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Dreams of reopening Soviet submarine at Strood still afloat despite pandemic

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Looking for the perfect self isolation location? If the new strains of Covid keep growing more extreme then a U-475 Black Widow Soviet submarine could be the ideal retreat of choice.

And as luck would have it there's one moored in the River Medway just off Strood, where it has been for almost two decades.

The Black Widow submarine at Strood
The Black Widow submarine at Strood

But the man in charge of it, John Sutton, remains optimistic he won't have to seal the hatch and prepare to dive next time Boris Johnson calls a press conference.

Instead he hopes the Soviet sub can yet become a popular tourist attraction, but he told KentOnline the plans will in all likelihood involve moving it to a new location.

"We are in the process of renovating it and looking for somewhere to put it," he said. "That's the problem. We thought maybe we could run people out to it from Rochester Pier but the pier is condemned and the council haven't got money to repair it.

"It's terrible because you think Rochester was built on the River Medway and the piers are disappearing. If it was operational we could ferry people around and do tours."
Mr Sutton, who looks after the submarine for property company Skelwith, spoke out after a video of a tour around the submarine was reposted on the Facebook page "Exploring With Josh" this month.

YouTube explorers investigate the Soviet Submarine

He explained the tour, which was arranged with permission, took place two years ago, but said the visit was welcome publicity nonetheless.

In the post, entitled "Old Soviet Submarine Emerges From Water! We Explored It!!", the intrepid Exploring with Josh team enter the submarine amidst gasps of awe - but they are in fact following in the footsteps of many others, including ex Tory minister Michael Portillo who boarded the Soviet vessel in order to explore its role in the Cold War as part of his 2018 documentary Portillo's Hidden History.

"On a suitably murky day I went aboard," stated Mr Portillo, "and with the help of a vice admiral of the Royal Navy and two former Soviet naval officers, relived some of the most perilous moments in our nation’s history."

YouTuber Josh's narration offers an alternative take as he descends into the sub, exclaiming: "I'm so excited. Yo, it smells like just dirt and rust, like so much.

"Alright, here we go. Oh it's so. Yo! It's hot in here. Really hot!

"Oh my god. There's a proper torpedo in here!"

Such appearances on TV and YouTube are bread and butter for the Russian sub, which has starred in rap videos, playstation adverts and the movie Black Sea starring Jude Law.

Jude Law in Black Sea. Picture: PA Photo/Handout/Universal/Focus Features
Jude Law in Black Sea. Picture: PA Photo/Handout/Universal/Focus Features

And while Mr Sutton explained the Exploring with Josh YouTubers had been a professional outfit, he did have some concerns over copycat 'explorers'.

In 2016 three men had to be rescued from the submarine during the early hours of a March morning when their rubber dinghy sprang a leak, after they attempted to film on board without permission - and Mr Sutton is now expecting more.

"A lot of them don't think it's a crime and they think they can do what they want because it's 'exploring'.

"The only issue I have is because he's reposted the video, someone will try and get on board the submarine. It's pretty secure now so people can't turn up in their £5 dinghy and climb aboard.

"Some followers will just try to emulate it, but I suppose it's good coverage for us."

Built at Sudomekh shipyard in Leningrad and commissioned in 1967, the Black Widow served with the Soviet Baltic Fleet before being used as a training vessel for crews from overseas until it was decommissioned in 1994 and sold.

Michael Portillo filming another TV show near the The Second World War Maunsell sea forts in the Thames Estuary
Michael Portillo filming another TV show near the The Second World War Maunsell sea forts in the Thames Estuary

After passing into private hands it was moored near the Thames Barrier in Woolwich and opened as a museum ship, until it was moved in 1998 to Folkestone, where it was again opened to the public, before it was moved to Strood in 2004.

These days though, it remains in a dilapidated state, awaiting a brighter future.

But just in case anyone gets any ideas of taking an undersea cruise to escape the pandemic, the submarine wouldn't be much for deep diving, and you couldn't use the torpedoes if a coronavirus-infected cruise ship came too close.

"It's got all its engines but you wouldn't want to start them up," said Mr Sutton. "We'd probably be in the news if you started it up.

"We've got one torpedo in case there's any issues," he joked, but added: "It's a practice torpedo though - they were decommissioned."

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