The ‘Black Widow’ is a former Russian Foxtrot Б-39 (U 475) Hunter Killer Class Submarine, sat perched in the Medway at Rochester. To get to it you need to apply a bit of creative thinking, but The Winch isn’t exactly the place for the cheatcodes so you’ll have to use the visual clues below.
Pic by Keitei
Once aboard, past the bird shit and into the body of the sub itself, it becomes apparent that the sub was used as a museum of sorts for some time, although I guess funding wasn’t sufficient was to continue this. If you really want to see a working sub and don’t fancy getting your hands dirty, you can go to HMS Alliance in Portsmouth, but that sub is in itself in poor repair and funding is constantly being sought for general maintenance. Nature is a cruel mistress and exposure to the wind and rain without proper attention cause rust and corrosion, ruining the exterior of the submarine.
Russia has always interested me. The Black Widow, as it appears to have become known, patrolled the oceans between 1967-1994, and was involved during the Cuban missile crisis. I guess the Cyrillic writing makes the whole operation of the boat more of a mystery, but there’s no shortage of dials and levers to make you wonder how the hell they ever got the thing going without a massive user manual.
Although there were only three of us in here, the size of the passages and rooms made this place incredibly claustrophobic. Having subsequently learned that no fewer than 77 staff would man this machine, I find it hard to imagine what this would be like in full operation. We assumed that the staff would sleep in shifts, as there were far too few beds to accommodate everybody at one time. The mess appeared to have fold down beds, which could serve as a table when need be – with this many people on board space really was at a premium, as these two cramped operational related rooms demostrate.
The Torpedo rooms were excellent, with the tubes clearly visible, propelling the imagination. I imagined a crew of tired and undernourrished Russians loading a torpedo and launching it into the side of an American Cruiser, although from what I know this machine was mostly used for training Lybian, Cuban and Indian crews. We used this space to take photos of ourselves hanging upside down and posing next to the tubes… As you do.
Although the machine felt very linear, appearing to have just one level, the stairs and ladders allow the submarine to have a streamlined profile. At the stern, there was a large room that appeared to be a living space/operations centre/mess hall, and this was the space in the boat that had the most room to move around in. Situated down two lots of stairs, you’re in the very middle of the submarine and under the main space used for control, communication, and operations. I doubt sleep was particularly easy, but what else would there have been to do when you weren’t working?
The hatch in the floor of the photo above was so small that I had to turn diagonally to fit my shoulders down. Inside was an intensely cramped space, immediately next to the ships batteries. If something had gone wrong, some poor seaman would have had to work in this space to rectify it. We saw the entire crew of the Russian Submarine Kursk die in 2000 when something went wrong, and rectifying and issue or failing to would be the difference between life and death.
All in all, I loved the submarine. Its not often you get to enjoy such an impressive piece of machinery, and I doubt there’s many people in the country that have had the pleasure on going aboard a submarine, be it a tour on HMS Alliance, a trip out to the Foxtrot Б-39, or even working or building one of these machines.
As we were leaving, we climbed across the conning tower in full view of the pub and nearby boaters. A grumpy old man yelled at us from his boat, but the wind distorted his words. After we had paddled back to shore, climbed up the stone bank and started to deflate the dinghies, the local police turned up with a report that some kids were climbing on the U-boat. After realising we were all in our twenties, we were given a slap on the wrist, spared the usual safety lecture and told not to go back. No need. Mission accomplished.