The Engine Room

Pictures and stories from the engineers who kept the ‘show on the road’ (sea).

The open crankcase and crankshaft of a Wärtsilä-Sulzer 12 cylinder marine diesel engineDiesel engine..

A Pielstick diesel view

The IVYBANK engine room (from YouTube – click on the link below)

The ‘ Liberty ship engine. 3 cylinder steam – a simple and reliable design that went into more than 2000 ships.

A 140-ton vertical triple expansion steam engine of obsolete design was selected to power Liberty ships because it was cheaper and easier to build in the numbers required for the Liberty ship program and because more companies could manufacture it. Eighteen different companies eventually built the engine. It had the additional advantage of ruggedness and simplicity. Parts manufactured by one company were interchangeable with those made by another, and the openness of its design made most of its moving parts easy to see, access, and oil. The engine — 21 feet (6.4 m) long and 19 feet (5.8 m) tall — was designed to operate at 76 rpm  and propel a Liberty ship at about 11 knots. A visit to the engine room on a sailing Liberty was a treat. The highlight usually was an offer to ‘palm’ the huge crank as it flew around, the engineer on watch first showing how it should be done. Awesome!

See the Liberty ship triple expansion engine working – click the link below

ERICBANK – One of 12 in the fleet postwar

Reluctant engineer subjects!

This is a photo taken by the author in 1956 on the twin-screw IRISBANK. No one wanted their photo during a break from changing piston liners… left to right: Brian Smith:?:S African engineer:Gerry Fallon:Jim Scobbie 2/0:App:P Walsh (electrician).


One of 3 sister ships from Doxfords, (The East,South,and Westbank) fitted with opposed piston engines.

Established as a ship builder in 1840, Doxford produced marine diesel engines between 1913 and 1979 and was the last UK builder of two-stroke engines. Its most celebrated design was the opposed piston engine, in which each cylinder housed two pistons and a central combustion chamber.



Tales of the Deep, by Michael Smith

“Tales of the Deep”

by Michael Smith N.Z.

I decided to share my experience and stories of a 22 year career as an Engineer in the Merchant Navy with those others, who like myself, were called to go ‘down to the sea in ships’.  I am in my late 70’s, and have lived in New Zealand with my wife for the last 7 years. The stories that I will share with you are not in cronological order.  Whilst I will endeavour not to get to ‘deep’ into the engineering side of things, I trust that the engineers ‘out there’ will find common ground in my descriptions.  

I joined the M.V. Teakbank in late ‘64 as the 6thEngineer in Calcutta.  The Captain was Louis Wigham, who in my opinion  was the best ‘Old Man’ I ever sailed with. The Chief Engineer was from  Sunderland whose name escapes me.  The 2nd Engineer was Jack who hailed from Mount Lofty in South Australia.  He was around 63 years of age at that time, he had been at sea for about 30 or so years, the Teakbank was the last vessel he was to serve on.  The 3rd Engineer was Alvin Latty who hailed from New York.  Most pleasant person who basically along with Jack the 2ndshowed me the ropes over the next 5 or so months. The 4th Engineer John hailed from Glasgow.  The 5th was Sam who had signed on about 6 months prior to me. He hailed from Durban.  The 2nd Lecki was Barry who hailed from Newcastle in NSW Australia.  I cannot recall who the Chief Electrician was.  Deck and Engine room crews were recruited from Chulna and Chittagong, and the Chippy was from Hong Kong.

The Teakbank was powered by a Doxford 4 Cylinder Opposed Piston oil Engine. It had three 500kw Ruston Generators.  The Main Engine was started by compressed air, two large air cylinders were fixed vertically to the forhead engine room bulkhead.  Whilst entering and leaving a port the main engine was run on Diesel Fuel, when at sea and at ‘Full Away’, the engine was run on Heavy Fuel.  About an hour before a pilot was picked up the ‘revs’ were slowly dropped to around 70rpm (normal running revs were 95rpm).  Two inlet pipes fed the Fuel Pump block, one fed pure diesel and the other heavy oil.  When coming into port it was a simple matter of shutting off the ‘steam heating’ to the heavy fuel lines, and slowly shutting the valve which reduced the flow of heavy oil and, at the same time, opening the valve on the diesel line, allowing the flow of diesel oil to the fuel pumps.  Within a couple of minutes the ‘tone’ of the beat of the engine changed and one could smell the faint traces of ‘diesel exhaust’, it is something engineers rarely forget!

