In a small corner of Portsmouth, the Royal Navy faces a daily disaster of fire, flood and nuclear attack.
But fortunately the threats are tough training drills to prepare sailors and Royal Marines for worst case scenarios aboard a warship.
The Phoenix Training Group on Whale Island is one place where you hope the phrase ‘worse things happen at sea’ does not apply.
Giant fireballs, gushing flood water and radioactive material tests sailors to the limit during an intense week of drills.
‘We spend two and a half days setting you on fire, one day throwing you in the water, and half a day getting you gassed,’ joked Lieutenant Commander Paul Southern, the commanding officer of Phoenix TG, as he introduced his training establishment.
Around 14,000 sailors go through the centre at HMS Excellent every year, which accounts for just under half of all naval personnel. Everyone from the lowest ratings to admirals have to go through the training before they can go aboard a warship.
And Phoenix pulls no punches with its gruelling regime, exposing sailors to the real risks they could face in a crisis.
Sailors first learn how to fight fires in steel units where temperatures can reach a searing 350C. The eight compartments are fitted to look like areas of a warship and include a galley, mess deck and engine room.
Matelots don fireproof kit and breathing apparatus to enter the units, which are essentially propane-powered ovens. They are controlled by a computer operator who can increase the heat, puff in smoke and dim the lights to allow 10 per cent visibility.
‘We can also create fireballs that come out at them,’ explained trainer Warrant Officer First Class Chris Harden.
‘It’s all quite controlled but it gives them an awareness what might happen to them God forbid if they ever come across a real-life situation.’
The sailors have to enter a burning compartment down a ladder and use heavy hose reels to stop the blaze.
‘When you get in there it feels so real,’ said 24-year-old navy diver Joe Kozak, who was dripping with sweat after a punishing fire drill.
‘Your pulse gets going and you just get down to putting the fire out. It’s really exciting, but obviously the last thing you want to come across on board a real ship.’
The next area to test sailors’ nerve is in a ship simulator which is flooded with thousands of gallons of water for 30 minutes. The vessel called Hazard sits on hydraulic stilts that tip and rock the ship while sailors fight to stem the gushing flow of water coming at them at all angles.
Armed only with wooden pegs and hammers, sailors have to plug holes in the ship while the lights go on and off and the ship takes further ‘hits’ from the enemy.
Warrant Officer First Class ‘Jethro’ Tullett, who controls the Hazard, said: ‘It really brings it home the first time you see all that water pouring into the compartment around you. It’s pretty scary for the young sailors who have just finished their basic training.
‘All you can do is take stock of the situation, feel the water and get to work.’
The flood training, which started after the Falklands War, was credited with saving HMS Nottingham when the ship ran aground off the coast of Australia in 2002. It also helped save the icebreaker HMS Endurance which almost sunk off the coast of Chile in 2008.
Lt Cdr Southern said: ‘People got out of their beds, felt water under their feet and the training just kicked in. Without this training we might have lost those ships.’
One of the scariest areas of the Phoenix is the nuclear attack simulator where sailors deal with a live radioactive leak.
Sailors wear camouflaged biological suits as they carefully clean up a concealed area which is designed like the top deck of a warship.
‘It would take a couple of hours just to decontaminate a small area of the ship,’ explained Lieutenant Paul Harvey inside the control room.
‘On an average frigate or destroyer, you have about 20 people trained to deal with this so not everyone does this training. It’s a very specialist skill because this threat is low compared to other threats.’
The last time navy warships were deemed at risk of chemical attack was against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces in the Gulf in 1991.
But the Royal Navy remains one of a few Nato navies able to contain and decontaminate its entire fleet should it come under nuclear, chemical or biological attack, Lt Harvey said.
He added: ‘You never know when you may face that threat in the future and that’s why we have to be trained for that threat.’
Phoenix is one of the only places in Europe to do this training with live radioactive material. The chemical used is relatively harmless – about the same strength of an X-ray machine in a hospital – but it could cause sickness if you came into direct contact with it.
This is typical of the training centre, which leaves no stone unturned in readying sailors for the horrors of war.
Lt Cdr Southern said: ‘We keep the drills as safe as possible while keeping that element of reality. It’s all about combining a sense of realism with the training. At the end of the day, that’s what is going to help you when you are faced with a life or death situation at sea.’