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Saturday, 6 December 2014

Now and Then (Part2) (Luddites are advised not to enter)

In a previous post I wrote about how things have changed in the home over the years. Tonight I thought I’d just post about how my work place changed over the years.

Ship’s Engine rooms past and present.

The past

Hot and Noisy

The only main propulsion was either steam powered or large diesel engines such as the one pictured below. A Doxford, opposed piston, trunk engine. Believe it or not, it was fitted with common fuel rail  injection.


Control of main engines and auxiliary machinery were all local control, usually comprising of large levers and hand wheels.

Electrical power was supplied by open commutator, diesel generators generating 115 volt DC power. The switchboards were also open fronted with large, manually operated, circuit breakers.

The manufacture of potable water was by means of flash evaporators which had to be supplied with steam and operated with a vacuum.

My first ship’s steam boiler was a Cochrane upright, fire tube boiler. The automated control of the water level and lighting of the burner was a “Fireman” armed with a steel pole, with the end wrapped in diesel soaked rags, and a box of matches.

Temperature control of all machinery was purely manual and relied on the watchkeeping engineer reading local thermometers and adjusting cooler byepasses as required.

Hours of work: The working day was split up into watches. The 8 –12 (working 8 in the morning to midday and 8 in the evening till midnight. get my drift?), the 12 –4, and the 4 – 8. The 8 – 12 was always considered the junior most watch and the 4 – 8 the senior watch. Why might you ask? Believe it or not it all revolved around the bar hours!

Health and safety. It was left to the individual whether he died or lived. It was up to you to look where you were going.

As an aside. Smoking. Allowed anywhere except on the deck of an oil tanker or in the hold of an ammunition carrying ship.

The present.

Still hot and noisy.

The main propulsion is Diesel Electric. Highly powered generators, driving a large electric motor driving a short shaft attached to the propeller.


Electrical power is now supplied by high powered diesel generators which supply the main propulsion and other large items of machinery with megawatts of power at voltages of 3.3kV AC and above.

My last ship was fitted with Reverse osmosis plants to provide potable water. These rather taxed my brain in it’s dotage. I actually had to open two valves and press “Start” on the touchscreen. Then sneak off for a cup of tea elsewhere.

Boilers. Nah. Electric water heaters.

Control. (Not just temperature) Everything was controlled by a centralised computer system situated in the luxury of an air conditioned control room. If the ship needed to go forwards, a half brain dead deck officer, only had to push a small lever forward and the vessel would go in that direction.

Hours of work became more civilised with automated machinery spaces. The working hours became 8 – 5 for all except one duty engineer of the day, who is on call outwith the working hours. Alarm box in the cabin and a pager. The down side is that they clamped down on the bar hours.

The health and safety committee tells you are safe.

Smoking prohibited in most areas. Interestingly my last ship was an oil tanker and the only smoking area allowed was on a portion of the open deck bereft of lights at night.


If there are any marine engineers who disagree or agree with this article, please feel free to comment.

And anyone else. I’m an equal opportunities Blog.


  1. And smoking should well be prohibited. It's a filthy addiction that nobody should have to breath in the filthy disease inflicting smoke from filthy smokers on board a ship.

    1. A N Other Filthy Engineer7 December 2014 at 00:24

      A bit of cigarette smoke is nothing compared with the crap I have breathed over the years in ships engine rooms. As a non-smoker, all the fumes I have sucked in from exhaust leaks, crankcase breathers, fuel leaks, noxious treatment chemicals, crumbling asbestos insulation etc. have probably done me far more harm than passive smoking.

  2. It's spelt "breathe"...

    Enge, what is a Scotch boiler?

    1. A fire tube boiler filled with several tons of water. Known to blow up if not handled correctly.

  3. A N Other Filthy Engineer7 December 2014 at 01:52

    The centralised computer in the control room can be a pain in the arse. When I first had to reboot the machinery control console of the ship I am presently looking after, I was horrified to see it was driven by Windows 2000. At least they have since upgraded it to the obsolete and unsupported Windows XP - aren’t we lucky! I was naively expecting the operating system to be Unix based and optimised for machinery control but then the MOD are past masters at procuring obsolescent and cheap solutions. At least this particular ship is very firmly strapped alongside with a skeleton crew as our organisation is hemorrhaging engineers so fast we can’t man enough ships to keep the whole fleet at sea, so the machinery control system doesn’t have much of an impact should it fail in this situation.

    Probably worse than the main machinery control computer is that all the auxiliaries now seem to be run by their own fragile stand alone computer or there will be a PLC involved somewhere, even down to turning on lights! Give me a robust and reliable mechanical switch any day. Modern ships have become completely reliant on electronics where the reliability becomes suspect when subjected to shock and heat. It just doesn’t make sense to me to bolt an electronic control panel direct to a vibrating diesel engine in an ambient temperature of 55 degrees C and then have to retro fit it with a separate cooling system. Why not fit it outside the engine room in more benign conditions? You can run cables more or less anywhere. It seems to make even less sense when you consider this vessel is a Naval Auxiliary which could be involved in a combat situation. Even minor battle damage could result in the severing of a main fibre optic link which cannot be repaired and end up with the ship dead in the water with very limited capabilities. I have several times been at sea in a ship dead in the water, lights out due to a computer failure with no reversionary mode or manual control, unlike older more mechanical vessels with local control facilities should remote fail. Machinery control when I first went to sea was generally pneumatic or electrical - more robust and far simpler to repair should it fail.

