So, You’re New to Submarine Life. Here Are 10 Things You Should Know

USS Boise (SSN-764), US Navy/Mass Comm. Specialist 2nd Class Jeffrey M. Richardson

If you’re new to submarine life, whether you’re a parent of a newly-christened sailor or a significant other just learning the lingo, it can be incredibly overwhelming.

Simply put, you don’t know what you don’t know. What type of submarine are they on? How often will they be at sea? What’s the difference between an “underway” and a “deployment?” How will you communicate? Can you send a care package? What’s an FRG?

That’s where we can come in. At The Submerged Life, we were inspired to start this blog for this very reason. At one point in time, we were in your shoes.

So if you’re new to submarine life, here are 10 major things to know:

Learn The Lingo

The acronyms in the Navy deserve their own dictionary. Here is a quick guide we put together. The most obvious should be – what type of submarine is your sailor on and what kind of sea time will they have?

There’s BN/SSBN, known as a “Boomer” or “Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear” to be technical. These submarines are larger, contain ballistic missiles and deploy for three months. Boomers are only stationed in Kings Bay, GA and Naval Base Kitsap in Bangor, WA, and operate with two crews. Then there’s Fast Attack/SSN, or “Submersible Ship Nuclear.” These submarines are smaller, do not contain nuclear missiles and deploy for up to six months. They are stationed in all submarine bases except Kings Bay, GA. A GN/SSGN is known as a “Guided Missile Submarine” or “Ship, Submersible, Guided Missile, Nuclear.” These submarines are stationed in Kings Bay, GA and Silverdale, WA only, and operate with two crews. Then there’s a PCU, a Pre-Commissioned Unit, a submarine still being built.

Sea time can be one of three – an underway (period of time a submarine leaves for sea), a patrol (“Boomer” deployments are called patrols due to the nature of their mission) or a deployment (extended period of time the submarine is out to sea, usually 3-6 months). Generally, fast attack and GNs deploy substainatially longer than Boomers, but are less frquent per sea tour.

Confused yet? Yep.

Follow Operational Security

You will soon hear a lot about “OPSEC,” or what is known as operational security. Given the nature of submarines, our sailor’s whereabouts are highly classified. What little information we do know, must be kept private. This means even to a broader family members or close friends. Well-intended questions can be awkward to answer, such as “When does he get home” or “Where is she going?” For someone less familiar with this lifestyle, you have to awkwardly explain that you are not trying to be rude but you just can’t share. Limit those must-have conversations to in-person only, and never share sensitive information over the phone or internet.

Do not communication any of the following:

  • Deployment timelines and areas
    • “Only 34 days until I can hug my son! #countdown”
  • Port call information in real-time
    • “John is enjoying his port call visit in Greece”
  • The location of families during deployment
  • Planned return date, homecomings or countdowns
  • Any special pre-deployment training or underways

There are consequences for violating OPSEC, such as homecoming delays. Keep in mind that each command may have a different approach to OPSEC, in addition to rules and regulations changing. Attending an FRG meeting and or talking to the ombudsman will provide insight into your command’s policies. 

Know The Role of The Ombudsman

Every command has a spouse of a sailor designated as the ombudsman. The ombudsman acts as a liaison between the command and the sailors’ families, most noteably while the boat is at sea. He or she is privy to when the boat is coming home and initiates the phone tree regarding homecoming times (do not panic when you receive a call). The ombudsman is also the contact if urgent information needs to be communicated to your sailor while at sea (i.e. a death in the family).

This is very important: In order for you to be contacted by the phone tree, invited to the FRG Facebook page or receive other official boat communications, your sailor must designate you on their “Ombudsman Sheet.” Your sailor must put down your updated contact information, correct email address, etc. and that is what the ombudsman will utilize. Have a conversation with your sailor and confirm this is done.

Every command is different, some may have strict rules around Facebook groups and FRG participation. Get connected with your ombudsman and see how you can get involved.

