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Full Ahead: Creating the Next Generation of Engineers

Nov 5th 09
By Richard Boggs[Photo by Mark O'Connell]

Are good engineers born or are they made? That’s not a new question by any means. This argument has been going on as long as man’s been tending machinery.

Two of history’s most famous engineers whose names are synonymous with the industrial revolution, George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, held opposing views on that issue.

Stephenson, a steam engineer, locomotive inventor and creator of the world’s first railway line, believed an operating engineer should be intelligent, literate, well educated and highly trained in physics and mechanics. Brunel, designer of the S.S. Great Eastern as well as several of the world’s great civil engineering projects, believed in the employment of illiterate men to operate his engines. He thought that a mind uncluttered with the minutia of a classical education left more capacity to acquire the knowledge he considered relevant.

The century and a half since Brunel last hired an engineer has proven that the truth lies somewhat closer to the position held by Stephenson. The best marine engineers are produced by training men and women who already possess a solid foundation of intellectual curiosity and the drive to succeed in a very challenging career.


Until very recently it was possible, and even common, for an intelligent and highly motivated individual to progress from wiper (the engine room deckhand) through the hawespipe to unlimited chief engineer without spending a day in a classroom devoted to marine engineering subjects. Licensing required extended periods at sea while performing engine room duties under the direct and often penetrating observation of experienced marine engineers. That training could be thorough and it eliminated most of those we now describe as “backpackers.” Those days are rapidly receding into the mists of pre-STCW history.

Because the impact of a marine accident is so much greater now – both in monetary costs and environmental damage – on-the-job training (OJT) is no longer an option for those seeking a career at sea whether on a pristine white yacht, or Masefield’s “dirty British coaster.”


With OJT no longer an option, and if the maritime college route is deemed impractical, what’s a modern hawespiper to do? Pardon the dueling clichés but the options are very limited – swallow the anchor or bite the bullet. Find another type of employment or accept the fact that formal training is now part of a marine engineer’s toolkit. Employment opportunities are directly related to the level of certification and the yacht’s manning certificate. In the race for bigger boats, bigger certificates and even bigger paychecks it’s easy to forget that everything depends on the underlying skills and knowledge a competent engineer must bring on board.


All too often we read letters in yachting publications and online discussions about training and certification that imply many engineers feel they are captive to a system that demands ever more training yet does not provide for training opportunities. This is true and is a fact that is unlikely to change anytime soon. Does this mean that to obtain the training required to advance it will be necessary to leave current employment? Probably. Unless you work for an enlightened owner or are willing to convert vacation time to an investment in your professional future, you might not progress very far or very quickly.


Working on a yacht offers wonderful experiences but it also demands a great deal of flexibility by those who wish to make it a profession. The licensing structure created for yacht engineers promises great rewards, but it also commands a degree of sacrifice many are unwilling to make. To Stephenson and Brunel’s stipulations, we might add wisdom and fortitude…the wisdom to make good career choices and the strength to see them through.


Related Topics: 

Online Coursework: Fact or Fiction?

How to Pass the Yachtmaster

The Cost of Basic Training


Rating  Average 3.5 out of 5

  • on the subject of coming up through the hawsepipe which was the old fashioned way of leaving the focsle where deckhands typicaly lived .

    I am not sure how these guys managed this as the hawse pipe typicaly goes down from the deck the pipe coming up from the chain locker which was in the focsle is the spurling pipe just another one of those things you learn if you go to school
    Posted by VAL_6 28/05/2010 21:26:40

  • Junior, I think you misunderstand me. I'm not speaking of licensing classes and such. I'm talking about taking a course in computer networking, like an online course offered through many different website resources, or manufacturers training courses offered by engine manufacturers and such. Often these week or two long courses are invaluable in troubleshooting modern electronic controlled engine problems.
    Posted by Henning_1 10/11/2009 06:01:42

  • After a stint working on the front line as fleet engineer at a reputable training school in iow,it amazing that the a student can be a PROFFESSIONAL YACHT ENGINEER after 11 WEEKS.
    So how does that work, a little bit of this and that goes a long way.............
    Posted by trotman 08/11/2009 19:55:42

