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Ten things I wish I knew about engineering before working on a boat & I am not an engineer.

Aboard larger commercial vessels, engineering is a complex technical career that requires specialized training and certifications to make the big bucks. Aboard smaller boats (and sometimes traditional vessels), the complexity and technicality of engineering tasks are still there, but you may be thrown into the important role of engineer without a certification or experience. Yikes! 


Recreational Marlinspike Instructor, Richard Lauridsen, sat down with TSC's Assistant Director, Daniel Armstrong, to chat through the top ten things he wished he had known before having to learn on the job as a Mate/Engineer/Fill-In Whatever Else Needs Doing Type. They broke down the learnings into two categories: Technical Concepts and Professional Practices. Enjoy!




Technical Concepts:


The Nobility of Metals and Corrosion-  When two or more types of metals are in contact and exposed to salt water, the more reactive metal will rust.  This is known as galvanic corrosion. Understanding the basics of how different metals react with each other (nobility of metals) in a marine environment is helpful for maintenance of a boat.  

Inverted Power - Aboard motorized only vessels, electrical power is constantly supplied by the engine.  Sailing vessels do not have this luxury and rely on battery energy storage when the engine is off and the sails are full. Thus, inverted power feeding to outlets can give a false sense of security aboard sailing vessels and drain battery storage power that is critical to maintaining shipboard electronic devices such as radios and navigational instruments.  Knowing how the different types of power onboard work together, or how they differ from each other, is important for the engineer in order to keep the vessel’s electronic gear functional.

Formations of Solid Materials - The formation of solid material within the head’s pipes can be mistakenly blamed on crew disposing of inappropriate items.  In fact, the combination of saltwater and urine will cause a type of calcification deposit that can clog a ship’s plumbing. Keeping vinegar at hand can not only help reduce this type of clogging but also makes a great cleaner for many other aspects of a boat’s maintenance.  

AMP Hours -  AMP hours are the metric for the life of charge of a battery bank. AMP readings are not linear in ascension or descension and can vary based on the load.  It is important for an engineer to pay attention to how AMP hours are measured in order to budget stored energy efficiently while the vessel is under sail power.  By carefully monitoring stored power, the engineer can help manage energy usage and suggest electronic equipment upgrades that draw less power.

Priming Pumps -  There are many hydraulic systems aboard a vessel, moving various types of liquids around.  It is a good idea to become aware of the different pumps primed for different scenarios to keep things running smoothly. This principle with maintaining an appropriate pressure in a system is also key in understanding diesel fuel lines, particularly when you change fuel filters. 

Professional Practices:


Record Keeping - Keeping detailed engineering records of maintenance, upgrades and troubleshooting issues will serve the engineer or the replacement engineer, in order to give a complete picture of all the goings on with the vessel’s systems.  It is also helpful in communicating to other crew about how to help maintain systems. An engineer will have a difficult time keeping only a memory of the complex systems onboard. Written records help the engineer notice trends such as an increase of oil being added over time.  You will thank yourself later for the notes you take today.

Organization - Organize everything to make it easier to find the right tools when needed.  This can be harder than expected since working aboard a vessel and completing an engineering task can leave you tired.  It is important to develop the professional practice of staying organized and cleaning up after projects. One helpful tip is to create a “job kit” for repetitive maintenance projects.  Place the necessary tools into a 5 gallon bucket and carry it around the boat for routine work.  This will reduce the number of times you may need to go back to the tool box. Return all your tools to their appropriate spot when finished.  The 5 gallon bucket is useful for many other maintenance purposes and is a valuable item to keep with your tools.  

Read the Manuals -  Avoid the “I can figure this out” attitude, unless you have plenty of experience with the equipment you are working with.  Even with experience as an engineer, it is professional practice to know where all the manuals are for the various pieces of equipment that you will be working with onboard.  Read the manuals to get to know what is in them, but also what is not in them.  

Ordering/Finding Parts -  The practice of ordering and finding parts is important when an engineer has limited time at the dock to acquire these items.  As the engineer you should have as much information as possible about the part you are seeking. Using the manuals to find the serial number of the part is valuable, as is using the serial number of where it comes from.  Taking this information to the parts supplier, along with a photograph of the item with a ruler next to it for scale, is very important. Having more information may help elicit a response or advice for a better part. For electrical items, check the Ohm stamped on it.  Remember that ordering online can be helpful, but can be an inconsistent venue for supplies when you have a limited window of time at the docks to procure items.

Communicating With Others -  Treat people as “witnesses”, not “suspects.” Troubleshooting is like being an investigator.It is easy when troubleshooting a system to pass blame onto a crewmate, although you may have a suspect later in your inquiry.    Talk to others onboard with your investigator hat on to acquire good information. For example, crew may have observed something once that is difficult for you to recreate. Several people can witness several things and it is the engineer’s job to put it all together.  This goes back to keeping detailed records and staying organized.  

I hope these tips from Daniel will help build your confidence in accepting the challenge of engineering with professional style.  


Richard Lauridsen

The Seafarer Collective

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