To be continued………

Engine Room Tales …..

kindly contributed by Michael Smith – N.Z.

Bank Line ships – Kiddapore Dock

I clearly remember the day I arrived at a berth in Kidderpore Docks to find that the deck Serang had organised two of the crew, to assist in taking my large metal suitcase up the gangway to the 6th Engineers cabin.  As most of us know the first day is a blur, I signed papers on board, met various other Officers, and was asked by the 2nd Mate whether I would like a pay advance.  I naturally said ‘yes please’!  It was then off to the Shipping Office accompanied by Captain Wigham and the 2nd Mate to ‘officially’ sign on to the Teakbank. Funnily enough I do not think that anyone mentioned that I was signing ‘ 2 year’ articles! 

The 2nd Engineer who I will refer to as ‘Jack’ from here on in, showed me around the engine room and told me that we were on ‘Port’ watches, 00.00hrs to 08.00hrs. And that at sea, I was to be on the 04.00hrs to 08.00hrs ‘Sea’ watch with him. Often referred to as the 2nds watch.    I went home for a while to say my last goodbyes to inlaws, outlaws, and family and friends and was back by 18.00hrs.  Jack demonstrated the ‘blowing down’ of the lubricating oil filter on the Generators which was to be done every 6 hours.  I stuffed the process up the first time, but from then on it was a breeze.  During my first port watch I was tasked to ‘splitting the ends’ of the exhaust gas boiler tubes, all of which were to be renewed by a shore crew the next day.  Unfortunately, half way through doing this task, I managed to wallop my left hand instead of the cold chisel with the hammer.  That brought my exhaust boiler work to a grinding halt for the night!  However, it did provide me with the opportunity to learn more about the engine room which was to become my new home for many a month. The next day we moved to a berth along the Hoogly River.

Allow me to digress for a while please.  I did a 4 year Apprenticeship at The Shalimar Shipbuilding Works in Howrah.  During my last year I was moved into the Ship Repair Department which was something I always wanted to do. I was fortunate to be placed on the M.V. Irish Rowan, (and many other vessels) for about a week, she was a 6 cylinder ‘J’ type Doxford with a center scavenge. I stayed on board when the vessel moved berths, and hence, was fairly conversant with all that needs to be done, to get a marine diesel engine ready for maneuvers.   

Finally, a few days later, we received orders to sail to Chulna to pick up a cargo of Jute and Gunnies for New York.  We had ‘broken’ Port Watches the previous night and at around 03.30hrs the 4th engineer, John, woke me and told me the Circus was about to begin.   An hour or so later he showed me how to go about ‘testing’ the Steering Gear.  As I walked back to the engine room along the deck after testing the steering gear, I remember seeing the sky tinged with a pink red sunrise.  The tugs slowly dragged the vessel out into the Hoogly and the first of many ‘telegraph commands’ rang to Half Ahead.  My own Great Wanderings, had well and truly begun.

It was a day or so later after leaving Chulna that we received news that there was to be a ‘crew change’ in New York.  Most of the Officers had been on board for about 14 months.  I recall that Captain Wigham had been there a lot longer.  The vessel needed bunkers, both heavy and diesel, so Bank Line decided to bunker the vessel at Cape Town. It took around 12 days to get to Cape Town and in the process I learnt what it was like to be sea-sick!   I remember Jack telling me that I would get used to the ships motion, and that he had seen more waves in a teacup!! We were in Cape Town for about 8 hours, here I was introduced to the gentle art of sounding the heavy fuel double bottoms tanks as the fuel poured in. Glad to report there were no spills! (that I know of!!!)  Leaving Cape Town we headed for New York, it was sort of being on the ‘home stretch’ for most of the Officers.  Sam the 5th engineer signed off in Cape Town, I was promoted to the exalted position of 5th.  So the engineers sailed ‘short handed’ when we left Cape Town for New York.