  • I agree with both Henning & Junior Engineers are made and have a general curiosity for all things & how they work.
    I also agree strongly with the task book aspect from Junior, as well as the system tracing that is required by ALL engineers, even as a Chief I find myself crawling thru the bilges following piping to make sure I understand each & every part of every system on any new boat that I join. It is always part of a Chiefs role to be the mentor & master for an up & coming engineer. My policy in the engine room is to eventually make myself redundant, so that is how I teach, I want my 2nd's to be knowledgeable & confident in operating all systems onboard eventually themselves.
    I believe that there is need for training, a need for a task book and a need for a 2nd or 3rd engineer to have spent at least a year(full time) in each position before being allowed to progress to the next level.
    Engineers positions are immeasurably important onboard for many reasons utmost the lives & safety of those serving onboard.
    Take time to invest in knowledge & experience.
    Posted by Oceana Logistics 08/11/2009 16:26:58

  • I hear what you say but it still doesn't solve the problem. Ive been on yachts long enough to realize that I'm not a captain or crew but simply a participant in the marine industry. When you take on a young kid as deckhand engineer and pass on knowlegde , he may choose to follow on and become a engineer, he may choose to follow up and become a mechanically talented yacht captain or he may simply move ashore with his engineering skills and join the yacht service industry. In each case the marine industry wins by producing talented people. When you develop this "all or nothing" type world with high entry costs and licenses for ever thing, you retard the growth of the whole marine industry. At presnt the state of craftsmanship and knowledge in the industry is poor.
    Posted by junior_1 08/11/2009 12:53:25

  • Nothing at all wrong with coming up the hawsepipe, it's just that now a days, it's not enough just to have OJT. Even chief engineers with 20 years of experience are taking classes to keep up with the growing and changing technologies aboard yachts. In fact, best I can recall, studying and taking classes has always been part and parcel in hawsepiping. It really does take a combination of both to be thorough in ones education. A lot of the modern technology just isn't intuitive so it is more effective to ellicit some formal training to learn to deal with it than hack your way along self taught. More and more manufacturers are offering factory training as engine manufacturers have been doing for as long as I can remember. Networking and the rest of the IT sector stuff, there is so much reading material available it pays off to take a class just so you know how to filter through the material.
    Posted by Henning_1 08/11/2009 01:12:27

  • Its a shame that none of you guys choose to defend the concept of deckhand engineer " Hawsepipers" and sea time . Engineering Crew and all yacht crew who work up thru the marine industry will by circumstance have wide exposure to multiple disciplines, best practice and a very good understanding of yacht systems in real life . In my eyes this make a superior crew.
    I assume that the picture posted is representative of this "new generation" yacht engineer ? If so, the engineer shown is obviously not multi talented. The very narrow angle lifting bridle he has deployed is overloaded, ill fitting, chafing the ski seats and minus a spreader bar. The lifting eyes on the jet ski are improperly installed , prone to bruising a riders legs and located on its fragile superstructure, rather than bedded into the skis robust sheer clamp . This valuable piece of equipment, under his supervision , will never attain full service life. Lets hope this engineer is not entrusted with hoisting 5 ton pieces of yacht equipment. I seriously doubt that a multi discipline hawsepiper , with yacht rigging and shipyard experience, would make such amateurish mistakes.
    Posted by junior_1 07/11/2009 07:13:43

  • I think that todays system of training yacht engineers leaves us at quite a disadvantage. I've come up through the ranks of yacht engine rooms, and although I still have a very long way to go, I have the luck to have been born a 'natural' engineer. Unfortunately today there seem to be almost no apprenticeships to be found outside of the military and some commercial shipping lines. It seems the idea behind the MCA system was to have entry level engineers having an informal apprecticeship by working as a 2nd or 3rd engineer, but this system relies entirely on the willingness of the chief engineer to teach. I myself worked as a 2nd engineer briefly before moving on to being a sole engineer, I was working for a chief who was completely unwilling to teach, or work for that matter, which in the long run probably meant that I was learning more by doing his job for him. The problem now with the changes that the industry has gone through over the last few years is that boats in the 50 to 60m range who used to hire an entry level engineer as 2nd are now able to find Y4's or higher to take the job. Vessels larger than that are required to have higher tickets aboard in the manning scales, and vessels at the smaller end will take low licences, but only if the engineer has a decent amount of experience to back up his meagre ticket. It seems now that the only reliable way to get into the entry level of the yachting engineering industry is to have worked the commercial route, where it seems you can be paid to get excellent training, a book full of seatime, and walk away with a Y1 without even noticing it.
    Posted by DaveRobson_2 06/11/2009 16:25:35

  • What was up with that?
    Posted by Henning_1 06/11/2009 16:07:58

  • It looks like Henning's posting gene hss replicated.
    Posted by Chief_1 06/11/2009 12:04:45

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