What Were They Thinking?

18 August 2008 By Richard Boggs

Nothing inspires an engineer's creative vocalization like the clattering of his last 13mm combination spanner as it ricochets so far into the bowels of the engine room bilges that it's recovery will include  fiber optics and the skills of a laparoscopic surgeon.

It doesn’t help matters when the reason the spanner went flying off in the first place was because it slipped off the last bolt on a piece of equipment that hasn’t seen daylight since it was delivered to the builder’s yard.

And why, you might wonder, did it slip off? Because the only way to reach that bolt is to lie on your belly with one arm cushioning your head on the pre-lube pump, the other extended down and outward between two closely spaced pipes beneath the fuel cooler. After finally locating the bolt, any attempt to turn it by hooking a finger through the open end and pulling will utilize all the strength a wrist can manage.

Please, oh please, let the next person who walks into the engine room be the naval architect who signed off on the piping layout.

No such luck. It will be the stewardess with news that the gray-water tank has backed up into the owner’s shower…again.

“What on earth were they thinking?”

That question, rhetorical as it might be, is regularly vocalized with varying degrees of emphasis and volume in the engine room of every vessel, yacht or commercial. “They” are the designers, the builders, or even the last engineer to work on the boat. They are the ones who decided to place the air-conditioning saltwater pump under and between a bilge suction line and the supply to the fuel transfer pump rather than under the deck plates.

Things could be worse, right? I was recently on a boat that used an air educator system to prime the bilge pump. Odd, but effective, I thought at first, despite the annoying noise of the educator exhaust right next to the bilge pump controller where it surrounded the engineer with a fog of oily vapor.

A few days later, the reality of this not-so-clever idea became very obvious.

The black-water tank overflowed into the engine room bilge. As the engineer pumped the vile contents of the bilge, that annoying oil vapor blasting from the educator exhaust became a noxious aerosol that probably qualified the engine room as a biohazard area.

An engineer in the Pacific Northwest told about a new build yacht that, for aesthetic reasons, was built with vintage engines removed from a World War II minesweeper.The piping designer took a page -- but only one page -- from the original Navy drawings when he laid out the main engine cooling system.

Naval vessels are built to withstand battle damage. That means systems can be cross connected to the point of being able to drain the chain locker through the whistle if needed…not quite that extreme, but you get the idea.This mingling of old and new produced a cooling system that incorporated a valve, at head level, that if it were ever opened would bypass the main engine cooling water pump, effectively stopping all main engine cooling.

Speaking of putting flanges in places where the inevitable leak is guaranteed to wreak havoc on spare parts or electrical controllers, or just make a corroded mess of some impossible to reach component, there is a darker side.

The engineers on a “large Italian-built yacht” report how a relatively small exhaust leak caused close to half a million dollars damage to the yacht’s electrical system.
A major wiring run was located a foot away from an exhaust flange with no insulation to protect it.

“What on earth were they thinking?”