It was ‘watch on—watch off’ for the next 28 days.  I got 2 hours ‘overtime’ each day after breakfast, and my tasks included reconditioning/replacing galley burners which ran on heavy fuel.  8 days out of New York, we ran low on heavy fuel and the heavy fuel transfer pump refused to ‘lift’ the fuel from the double bottoms up to the crude oil tank.  The crude oil tank puts the crude fuel through a PX Purifier, then a separator up to the Heavy Oil Service Tank.  We then switched to Diesel Fuel and the Doxford ran on diesel till we arrived at destination.

Then a funny thing happened.  The bridge rang ‘Stop’ on the telegraph and informed we were about to pick the pilot up.  Half hour later, with the pilot safety on-board we approached a ‘U’ shaped dock where we were to berth Starboard side to.  Bridge rang ‘Stop’ and moments later, rang ‘Full Astern’, Jack who was on the controls, was not very happy fellow merely because, any large marine diesel takes a while to come to rest even after the fuel is shut off.  It finally did however, and Jack banged the lever that permits compressed air to the cylinders into Astern, gave it some fuel and a blast of air.  The engine started again but, was still in the Ahead mode and so started in the Ahead mode again! He tried 3 or 4 times, each time it refused to go Astern, and continued to go Ahead!!! The Chief who was in the engine room at that time, looked very concerned as the bridge rang ‘double Full Astern’ 3 times, which normally translates into ‘we have a problem Houston’!! He told me to follow him as he raced up to the the ‘middle platform’ with a large hammer and started to beat the living daylights out of the casing, of what I now know to be, the Roto Valve. At the same time screaming at Jack to ‘give it another go’, which Jack did, but which produced the same result.   Funny that!

Meanwhile of course, unbeknown to us, (no one ever tells the engineers anything!!) the vessel was fast approaching the end of the ‘U’ shaped dock, two heavy duty Tugs were straining to slow the vessel down with ropes attached to the aft bollards.  

Most/all marine diesels are unidirectional.  They can be started to run clockwise or anticlockwise as needed.   I need at this stage to give a brief explanation of what a Roto Valve does.  My understanding is that a Roto Valve consists of a cylinder, in which a ‘free floating’ piston can move up or down allowing ‘different’ ports to be exposed, which in turn directs compressed air to the appropriate cylinder depending on whether one needs to ‘go’ Ahead or Astern. The piston had jammed in the Ahead position, probably due to the fact that we had been at sea close to 38 days.

Many attempts later, and copious quantities of ‘Release All’ it did finally go Astern, but we were at berth by then! But folks who read this know where this story is going!

Some say that the bow did not nudge the end of the ‘U’ shaped dock, some say it did, but only just, whatever that means!!   We engineers will never know the truth because: ‘no one tells the engineers anything’!!!  Besides, when one is chomping at the bit to go home after 15 months at sea, mind sets are somewhat different.  Many had started to celebrate by having a few wee drams after we picked the pilot up.

to be continued………

The TEAKBANK in later life as the NEWTON

The Teakbank was in the port of New York for around 2 days.   During those 2 days a huge amount of activity took place as the original crew departed and a ‘new’ crew arrived.  Badly needed stores like beer, and many other such nutritional products were winched on board.  The crew change included the engine room and deck crew who had been on the vessel for about 16 or so months.  Captain Wigham stayed on. 

