Monday, June 26, 2006

The keepers of the nether regions

In the chain of command of maritime order, the role of the captain has always been more or less paramount. A captain has the undeniably final word on all matters aboard a vessel, the ultimate responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of the ship, its cargo and those individuals sailing with her. But just slightly below the captain one finds the chief engineer, the master of the mechanical bestiary that propels a vessel through the seas.

Known universally as “The Chief”, the head engineer and the captain are technically equivalent in the hierarchy of a vessel, though there is a benign rivalry between the Old Man (as captains are known) and the Chief as to who is really more important for the operation of a ship at sea. A hundred years ago, the role of the engineer was just emerging as mechanical power came to supplant wind power. Lost in the dark bowels of a ship, the engineer lived a world apart from the traditions of the sea, more concerned with fuel intake and engine output than the ability to use a sextant. The captain was the eyes and ears and the brains; the engineer the brawn. This has changed as automation has increased aboard vessels and the day when the two roles are combined into one may not be far off.

Seafaring remains very much a man’s world; the overwhelming majority of mariners remain guys, though women are slowly making inroads into the profession. (This is not a criticism of how things should be, merely an observation of how things are. There are more women serving in Western militaries today than in the merchant marine.) At any rate, engineers often seem like “guy’s guys”, more comfortable with their machinery than with anything else.

Motorman checking auxiliary engines, MV Emerald Star

On the various vessels I’ve had the opportunity to sail aboard, the engineers could always be relied upon for a healthy dose of testosterone. More than one deckhand or deck officer warned me about engineers and their penchant for discussing anything mechanical. As one officer told me with amusement, “Don’t ask them about automobiles.” (Many of the engineers I’ve met can reel off endless statistics about torque, engine performance and the fuel capacity of various cars without the aid of any manuals. They seem to have this data seared into their brains.)

But it must be said that engineers inhabit an odd world, one without windows, horizon lines or even a sense of direction. Within the confines of the engine room, they monitor caged beasts that are the embodiment of power, energy and the means to propel a vessel through the sea, man-made maelstroms tamed within steel prisons. Where a ship is going, what the present course setting is and who else is in the waters nearby are meaningless to engineers. They’re only concern is caring for their industrial charges.


Surprisingly, I’ve always found engineers the most accessible mariners I’ve met – so long as you take an interest in their machinery. They are the guardians of pistons, fuel injectors, propeller shafts, desalinators, generators, bunker fuel, and so much more, and they take their jobs very seriously.

In many respects, engineers know a ship better than most others, save the senior officers. They inhabit the heart of the beast, a place filled with heat, noise and a just bit of chaos. More than just mechanics, they perform a type of doctoring that comes from being attuned to the equipment, understanding nuances of technical performance that most of the rest of us will never comprehend.

So the next time you happen upon an engineer in a bar, ask him – or her – about the merits of a Sulzer or a B&W engine and watch the glow on their face as they reply. Everyone has a story to tell, you just need to find an entrée.

Control room, MV Emerald Star

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