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Engineer or dungeon master?

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Yacht Owners, Managers and Captains notice when the chef, deckhands and stewardess’s stop performing work because they lacked the motivation or resources to get the job done, so why are some engine rooms allowed to become messy dungeons when other sections of the yacht are kept to a standard?

Do people know what engineers do?

Are people scared of engineers because their hard to find or is it because people outside engineering don’t know enough about the engineers role?

Are engineers predominantly lazy and disorganized or is there a few bad eggs floating around that ruin it for everyone else?

Out of sight and out of mind

The out of sight out of mind attitude regarding the engine department on many yachts enables people to cut corners and ignore the signs and symptoms of looming problems. I find that sparkling engine rooms have clean engineers that appear to doing nothing, but the true reality of perfection is realistic standards, budgets and the systematic completion of physical work by all crew.

Management tools don’t get the work done people do

Management systems, gadgets and work lists don’t get the work done, people do and ensuring those responsible for the engine rooms receive adequate resources (time, money, material and manpower) is the responsibility of Owners, Managers, Captains and Chief Engineers.

Hidden costs of crew turn over

Crew turnover has hidden costs and if offering perks like job sharing, 13th month bonuses, family medical insurance, life insurance, superannuation and education leave is very worthwhile when you crunch the numbers.

Paying crew agents for replacement crew, travel agents, uniform suppliers, relief crew and overworking people because half the crew are on leave during yard periods is very typical in yachting, my previous employer was renowned for burning crew out and because of this I sought a more realistic program that enabled me to continue my seagoing career whilst looking after my wellbeing and the needs of my family.

Offer perks to recruit and retain good people

Employing 20% to 33% more staff whilst also defining the work process and ensuring engineers comply is what professional Captains and Managers are supposed to do.

Chief Engineers are specialist managers

Chief Engineers are specialist managers that communicate with the Captain and work with management to get the necessary resources for machinery operation, recruitment and retainment of quality people, contractors, and the completion of routine maintenance, defect repairs, consumable materials and spares parts.

Balancing management responsibilities with physical work

For the Chief Engineer a certain percentage of the day is spent performing management level tasks and the physical tasks in the engine room. Assistant engineers won’t learn from the Chief if he is not working alongside them setting the pace, monitoring progress and physically checking the true condition of the entire yacht.

Leading an engineering team requires regular training, mentoring and counseling sessions that reinforces the minimum standards of staff on and off the yacht.

Lead by example and set the standard

Leading by example is a tried and true methodology, because everything a Chief Engineer does well is a function of social responsibility, theoretical knowledge, practical experience and manual technique. Proper technique works for and against the Chief, if things look too easy and this is precisely why it is important to take assistant engineers out of their comfort zone and give them more responsibility.

Taking people out of their comfort zone does four (4) things;

1)       Provides an opportunity to measure staffs competence level

2)       Provides a teaching opportunity for new skills

3)       Builds mutual respect through positive experience

4)       Confirms the supervisors interest in staff and reinforces the Chiefs status

Good leadership technique raises standards and sustains moral, therefore the more resources applied to staff training, mentoring and counseling the greater team performance becomes.

Communication, teamwork and a proactive approach

Communication, teamwork and a proactive approach to all maintenance and repair task for the entire yacht keep standards up. In an ideal world there would only be Preventative Maintenance but unforeseen material failures and human error can never be completely eliminated, consequently daily routines should always includes Breakdown Maintenance.

A clean engine room is a safe engine room

Engineers responsible for machinery space cleanliness, a clean engine room is a safe engine room and Chiefs that roll their sleeves up and help keep machinery spaces clean set the standard for all other engineers, besides being up close and personal with the engine room is the best way to discover problems before they occur.

The accumulative nature of minor and major breakdowns very quickly devastates equipment reliability and overall quality standards when management level staff and working crew ignore their responsibilities.

Figure 1: Mathematical comparison between yachts in good, fair and poor condition and how minor and major defects consume time and money. Note this table does not include incomplete preventative maintenance routines, which are meant to prevent premature failure, through proper testing, machinery change over cycles, inspection and overhaul.

Yachts condition

Defects per day

Defects per week

Defects per month

Defects per year

% Repaired by engineers

Remaining work

Man Hours

Contractor hourly rate


Contractors needed










































Accumulation of outstanding tasks


The accumulation of incomplete maintenance routines, unrepaired defects and improper equipment operation are all management problems. Directly blaming engineers is very easy but in all reality you can’t blame the engineer when management fails to set standards or provide sufficient resources to achieve the physical work.


·         Engineers must be capable of performing the physical work and be provided with sufficient resources.

·         Maintaining a yacht is a responsibly the managers, captains and engineers share.

·         Management allowing detects to accumulate is a common problem.

·         Placing 100% of the blame on engineers is unfair when insufficient resources are provided, having said that it’s an engineer’s job to determine what resources are needed and correctly manage technical assists.

·       Which came first the bad engineer or bad management ethos?


Set and maintain standards


Failing to set and maintain standards for the engine room and engineers is the principal reason why engine rooms become messy dungeons. Consequently it comes as no surprise that yachts with immaculate engine rooms and reliable service for machinery systems have clear standards for engineering spaces and engineering staff. 