The departing 4th engineer John, had bought a second hand accordion in Cape Town at some stage from a person at a Sunday Market, and it was indeed a second hand accordion! He informed me that I too, could be the proud owner of this musical instrument for the minor sum of $20.  I offered to give him by cheque for $20, but being a canny Scotsman, he told me he much preferred cash, he also claimed that he was more than happy to cart it all the way back to Scotland.   Some of the keys did not work, and holes in the ‘air pump’ had been covered and patched with duct tape.  And for some unknown reason ‘smelt’ of Drambuie!!  One could at a stretch, say that it was in ‘working condition’ as it did in fact ‘work’!   Ted the new 3rd engineer from Belfast turned out to be a dab hand at playing this lovely instrument, whilst no maestro, when it came to producing the required ‘noise’ when we all gathered in his cabin for a sing song when we were in port, he did rather well.  He could play 3 tunes really well, he even had the swaying body movements down pat, ‘I belong to Glasgow’, ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘If you ever go across the sea to Ireland’.  Many other songs were sung, but sadly, the music/tune did not quite match the lyrics! The ‘brave’ among us carried on regardless and the song was sung regardless of the tune, the disparity between music, timing and lyrics increasing as the night wore on.  There were times when it sounded as though 2 different songs were being sung at the same time.  Our ‘new’ 2nd Lecki being Welsh had a great singing voice, as they do, the only minor issue was that as the night of frivolity wore on, he swapped from singing in English to singing the words in Welsh.   This resulted in a situation where most of us had no idea as to which song was being sung, and what the words were.

 The ‘new’ Engineering Officers and Deck Officers to the best of my memory were as follows.  The Chief Engineer Prim Mangat hailed from Delhi.  The 2nd engineer was Clifford Sai who was from Hong Kong originally, but lived in Liverpool. The 3rd engineer was Ted Sawyers who hailed from Belfast and had been at sea for about 20+ years, and had sailed on ‘Bank Boats’ several times. The 4th was John Cree who came from Glasgow.  I was the 5th engineer, and the 6th engineer was a guy named Donald McClung who was from Dumbartonshire in Scotland.  The 2ndLecki whose name escapes me, was from Wales.  He was on the ‘8 to 12’ watch with John the 4th engineer. 

I have very little recollection of who the Deck Officers were.  What I do remember, is that the ‘new’ R/O was Trevor.  I met Trevor briefly in Brisbane about 6 years later when I was living there, he had joined the RFA and had done several ‘stints’ on their vessels.  

[ If any of you good people out there reading this article recognise any of the names above, or know of their whereabouts please contact me. Thank you]

Leaving New York we sailed to Norfolk-Virginia where, for the first time in about 40 or so days, I was able to ‘go ashore’ and feel ‘solid ground’ under my feet!  The said ‘Roto Valve’, mentioned earlier that had been the source of much angst, had been pulled apart and reconditioned.  We never did have that problem again.  Leaving Norfolk where we had picked up a small amount of cargo, we traveled to many of ‘Gulf’ Ports loading ‘general’ cargo for Australia.  At New Orleans we berthed at what was called ‘The Bank Line Wharf’.  If my memory is correct, there would have been at least 20 to 30 names of Bank Line vessels painted just about everywhere along the wharf.  One that I remember distinctly, was the Dart Bank.  Someone had taken great pains to colourfully draw a dartboard, complete with numbers etc on a 8 foot square piece of timber.  A really well drawn ‘dart’ was drawn sticking into the ‘bullseye’.  I have never really forgotten that image representing the M.V. Dart Bank.  I wonder whether the Bank Line wharf is still being used?

We stayed in New Orleans for about 14 days.   Bourbon Street was almost like a magnet to most of us and a good time was had by all.  Leaving New Orleans, we headed for Panama to pass through the Canal and make our way across the Pacific Ocean to Australia.  Then a funny thing happened.

At around 10.00hrs I happened to be on the ‘boat deck’ a day out of New Orleans, when I felt the revs on the Doxford drop to around 25rpm (normal sea speed was 95rpm), many alarms were being sounded and the engine finally came to a stop.  I looked down through the ‘swing doors’ of the engine room vents I saw a large stream of water gushing vertically upwards almost touching the top of the engine room.   The top piston cooling water hose had decided to detach itself from the steel water inlet nozzle. 

Let me explain that a bit better!

