Back to the Engine Room

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Bill Wagner

This is the way a small tugboat company, otherwise known as a creek outfit, might go about overhauling a bad engine.

As usual, one of the rotten old engines in the rotten old tug will probably let go on a long tough voyage. Now it’s the job of the captain to bring the tow in on one engine. The owner will complain and begin pointing fingers, all this in the form of screaming into the phone at anyone who calls the office to describe the situation. Eventually, he’ll calm down and assign one of the other boats and a tired crew to go out and help the crippled boat in. The crew will complain and speculate as to who was at fault for the engine failure, but in the end, they’ll fire up the boat and head out to meet their fellows.

Once the boat is home and safe, the owner confers with the boat’s engineer, who makes the problem out to be worse than it really is. This may recharge the owner’s ire for a bit, but the grief is worth it. A slick engineer can “hold up” the owner for more money by reminding him that without his expertise, the repair bill is completely written by the mechanic that will come down to help with the engine. It doesn’t matter that the mechanic may be a bit of a friend of the engineer. A mechanic always has the potential to be a dubious character, according to the slightly less dubious engineer.

So, they contact a diesel mechanic. These aren’t hard to find. There are plenty around. The trick is to find a cheap one. But the cheap ones may not know much. So the real trick is to find a cheap one that knows his stuff. But if a good mechanic is cheap, that means that he’s had some trouble back down the road of his career, or he’d be working for a big diesel company. Mechanics from big diesel companies wouldn’t be associated with the likes of creek outfit owners and their engineers. But there’s always a chance that the mechanic in mind can get the job done without too many problems and the call is made.
The job begins with the engineer and the mechanic standing on either side of the engine, removing nuts and bolts and parts, carefully placing them all into cans and buckets. Both of them know that all of these will have to be cleaned, the old gaskets will have to be removed, and they will need to be inspected for other problems that weren’t apparent under normal operating conditions. But two out of these three tasks are considered to be (shit work). Another challenge stands in the way of a trouble-free overhaul; the engineer must convince the other crew members to forget all the times that his sociopathic behavior turned their workplace into a hostile environment. They aren’t likely to assist willingly if the engineer has been an overbearing tyrant. With a little luck, there may be a new employee who doesn’t know any better that will take on the task of performing the engineer’s dirty work.

With all of the performers in place, the overhaul continues with the removal of more parts, their cleaning, and inspection. The parts and their associated buckets of hardware are placed in logical order by the parts cleaning tub, nothing more than the bottom third of an oil drum, cut off and trimmed at the top edges to prevent cuts- to the delicate parts, not the employee. The employee pressed into parts cleaning duty sits on a milk crate beside this contraption which has been filled with VARSOL™ and, using brushes, flesh rending scrapers, and other blades, removes the grime and all traces of the petrified gaskets from each part in line. This process continues until each and every part is cleaned, or until the parts cleaner’s hands are cut to shreds and void of any skin moisture. Then he is allowed a half hour or so to rest.

Meanwhile, the engineer and the mechanic must inspect the cleaned parts for damage or wear. Parts damaged by operations and normal wear are noted for replacement. Parts damaged by the scrapers and blades during the difficult gasket removal process are held in the face of the parts cleaner as he is berated and chastised for his ineptitude at a job that he’s never done before. Before any inspections take place, however, the engineer and mechanic will need to take a break in the climate controlled galley of the tug. Cold, sweet iced tea is waiting in the reefer, so they ascend to the main deck for refreshments and relief as the parts cleaner catches up in the overhaul process.

After all of the parts have been deemed ready to install, the reassembly of the engine begins. The engineer and the mechanic begin putting the pieces of the engine together again. The parts cleaner has no more work in the parts tub so now it is up to him to keep the engine room clean, retrieve dropped tools from the bilge, and nod in agreement to every profanity laced statement that the engineer utters in his direction. During the reassembly process, all forms of life in the tug yard come down to the engine room to witness the feats of marvel that engineer tells them he’s performing, and to add comments of their own. They would do it another way, or the last time they saw this done, it was done like this, not that. The engineer listens to their advice and responds with the usual profanity. The mechanic begins to tire of this job and continues his work with much eye rolling. Time is money at this point.

At last the engine is together again, the new unpainted parts stand out against the yellow paint of the old parts. Water and oil are added, a few adjustments are checked, and the engine is ready to start. The engineer turns on the air, and with a sharp pull up on the starting handle, the starter jumps to life with a high pitched yelp. The engine turns and rumbles and then? Nothing. There are curses and the two men scramble around the engine to see if any detail may have been overlooked. If any changes were made, they were made in secret, so that the offending party could maintain his credibility. So, finding or admitting to nothing, the starter handle is pulled up once more. The engine turns and rumbles, and then clatters to life. The overhaul seems a success.

Over the next few days following the engine work, the boat will need to be tested. The engine will be run in the harbor for a few jobs. The engineer will be talking about the multitude of mistakes that the mechanic made. That is, unless the mechanic comes back to help make adjustments. Then it will be the fault of the parts department at the big diesel company. But eventually, the engine gets a clean bill of health and the owner starts looking for offshore work. All is well in the tug yard again; the boat can go away and make some real money.

And there are sometimes happy endings for the laborers. The deckhand who had been conscripted as parts cleaner might be noticed for possessing a little more talent than the average “deck ape.” Sometimes an engineer will tell the owner that he’d like to use him as an assistant. From there, a young man might begin to learn the skills needed to become and engineer. If that happens, then it turns out that all the pain and suffering at the hands of the engineer was worth it. As long as he doesn’t pass the pain and suffering to the next generation.



This is a Caterpillar 379 and its watch stander in their natural habitat.


This is Varsol.  It hasn't changed very much over the years, except that it comes in plastic bottles now.


These are scraping tools.  They are effective at removing petrified gaskets from engine parts and hunks of flesh from human hands.