When you’re out on the water, your engine is arguably your most important single piece of safety gear. In this article, Capt. Richard Thiel provides a run-through of everything that makes up a good engine room, and how you can ensure that you purchase a boat that has excellent engineering and quality.
The Heart of the Matter
With hundreds of inspections under his belt, Capt. Richard Thiel explains what engine room essentials you need to look for.
I have a friend who has owned 15 boats, including his latest, a 62-foot custom sportfish, and he loves to tell anyone who will listen that he always adheres to one rule when shopping for a boat (which he is doing now). “I always start in the engine room. The engine room is where the guts of a boat are exposed so you can tell just how serious a builder is about engineering and quality.”
I should add that my friend’s wife does not share his philosophy; she always begins her examination in the galley. And you may also demur from his strategy, but even if you do you can’t take issue with the importance of a thorough examination of the engine room as an important step in the process of shopping for a boat, be it new or used. You may be thinking that, not being mechanically inclined, you have no idea what to look for down there and besides, you’re never going to venture into the bowels of your boat anyway. But I can give you three reasons why you need to judiciously evaluate the engine room of every boat you seriously consider purchasing.
For one thing, many a boater thinks he or she will never enter an engine room only to be confronted by a mechanical problem that demands immediate action. At such a time, when your anxiety level is high and your rationality is low, a well-designed mechanical space that has everything accessible, logically arranged, and properly labeled can help you find and fix the problem, or at the very least identify it.
For another, even if you don’t go into your engine room and instead rely on your mechanic to do everything—a risky strategy—a proper engine room can make his life a lot easier. And why should you care about that? Because mechanics charge by the hour, the less time it takes for him to navigate your engine room the less he’s going to charge you. Further, as a former mechanic, I can tell you that it is much more pleasant to work in a well-designed engine room than the opposite, and when someone’s working environment is more pleasant, he or she almost always does a better job.
Before I address the third reason and talk about what constitutes a good engine room on a boat, let’s discuss what is probably a major concern of yours at this point: Can the average mechanical layman really recognize a good engine room? Don’t you need to have at least some expertise?
Fortunately you do not need to be a mechanic, or even mechanically inclined, to tell a good mechanical layout from a bad one. Much of the evaluation process involves simple common sense and the application of the same logic you employ when looking at the rest of the boat. Don’t be intimidated. Trust your intuition and first impressions. But also spend some time getting a feel for the space, and when you do, here are a few things to look for:
How easy is it to get into the engine room? Imagine the boat is pitching in a seaway and you’re trying to navigate a ladder or stairs to get to the engines or genset. Is the ER entrance protected or do you have to walk out into a potentially dangerous area like a swim platform to enter it? Are there handholds and nonskid steps to make the trip safer? If there’s a ladder, will you need to remove it to access key components—as is the case on some midcabin cruisers? Is there a secondary access in case using the first one isn’t practical? Can you turn on the ER lights before you enter? Is there a window so that you can clearly see what’s going on inside before you crack the door or hatch? This can be particularly important in the event of fire or flooding.
Turn on the ER lights. Is the space bright? Are the corners of the space, top and bottom, illuminated well enough so you could spot a leak or an errant part? Is there emergency lighting; that is, a secondary system that will function if the main electrical system goes down? Is there an auxiliary light that you can carry to a specific location?
Adequate space to move around is important, and that includes headroom. Obviously the amount of it is a function of the size of the boat; on smaller vessels you probably can’t avoid stooping or even crawling on your hands and knees to reach the forward bulkhead, but if that’s the case, key components like fuel-water separators and fuel valves should be as close to the entrance as possible.
The walkway between the engines should be clear. Do components like separators and oil-change system controls intrude? Protrusions in the overhead can also make moving forward difficult if not downright hazardous. I was recently on a boat in which the outlet for the fire-suppression system was directly over the center walkway. Yes, it was painted red and yes it was covered by a protective cage, but that didn’t stop me from banging my head into it.
Again, imagine you’re down here in a seaway. Are there rails or handholds to keep you from being thrown against a hot engine or moving parts like a propsaft? How much clearance is there between the engines and the overhead? Can you walk between the engines and the forward bulkhead or the hull sides without touching a moving or hot part? Is the marine gear output flange and propshaft shaft shielded so that you can’t inadvertently contact it? Are there handholds with which you could steady yourself in a seaway? On a pitching boat you’re liable to grab onto the nearest thing to steady yourself, even if it’s hot, sharp, or spinning.