The top pistons on an opposed piston Doxford diesel, are cooled with fresh water that is pumped through water channels within the piston. There are 2 hoses, one is the inlet hose the other the outlet. I cannot remember what the ‘exact’ pressure of the fresh water was.  I ‘think’ it was around 50 to 70lbs, perhaps one of our readers has a better idea??   In any event, the pressure of the fresh water is/was higher than the ‘salt water’.  This ensures that, if there is a leak in the ‘counterflow cooler’, the salt water would not ‘mix’ with the fresh water and contaminate the piston cooling fresh water tank.   If however, a leak did develop in the cooler, the fresh water would go overboard.

To get a better idea please visit this link:

We replaced the faulty hose with a new one, and in about an hour and a half we were back up to ‘Full Away’ headed for the Panama Canal.  I remember making a mental note to have at least half dozen ‘already cut to length pieces of hose’ in the engine room store so that replacing them when and if they did come apart, would be a quicker fix.  The 12 hour (I think?) trip through the Canal was uneventful and we finally emerged into the largest ocean in the world, the Pacific Ocean.  It was daunting to realise that there was several miles of water between the ship’s hull and the ocean floor.

Seeing a pod of about 1000 Dolphins making their way in leaps and bounds towards the setting sun was a sight I shall never forget.  We also passed several Blue Whales diving and exposing their massive tails and ‘thumping’ their tails as they dived or moved on.

It would take 37 days for us to arrive in Brisbane. 

To be continued…

Kenneth Mackay – Ships served on with dates and rank

  • Gowanbank; Rotterdam from 19-01-72 to Jarrow 30-08-72; 6th Eng.
  • Riverbank; Mombasa from 02-10-72 to Durban 19-01-73; 6th Eng.
  • Rosebank; Barry from 13-03-73 to Liverpool 20-11-73; 5th Eng.
  • Corabank; Liverpool from 17-01-74 to 07-02-74; 4th Eng.
  • Nairnbank; Durban from 21-01-74 to Tyne 23-04.74; 4th Eng.
  • Fleetbank; Immingham 14-05-74 to Aqaba 26-07-74; 4th Eng.
  • Cloverbank; Sunderland 17-10-74 to London 08-11-74; 4th Eng.
  • Larchbank; Liverpool from 26-11-74 to Amsterdam 03-01-75; 3rd Eng.
  • Palacio (McAndrews); Sheerness 10-06-75 to Sheerness 04-08-75; 4th Eng.
  • Cloverbank; Bander Abbas from 08-01-76 to Rotterdam 23-11-76; 2nd Eng.
  • Siena (Cloverbank); Hong Kong from 26-06-77 to Bangkok 15-01-78; 2nd Eng.
  • Speybank; Rotterdam from 28-03-78 to Antwerp 21-04-78; 2nd Eng.
  • Hollybank; Liverpool 31-05-78 to Hull 30.06-78; 2nd Eng.
  • Cedarbank; London from 24-07-78 to Cardiff 07-08-78; 2nd Eng.
  •  Fleetbank; Hamburg from 14-08-78 to Hamburg 18-12-78; 2nd Eng.
  • Fenbank Brake 21-03-79 to Durban 14-09-79; 2nd Eng.

Any shipmates like to say hello? Leave a message

Tales from the deep by Michael Smith…

I would like to, if I may, share some of my adventures on board the M.V. Geopotis. A Single Trailing Suction Dredger which operated in the area of Chilichup in Indonesia for about 6 months.  The vessel had been tasked with ‘deepening’ part of the harbour so that ships, mainly Tankers, with a deeper draft could enter and discharge various cargoes at Chilichup.  The vessel was powered by Two Twin Bank Mirrlees-Blackstone Diesels.  A single Turbo-Charger was fitted to each engine.  Normal running revs were around 900rpm.  The single propeller shaft was also ‘attached’ through a separate gearbox, to the ‘suction pump’ which ‘sucked’ in vast quantities of sea water and silt (and anything else that happened to be lying on sea bed) from the sea bed and pumped this into a  large holding tank.  The sea water would drain off from this tank, leaving the silt and other ‘objects’ in the tank.  When the tank was ‘full’ we moved further out to sea, and by means of hydraulic operated bottom doors ‘dumped the cargo’ into a deeper part of the surrounding area.  The vessel operated 24 hours, 6 days a week.  Watches were 12 hours stints.

