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Frozen birthday cakes and floor exercises: Singaporean submariner shares what life at sea is like

Frozen birthday cakes and floor exercises: Singaporean submariner shares what life at sea is like
Submarine instructor ME3 Naidu Hariiheran (left) and his colleague, LTC Tan You Cai, were in Kiel, Germany for the launch of the Inimitable submarine.
PHOTO: AsiaOne/Rauf Khan

KIEL, GERMANY — While many Singaporeans may prefer to stay away from the sun these days, when UV levels are going north, Military Expert 3 Hariiheran Naidu loves basking in it. 

As a submarine instructor with the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), the 36-year-old is often inside a vessel for long periods of time. 

So whenever he is back on our sunny shores, he tries to get as much sunlight as he can, usually by taking his young daughter out to play football. 

ME3 Hariiheran spoke to AsiaOne in Kiel, Germany, where the Inimitable, the last of four Invincible-class submarines, was unveiled in a launch ceremony on Monday (April 22) officiated by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean.  

Apart from sunlight, the other thing a submariner would experience a shortage of would be space.

Finding room to work out or relax on board is a challenge, said ME3 Hariiheran, who joined the Navy in 2007. 

"We had to find innovative ways to exercise and entertain ourselves. Exercise was whatever we could do on the floor, like home-based workouts," he added.

"Sometimes we get bored, so we challenge one another to see who can do the most number of reps."

No fresh birthday cake, no candles

Turning a year older is also quite different for ME3 Hariiheran, who has spent several birthdays inside a submarine. 

"We don't have fresh cakes, only frozen Sara Lee cakes. We cut the cake without candles and the crew sings me a birthday song."

When it comes to meals, though, ME3 Hariiheran claimed that they have the "best food", whipped up by their naval chef. 

His favourite dish is chicken rice. "It's really good. Sometimes, I tell [the chef] he should set up a stall. Good food helps boost our morale."

Besides taking comfort in the local dishes he gets to enjoy on board, ME3 Hariiheran also credits his family as one of his biggest pillars of support.

"My wife is really supportive when I go out to sea. She knows I won't be contactable, so she runs the household." 

While he's out at sea, he can also count on his RSN colleagues on land.

Once, his mother had fallen ill and was hospitalised just before he was about to sail. After speaking to his family and superiors, ME3 Hariiheran decided to go ahead with the mission. 

"When I came back, my mum told me that people in my unit visited her in hospital two or three times a day. We're a very close-knit group," he said. 

New subs, better amenities 

The Invincible-class, or Type 218SG, submarines — built to operate in Singapore's shallow and busy waters — replace the Navy's Challenger- and Archer-class vessels. 

Having done most of his training on the older boats, ME3 Hariiheran appreciates the improved amenities on the Invincible-class submarines, which he believes helps boost the crew's spirits.

The new boats now have individual bunks for crew members, which allows them to customise their own spaces. 

Previously, they had to share beds while on rotating shifts — a practice known as hot bunking. 

"It's nice that I get my own bed because I can put up my family photos in the bunk. It really helps [to see the photos] when I have a bad day," said ME3 Hariiheran.

The women get bunks that come with ensuite bathrooms, to give them more privacy. 

At the galley, there are now two rice cookers, which were included in the design-planning stage of the submarine. 

Work has also been made smoother.

To shorten and improve the process of training submariners, a virtual procedural trainer (VPT) was developed to complement the new submarines. 

The tool — developed by RSN, the Defence Science and Technology Agency and German naval vessel manufacturer thyssenkrupp Marine Systems (tkMS) — replicates parts of the boat virtually. 

This allows crew members to familiarise themselves with the systems on board and rehearse responding to emergency scenarios. 

The VPT is part of a Type 218SG trainer suite, which comprises a combat team trainer, a steering and diving trainer, as well as a maintenance trainer. 

ME3 Hariiheran said: "Having a virtual trainer doesn't lower our standards, but now we don't have to wait for the submarine to be ready to start training."

The virtual training also caters to the younger trainees, who are more technologically adept. "They're actually faster than me, so sometimes I learn from them." 

ALSO READ: No family, no windows: Commanding officer of Singapore's new submarine shares what it's like working in one

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