    The days of the purely mechanical marine engineer are over for the present. Modern ships stuffed with electronics are reliant on systems engineers and electro techs to keep them running.

    The four new Royal Fleet Auxiliaries presently under construction in Korea have at least dispensed with total diesel electric propulsion and are being equipped with hybrid drive. The problem is that the RFA have buried their heads in the sand and hoped the manning problem would just fix itself but at present engineering recruitment is so slow it looks like there still won’t be sufficient engineers to man these new ships when they are completed.

    It’s not just marine engineering suffering a shortfall in numbers. It would seem that engineering in general is not a desirable career nowadays. School leavers just don’t seem to want to become engineers any more.

    1. "The problem is that the RFA have buried their heads in the sand and hoped the manning problem would just fix itself"

      I saw this coming many years ago. There were numerous cases of undermanning. Several times I was transferred at short notice to fill a more senior post on another ship. Often spending far more time away than I would have liked.

    2. PS my central heating boiler has failed again due to main PCB failure due to overheating! I'm on the fifth board now.

    3. "It just doesn’t make sense to me to bolt an electronic control panel direct to a vibrating diesel engine in an ambient temperature of 55 degrees C and then have to retro fit it with a separate cooling system."

      IIRC, on the newer Detroit Diesel's the engine ECU is bolted directly to the block, AND COOLED by the incoming fuel, which runs through passageways in the casing...

    4. I realise we're talking about marine engines here, about which I know nothing, but when I was driving trucks in Aus back in the 70s, my rig had a Detroit Diesel power unit, and they were unusual for being supercharged two-stroke engines. Mine went like shit off a stick. Were / are the marine GMs similarly two-stroke diesels?

      On a vaguely related tack, when I first started driving trucks I was working locally, as often as not picking up containers from Melbourne port to deliver (and unload) to points around Melbourne. There were often delays at the port, and if it was evening, it was not unheard of for me to be invited on board to sample some of the wide selection of booze and porn movies that they all seemed to be well supplied with. I remember one (small) boat I went onto I was shown the engine room. Bolted to one side of the room was a con-rod which must have been six feet long. I was staggered! I thought 14 litre truck engines were pretty big, but this was fucking HUGE!

    5. Ha! Just scrolled down to the next comment - question answered! (Note to self - read all comments before posting...)

    6. The seagoing catamarans which plied back and forth to the Barrier Reef (when I was on holiday in the 80's) were most certainly the same 2 strokes you are familiar with - the sound is unique! And this summer I saw a pair of old 6 cylinder inline "Jimmies" laying around at a shipyard in the UK. They were also 2 strokes, and, unusually, "handed" left and right (sorry, port & starboard), not identical each side. Having the misfortune to have worked on a friends twin engined boat, I suspect this is to make the important parts more accessible when squeezed into a curved hull.

  4. Your mention of DC electrics reminded me of the Ross Revenge, home of Radio Caroline. Their site describes the ship in some detail, and points out that a DC machine can function as a generator OR motor, something not possible with AC. It allowed the substantial unit installed on the propeller shaft to be used for either purpose. This gave it the ability to outrun Icelandic patrol ships when the main generators were used as boosters, as well as providing power for the winches etc when trawling. There's also the advantage that no synchronisation is required, as with multiple AC generators.

    The second picture you posted shows a 4 stroke engine, which I believe is normal for the gensets employed on modern ships, but I understand that the huge engines on conventional direct drive vessels are 2 stroke, and the entire engine/shaft/prop is stopped and re-started for reverse? It occurs to me that must be rather difficult if a sudden stop is needed, due to the considerable turning force exerted by the passage of water over the prop whilst the ship is still moving forward. Am I right on this?

    As for computerisation - I find it astonishing there is not standard provision of multipath redundancy for data & control circuits. Whilst a loss of control isn't as immediately serious as with an airliner, the possibility of tens or even hundreds of thousands of tons of metal/fuel/ammunitions drifting (or even continuing at full power) in crowded shipping lanes surely must be on the designers minds? It's not as if fibre optic cables are expensive!

    One episode of "Mighty Ships" featured a bowthruster out of action solely because a small control box had failed. Why the engineers couldn't bypass it I can't imagine. They had been crawling over complete circuit diagrams to trace the problem beforehand. I guess they dare not risk a legal case if anything went wrong whilst in "bodge" mode. To be fair, this was a passenger carrying vessel, and they were able to continue (with some difficulty in confined ports). but God help us if warships are as easily disabled...

    1. "but I understand that the huge engines on conventional direct drive vessels are 2 stroke, and the entire engine/shaft/prop is stopped and re-started for reverse?"

      Yes that was the case. However in this day and age modern large engines are more often than not run at a constant speed and manoeuvring is carried out by means of variable pitch propeller.

      My last ship did have two identical servers and fibre optics were run down both sides of the ship.

      That small control box may well have been the control for the myriad of safety devices modern equipment is plagued with.


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