It was about a month after the ‘run job’ to Singapore on the M. V.Lake Barine, that I got a call from the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers in Sydney, inquiring whether I would be interested in doing a stint on the Geopotis.  The vessel at that stage was in dry dock at Sembawang in Singapore, going through a refit in preparation for dredging at Chilichup.  I was pleased to find that some of the guys I had done my 2nd’s ticket with in Melbourne, were on the same flight to Singapore, as was  The Chief Engineer Bill Hoskins who hailed from Invercargil in New Zealand and Phil Parker, the Electrician, from Perth in Western Australia.   One of them was Louie Salvagno, who at that stage lived in Melbourne.  Both Louie and I were to be the Senior 2nd’s on the Geopotis.   Two Junior engineers completed the engine room crew.  After a nine hour flight we arrived in Singapore and were housed at The Cockpit Hotel which was a very pleasant hotel to stay at.  Our working day started at 09.00hrs and finished at 16.00hrs.  We were driven to and from the hotel each day, 6 days a week.  We were at the drydock for about a week.  My memory of these events and times are a bit hazy.  Other than basic tasks of packing glands on various valves, checking/testing correct functioning of equipment and assisting Singaporean shore-side marine fitters to complete various tasks, it was not a demanding 7 hours a day.  It was however the height of summer in Singapore, and thus the engine room temperature tended to be over 40 degrees most days.  The humidity did not help!!  

Coming out of dry-dock we anchored at Singapore Roads for about 2 days and then finally left and headed for Chilichup.  The voyage to Chilichup was more ot less uneventful and the Mirrlees ran smoothly.  We were cautioned to check the lube oil level on the two Mirrlees every 2 hours.  The reason behind this was; the diesel fuel pumps were actually ‘positioned inside’ the crankcase, the injectors were as per normal, placed outside in middle of each cylinder.  Any fuel leakage from the fuel pumps would result in the crankcase filling up with a mixture of lube oil and diesel.  I seem to remember being told that the crankshaft on both of them had been replaced some months prior, when a fuel pump had leaked, and diesel had filled the crankcase.    During the 4 months I served on the vessel this never occurred.  

We finally started to dredge.  It basically consisted of lowering a large long pipe/cylinder which had ‘drag head’ (weighing about 10 tons) at/on the end of it that looked very similar to a household ‘vacuum cleaner’ head.  This head was lowered to the sea bed and the vacuum pump started, the main engines were engaged and the vessel moved (slowly—4 to 5 knots) dragging the head along the bottom and sucking up anything in its path.  At the end of a preorganised ‘path’ the vessel turned around and took another suck of the sea bed.  I seem to remember that during any 12 hour watch we did 3 to 4 trips to the ‘dump site’ further out to sea.What amazed me no end was ‘what was actually dredged’ up from the sea bed.  Being an area which experienced a whole lot of action during WW2 one can only imagine what ended up in the holding tank!!  Previous dredging crews had seen bits and pieces of what turned out to be a Japanese Zero, and other bits of aircraft which no one could identify.  Munitions of various types, rifles, parts of machine guns…cars, many motorcycles, etc, most of them not easily recognisable, and the list goes on.  Some of the crew decided to ‘salvage’ some of the munitions as keepsakes, until some senior person from the Army informed them that the munitions could very well be alive!!  This put a stop to ‘salvaging’!!  (I think!!)  As always there were ‘tales and stories’ of what had been collected in the past trips.  Herewith a few of them:  Huge number of 2” gold coins made in Spain (apparently).  Gold bars with unknown stamps on them.  A smallish treasure chest containing jewels, diamonds and other valuable ‘stuff’.   The story goes that the key was still in the lock, (?) and so, no issues were experienced when trying to open the chest!!   No one telling these stories seemed to know what actually happened to all this wealth.   

to be continued………..


The Diesel engine (as written up in the 1930’s)

Click on the link above to read the full interesting article from the website: “Shipping Wonders of the World”