives. We are not able to be there for our family in times of crisis and it can weigh a lot on our minds," he said.
However, the navy has been quite accommodating in allowing the Malaysian submariners to return home for three weeks every four months.
"But many of us opt not to take advantage of that because our priority here is our training.
"Hats off to the wives though, for their perseverance, sacrifice and undying support. I know that it isn't at all easy being a single parent and running the household while your husband is away on duty," he said.
Did the submariners expect to be making such sacrifices before they applied for training?
"We know fully well what we'd be getting ourselves into, and so did our wives," Mohd Amin said.
"But this is a privilege and the ultimate dream for those who join the navy. Malaysia is finally going to have its own submarines after 20 years of planning, and it's through this experience that we will truly appreciate the challenges of the navy."
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