The crew of a British nuclear submarine nearly boiled to death after its air conditioning system became clogged up – by CRABS and BARNACLES, it emerged today.
HMS Turbulent was on a secret mission in the world’s hottest sea the Indian Ocean when the cooling systems suddenly packed up.
Crew members started collapsing at their controls as temperatures on board rocketed to 60C (140F) – the edge of human endurance – with 100 percent humidity.
Eight became seriously ill and a further 18 were suffering from heat stroke with no prospect of getting to land for help.
The only way to get air was to surface and open the hatches but when the casualties were taken out on deck they faced sweltering exterior temperatures of 42C.
Faced with a “catastrophic” loss of life Commanding Officer Ryan Ramsey decided the only way to save his 130-strong crew was to dive as quickly as possible.
His plan worked and the 5,000-tonne Trafalgar Class sub began cooling down in the deeper and colder water.
Repair crews meanwhile had identified the problem – the ships air conditioning plants were completely blocked with a cocktail of “crustaceans” – such as crabs and barnacles
The astonishing near-miss was revealed three years on by retired Commander Ramsay, 44, who described it as the biggest crisis he faced in 25-years’ service.
Cdr Ramsay said the incident began at 10.30am on May 26, 2011, three hours after Turbulent had left Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates.
The boat was surfaced and the decorated officer was on the bridge when he received word the air conditioning units had failed.
Soon afterwards the first of dozens of “pipe” sounds – signalling a casualty – rang out.
Cdr Ramsay arrived in the sailor’s cabin to find him crying and shaking, clearly suffering from heat exhaustion.
Within hours almost every free space on board the 275ft submarine had become a makeshift sick bay.
Cdr Ramsay, a married father of two from Plymstock, Devon, said: “I came down below and I was met with this incredible blast of heat.
“I genuinely thought there was going to be a loss of life on board. People were going to die. People were just collapsing everywhere, many at their work stations.
“We had casualties in the control room, the engine room, the bridge, the wardroom, cabins, and the toilets and showers.
“It was absolutely terrifying, and I’m not afraid to say I was scared. I remember looking at a picture of my family quickly thinking ‘we need to pull through this’.
“Walking around the boat I saw true fear in my crew’s eyes. I saw genuine concern because we simply did not know how we were going to get through it.
“I felt like the world was against us. I was looking up and asking ‘when are you going to give me a break to gain the upper hand here?’ People were crying – it was all about survival.”
Cdr Ramsay had never heard of a similar malfunction and to make matter worse his repair crews could get close enough to the faulty equipment because it was too hot to touch.
With a fifth of this staff now ill he ruled out a return to Fujairah and instead ordered two of the submarine’s hatches to be opened to vent some of the heat.
A number of the casualties were taken outside but with the air outside measuring a sweltering 42 degrees there was little respite.
The knock on effect of losing the air conditioning also meant other vital systems had begun to fail – but the boat was still able to dive.
Sinking to a depth of more than 200 metres, the temperatures finally began to drop.
Just 24 hours later, with systems all returned to normal and the crew having recovered, HMS Turbulent continued on with its deployment.
The boat was commissioned in 1984 to hunt down Soviet missile submarines and decommissioned in July 2012.
After the end of the Cold War she conducted intelligence gathering missions and commando landings, as well as firing Tomahawk missiles during the 2003 Iraq war.
Cdr Ramsay, its commanding officer for three years, retired in March but says his experiences have been incorporated into submarine training scenarios.
Cdr Ramsay, now an offshore installation manager, said: “It was touch and go before we dived as to what might happen to us and the submarine.
“We couldn’t do anything. I could have radioed for help but it would have taken hours for anyone to reach us. In that time people would have died.
“We were alone in our steel tube. There really was no-one to call.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I do not think about what happened. The pain of seeing my crew like that.
“But when I think back to that time I quickly remember how fantastic they all were in dealing with the situation.
“We recovered from it. They did exactly what they had to do, and looked after the team.
“Now that I’ve left the Royal Navy I feel I can openly and honestly talk about how amazing and incredible the service is.
“The medical team was made up of one Petty Officer medic, another medic, and six or seven first-aiders and they did an unbelievable job under intense pressure.
“That particular experience brought out some amazing actions from people who are rarely recognised, if ever, for what they do.”
The Ministry of Defence has not commented on the incident.