Keeping one bad engineer and ignoring the true condition of machinery systems is a management failure. Captains and owners that know this make a point to visit machinery spaces and reinforce standards.


If you’re an engineer that is always being hen pecked by the Captain, maybe you should look at yourself before you call the old man a micromanager.


i'm not engineers and i don't do any kind work on boat but i read your blog i would like to say you inteligent man ... genius .. your advices and mathematical studies for engineers are so good.
The red guideline Maintaining a yacht is a responsibly that managers, captains and engineers share... Kind regard
Posted by: Flavia at 20/09/2010 17:56

Righto Chief, we await your pearls of wisdom.
Posted by: yachtone at 21/09/2010 20:16

As this Blog says, A clean engine room is a safe engine room and also, there is no better way to discover problems than to be up close and personal with your engine room.

The easiest way to discover a new leak some where, is to have no traces of leaks anywhere. Water leaks in the bilges,leading to discover a flooding situation. How often do you check under the bilge plates? Oil leaks under the generator or fuel leaks under the filters or injectors, any small traces? These lead to fire risks. It is so much easier to see a new leak and act on it, if the machinery spaces are kept clean and in pristine condition. If you wipe daily, you will see any changes. Fire and flood are the most serious reason why engine rooms should not be left to get dirty. Have you ever left oily/ diesel soaked rags and filters in the ER, bundled up, ready to ignite?

With housekeeping standards set to the highest level, you should create a place for every thing and keep every thing in it's place. That alone takes a good part of your day. It is especially a problem if the rest of the crew makes a workshop out of the engine room spaces. Some crews and captains don't realise that this is a restricted space. The Engine room is to be admired from the outside of the water tight door if your not qualified to be there. Yes, crew should be made familiar with essential services for their own safety, but the DIY tasks should be carried out some where else, out of sight. As en engineer, I clean up in the interior and make preventions not to leave any traces of maintenance after a job's been done. The state of your engine room is a reflection on yourself and the quality of your work. Most of the time, captains and crew of 130' yachts, expect a sole/chief engineer to be helping outside and inside. This is a hard bargain, if you really expect your engineer to be on top of his game. The water makers and engines need filter changes all the time. Preventative maintenance is a full time job! Let's not get started on the responsibilities associated with fuel quality and quantity management and bunkering by itself.

There are so many unseen tasks an engineer has to accomplish: keeping the air and the water not only cold and warm as it is required, but the whole air treatment and domestic water system at a quality level that is required by law is a hand full of a commitment. With the yacht moving around from port to port, do you trust the deckhand to fill the water tanks, or do you take the right precautions to ensure the water is of good quality yourself, first. How often are you as an engineer allowed to allocate the time needed for the yacht in the yard, does your management team and captain want to yacht back in service for the next charter or owners visit, or do they see the importance of taking the time to have the tanks water tanks opened up and the domestic water system super chlorinated and flushed. Some times, engineers are asked to tolerate situations in the ER that is not acceptable just because there is no time or budget for the problem. The only thing you have is a log, that states your concerns and actions. This is a very important document, but you have to choose your words wisely. How easy is to ensure that all the air handlers are treated, cleaned, condensate drains unblocked. Some yachts have these things placed in impossible to reach areas, and how often does an Engineer have time to get into those places with crew needing their cabins and VIP cabins needed to stay clean between charters so that stewardesses can go on a week's holidays and shopping adventures? Have you seen the state of most of these 10 year old yachts in the industry's air ducts?

Generally I think, if captains had a good relationship with their engineer, as it should be, an engineer should be able to communicate and escalate any concerns at the first opportunity. Captains and crew should respect the engineer's responsibility. That said, respect is earned! I believe there should always be a good knowledge of another's role before you can judge. Some times it's better to give the benefit of the doubt to the situation. Engineers can not be expected to juggle the whole boats engineering responsibilities by himself and perform every physical job. Engineer's need to keep many more standards, than appearance. Ask not what the engineer has done for you today, but rather what have you done for the engineer lately... After all, your cabin's air handler is dirty because your not keeping your room clean and dust free...

Why can't every body help every body? Especially when helping some body else in a space as confined as a yacht is really helping yourself! Some times there is a lot more to a case than is apparent. Respect each other.
Posted by: Johanes Swanepoel at 21/09/2010 23:58

As an employed engineer of many years, I would say that if the captain cannot feel comfortable coming into the engineroom and talk to the engineer about any issue, something is very wrong. We all have periods where we get the doldrums. the capt's job is to assure the proper job is done by ALL the crew including himself. As the engineer, I try to do the best job possible and sometimes fixing things can overshadow cleaning things. A sidebar by the capt to refocus is not meant to criticize the job but bring attention to something that needs resolving. The relationship between the capt and eng has to be close and trust must be there. Sometimes the eng is the only person that can tell the capt he is wrong on a decision due to the fact that he is not trying to challenge him for his job. But there is still only one leader and it shouldn't be from the engineroom.
Posted by: John B at 22/09/2010 03:50

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