Get Involved With The FRG

The Family Readiness Group (FRG) is a volunteer organization associated with each command. The purpose of the FRG is to be a resource and support system for the families of sailors. The FRG, operated by spouse board members, also plans social functions, morale building events, and  informational sessions with command leadership (i.e. pre-deployment nights). Every command is different, and sometimes FRGs are limited to spouses only or may only meet in-person.

Be sure to ask your sailor or the ombudsman and learn how you can get involved. If you cannot participate in the FRG itself, make sure you’re on the email list for crucial updates.

Be Ready For Limited (To No) Communication

Submarines have very little to no communication while out at sea. Unlike other Navy communities, submariners do not have the ability to casually communicate with their families via phone or video chat. Int he submarine community we can only rely on email.

For specific tips on emailing submariners, such as numbering your subject lines and not including attachments, click here.

Make sure you have a conversation with your sailor – know their boat email address and set expectations. How often do they want to hear from you? How often would you like to hear from them? What kind of information would they like to know? Updates from home, sports headlines? If you don’t receive a lot of emails, try not to panic. It is not the ombudsman’s fault or problem if your sailor doesn’t reach out. Keep in mind they are very busy underway and may not have as much time as they thought they would.

The lack of communication is one of the hardest aspects of submarine life. It is perfectly normal to go weeks, maybe even as long as a month or two, without receiving emails. When the submarines go “dark” for long periods of no communication, they may accept familygrams. These are very short emails with a limited character count. The ombudsman will notify families and provide instructions for how to send.

Some Submarines Pull Into Foreign Ports

Depending on what kind of submarine your sailor is on, they may pull into foreign ports while overseas. This is typically for supplies or necessary repairs. If you are on the phone tree, you may receive a phone call 24 hours before the boat pulls in. During this time your sailor should have opportunities to call or video chat, access to social media platforms, etc . Port calls can be anywhere from a 2-3 days up to even two weeks. For longer visits, sailors may get some leave time to explore the area around them. OPSEC rules still apply here.

For more information and tips about port calls, click here.

Boat Schedules Always, Always Change

Your sailor may tell you their schedule loosely, but we promise it will change at least three times. Boat schedules are always a moving target. This is a great reason to stay informed and get involved in the FRG.

During deployments, FRG meetings typically happen in person and a representative from squadron may provide schedule updates. This information is typically highly-classified and cannot be shared over the internet. If you live out of state or cannot attend these meetings in-person, unfortunately you will not receive those updates. Rest assured, if the boat is about to pull in somewhere you will receive a call from the phone tree, which leads us to…

Don’t Be Alarmed By Phone Tree Calls

If you are on the boat phone tree, you should receive calls 24 hours in advance of boat movement (i.e. pulling into a foreign port during deployment or simply coming home after a short underway). These calls are nothing to be alarmed by. Phone tree callers are volunteer spouses who give up their time to call other families. They are given specific instructions of what they can say over the phone, and usually cannot leave detailed messages.

As always, if you have any questions or concerns ask your ombudsman.

You May Get a Rare Opportunity to Send Mail

While the boat is out at sea, you may get a rare chance to send a Mail Drop.

During deployments and patrols, sailors may have to come off and on the submarine. When this happens sometimes there is an opportunity for a guest to bring mail oboard. Your ombudsman will notify you of this opportunity, usually with a very tight turnaround time (i.e. 48 hours). For families who live out of state, we typically recommend you prepare cards and letters in advance. Talk to your ombudsman and if they allow, go ahead and mail them in advance and they will hold onto the letters should an opportunity arise.

You Can Prepare a Care Package, Known as a “Halfway Box”

While we can’t send care packages to our sailors during deployment, we can prepare what’s called a Halfway Box” in advance.

As its name suggests, this care package is opened halfway through a deployment or patrol, during a festive Halfway Night. This celebration marks the halfway point of deployment and gives sailors a chance to kick back and enjoy some small comforts from home. During deployment preparations, your FRG should be coordinating this with specific size restrictions and a hard deadline. For ideas of what to include in the box, click here.

We covered a lot here, but we hope this was helpful information. Be sure to utilize our “search” bar to find more resources on specific topics. If you have any follow up questions please comment below or send us an email We’d love to hear from you!

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