#22 – The Engine Room

Recently I was asked, “What should cruising women know about their engine rooms?” It’s easy to answer, “As much as possible.” But there are plenty of ladies who would exclaim, “As little as possible!” Most of us did not grow up mucking about with motors, electricity, or plumbing projects, and so the engine room on a cruising boat, where so much of this alien stuff is packed into such a small, inconvenient space, is easy to close the mental door on.

How much you need to know will depend on where you are cruising, how many crew there are, and what your role needs to be. The woman who is single-handing across an ocean needs to know far more than the woman whose partner has been a mechanic all his life. The thing is we use this stuff, so we at least ought to know what and where it all is.

Even the simplest cruising boat contains an intermeshed set of internal systems. A good approach to learning what’s on your boat could be to sit down over a diagram of your boat’s bare hull and sketch each in. Start with the propulsion system: the engine itself, the transmission, propeller and shaft, as well as the engine’s cooling system, from the raw water intake to the heat exchanger to the exhaust. Note where her fuel tanks, fuel filter(s), ignition button or key and fuel shut-off are located.

On the next overlay (we’re hi-tech here!) lay in your boat’s 12v and 120v electrical systems, (or 24v and 240v, depending on where your boat is from.) The system is not only the pretty panel of circuit breakers, but all the wire runs from it to lights, fans, instruments, etc. Your drawing needn’t look like an electrician’s blueprint. Just get the gist of where wires run, but don’t forget to include the sources from which your boat’s electricity comes – the engine’s alternator, a shore power connection, batteries, inverter/chargers and their controllers, a generator, solar panels or a wind generator.

Next do a page on all the vessel’s plumbing, both salt water and fresh: the heads, holding tanks, your freshwater pump and the lines to sinks, showers and hot water heater. Don’t forget your tanks and, your watermaker if you have one. Hand-in-hand with the water systems are your drains and bilge pumps. Sketch in both manual and automatic pumps, as well as shower sumps, and maybe on the same page make note of cockpit drains and every other through-hull and sea cock. Right in your own galley there are two more systems to diagram: your refrigeration and the lines and solenoids bringing propane from external tanks to your stove. Maybe you even have air-conditioning to include.

By the time you’ve done all this – even if you cheat and just do it in your head – you will have a much better grasp than you did before of all that goes on behind the scenes of your boat, not to mention a lot more respect for what the boat’s “chief engineer” has to manage. If you are going to be the chief engineer, of course, you need to take this a lot further. Many liveaboard sailing courses teach the basics of daily maintenance checks and typical troubleshooting, and there are courses in marine engine maintenance available all over the country. Plus the best reference I know for anything you might ever want to know about your boat’s systems is Nigel Calder’s Boat Owner’s Mechanical & Electrical Manual.

But courses (and Nigel) may be a little over the top for the casual mechanic’s assistant that most cruising women prefer to be. Most Admirals out there learned what they know from their partners, usually by standing alongside and passing them tools. In fact, knowing what tools are called, what they do, and where they are kept on your boat is a great start.

There are basic things the most novice Admirals should make a concerted effort to understand before ever leaving the dock. You should be sure you know how to start and stop the engine, how the controls operate to move the boat in forward and reverse plus how to put her in neutral, what temperature and RPM the engine likes (and doesn’t like), and where (and why) to look for coolant water pumping overboard. Acquaint yourself with your boat’s alarms – high temperature, low oil pressure, high water – and know what to do if one goes off. You should make a practice of checking the bilge for water and making sure the bilge pumps are operational, and know how to close all through-hulls. These are the sorts of things on which you might have to act quickly and without direction.

It is also good to know how to do all the basic daily maintenance checks, specifically, how to check the oil level in the engine and transmission, how to check the engine’s coolant level, how to check the sea strainers and clear them of any sucked-in debris (and then get them properly resealed!), and how to check the belts. Learn how the fuel filters are supposed to look (nice and clear), so you’ll know at a glance if the fuel looks bad, and if you are lucky enough to have a dual Racor setup, know how to switch from one filter to the other as well as how to switch fuel tanks.

Most importantly, make a point of looking into the engine space occasionally under way so you’ll notice when something isn’t right – an oil leak here, belt dust there, a new sound or smell. Most of my Admirals say they are often first to hear, smell, or sense early warning signs. Never hesitate to question something that doesn’t seem right; catching a problem early is always better than waiting until it has turned into something major!

You won’t be cruising long before running the engine or generator to charge batteries or run the fridge will be routine. Whether you want to take it further will be up to you. You’ll have learning opportunities every day! Some women really get into the mechanical side of their boats. Pam of Kandarik recently flew to Portugal specifically to help her husband rebuild their engine. During the refit of Passage, Nita made it her personal project to rebuild the generator (and then painted it pink). Linda of Serafin is skippering her own boat across the Pacific, and Debbie of Illusions is proudly becoming self-sufficient after losing her husband. At the very least, the more you know, the more you can help your partner sort through the logical steps of problem solving.

Would it be good if you could change a fuel filter, tighten a belt, bleed the engine, or change the oil? Sure. When things go to hell-in-a-hand-basket, more than two hands are often needed. Plus every Admiral should at least THINK about what she would need to do if she suddenly found herself on her own. Remember, it is easier to get help from others (even by radio), if you at least have a working knowledge of what you are asking about.

But I’ll be honest with you. One of my Admirals, a circumnavigator no less, says she never set foot in the engine room! Another shakes her head at her ability to retain anything mechanical. A third doubts her physical ability to do the job. And let’s be frank, none of us likes to get our hands dirty! So, here’s the deal. Know enough to use your boat’s systems safely and to be able to help when help is needed, and then be open to learning more about how it all works. It is all surprisingly logical and interesting and, considering how much more secure knowing more will make you feel, worth the effort.

Contributing Admirals: Jane Hockley, Lionheart; Linda Morgenstern, Serafin; Debbie Leisure, Illusions; Ellen Sanpere, Cayenne III; Bev Feiges: Cloverleaf; Donna Abbot, Exit Only; Kathy Parsons, Hale Kai; Maribel Penichet, Paper Moon; and others.

This article was published in the May 2008 issue of Latitudes and Attitudes.

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