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What it's like to sail under the sea

Gary Olivi warmly welcomes visitors aboard the United States Navy submarine Hawkbill. The nuclear-powered attack sub, which carries a crew of 120 and another 10 scientists and guests, is about to spend five days under the Arctic icecap to study ocean conditions and map the ocean floor off Alaska's northern coast.

This trip is part of a longer, three-month cruise to help scientists learn more about the Arctic Ocean, hidden by its layer of ice. By traveling under the ice, researchers learn much more than they would on an ice breaker or from satellite data.

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For now, Mr. Olivi's main concern is his guests' comfort. Lesson No. 1 is how to use the sub's toilets, known as "heads."

"All the material that goes down the bowl is stored in tanks," he explains. To empty the tanks underwater, a sailor in the ship's control room must pump them with air to overcome the pressure of the ocean outside.

"If you see these," Olivi warns, pointing to signs hanging on the stall handles, "do not flush!" The signs mean that the sanitary tanks are being purged. If you flush the toilet while the tanks are being emptied, you will spray the tanks' contents all over the inside of the bathroom.

"Don't laugh," he adds quickly. "It's happened."

That's life on a submarine, where food is good, space is tight, and a day is 18 hours long. The Hawkbill, commissioned in 1971, will be taken out of service when this cruise ends. It's a steel tube about as long as a football field (292 feet), as wide as two bumper-to-bumper minivans (32 feet), and as tall as a six-story building from the bottom of its keel to the top of its stubby sail, or superstructure (52 feet).

The crew is divided into thirds, and the day into three, six-hour segments, called watches. Each sailor has a specific job to do on his watch. He may cook, steer the sub, plot its course, or monitor the sub's nuclear reactor. The reactor generates heat, which turns water to steam. Steam spins a turbine, which powers the sub's propeller.

When a sailor's watch ends, he heads to the mess (dining room) to wolf down what head cook Nick Tatta and his helpers have prepared. The mess teams make four meals a day, one every six hours beginning at 5 a.m. The last meal is 11 p.m.

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"I'd say the biggest hit so far has been prime rib on Sundays," Mr. Tatta says when asked about the crew's favorite meals. The biggest loser? Corned beef.

"We're essential to the morale of this crew," Tatta says. "Morale tracks the quality of the food."

The ship loads up with fresh food when it can. But finding places to store it can be challenging. The Hawkbill has a big freezer and a large refrigerator. But the refrigerator has been acting up. So the crew is storing fresh eggs in the torpedo tubes to keep them from spoiling. Canned food is stored on the decks of sleeping compartments beneath thick rubber mats.

After a meal, it's time to clean up. Each sailor coming off a watch has specific cleanup duties that take up to an hour. After that, sailors and officers may take training courses to help keep their skills sharp or prepare them for promotions. Sailors can also take college classes -complete with tests and homework - by computer.

The newest sailors spend after-cleanup time studying the sub, how it operates, and where the emergency equipment is located and how it's used. Once they pass a series of tests, they earn their "dolphins" - special pins worn by submariners.

New sailors work hard to earn their "dolphins" because then they are full-fledged submariners. Also, they can't see the movies without a pin. "No dolphin, no movie," Olivi says.

Movies? Yep. The sub carries 500 of them on video or DVD. Cmdr. Robert Perry, captain of the Hawkbill, gives a "thumbs up" to "Last Man Standing." But "Mighty Joe Young" gets a "thumbs down."

Several of the crew have laptop computers with games and DVD drives. They can stretch out in their bunks (they call them "racks"), draw a curtain across the opening, put on headphones, and watch a movie.

Rack time (sleep) is one of the crew's most precious periods. But bunks are tight - about 18 inches from the top of your mattress to the bottom of the rack above. That's just enough room to roll over. The beds are about 6-1/2 feet long and 2-1/2 feet wide.

Traveling on a sub? Pack light. The mattress lifts up to reveal a storage area for your clothes - but it's only about three inches deep. A small metal box suspended over the foot of your bed can hold a few personal items.

For the six hours before his watch begins, a crewman is expected to sleep. But don't expect the swaying of the ship to rock you to sleep. The sub offers no sense of motion unless it's turning sharply or changing depth at a steep angle. But if you like to fall asleep to the sound of crickets in the evening, this cruise has just what you need: the CHIRP ... chirp, CHIRP ... chirp of a science team's mapping sonar as it sends out bursts of sound that echo off the ocean bottom.

*Read more about what scientists did on the Hawkbill in Thursday's Ideas section of the Monitor.

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