Motorman Wisdom

Continuing the discussion from Housekeeping is watchkeeping:

Once, long ago, ships’ crews included an artful man who knew all the peculiarities of each machine, the trace of every piping system, and the purpose of every ‘special’ tool. His habitat was the queit and well-ordered workshop. He was taciturn, and a keen judge of character. Woe to the arrogant young 3rd Engineer who left dirty tools and parts of an oily pump scattered on the bench overnight: an unforgivable outrage. But if you could win him over, he would show you the secret ways and methods. Alas, now the motorman is rarely seen. Perhaps we can save some of his wisdom here.

So tell us the tricks and know-how you’ve learned from the motorman, wiper, or oiler. I’ll go first:

~The best way to clean an oring groove without damaging it is with a custom trimmed zip tie.

~Empty water bottles are not garbage: they are clean funnels.

~Always start your round on the tank top level, so you can climb up one deck at a time and never break a sweat.


Without a doubt, extremely valuable, and disappearing asset. Pretty sure those type guys altered or made tools to perfect their craft. Sailed with a few, I wasn’t engine, but could ask questions for my own personal gain on my car/home/hobby car projects and wasn’t afraid to alter a perfectly good Craftsman tool on their advice. Agree Embrobu, they are in short supply, and highly respected.

Something similar I would practice back when I was a Class Surveyor. Survey the tanker pump room from the bottom up. Same with the engine room. . . .

There have been many that I have sailed with and learned from many different leagues of hawspipers . @cmakin can vouch for that with Chief Kadak. In the early '70s and '80s, I sailed with several tuna boat engineers. They were the most resourceful group I have ever seen. An education you could never pay for.

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One of my greatest epiphanies as an apprentice was how you make the perfect ring groove cleaning tool from an old piston ring. The principle can be generalized and applied a lot of places.

Also, dirty tricks can be extremely useful, but I hesitate to call them wise. For example, do you have an aging medium speed two stroke that’s smoking a bit more than what’s socially acceptable? Instead of going after scavenging air pressure and compression, which tends to be prohibitively expensive, try bumping the injection pressure by 20% and see what happens. Sure, you’ll see accelerated pump cam wear, but who cares so late in the engine life cycle? I learned this in a roundabout way from a white haired mechanic working the Oostende fishing fleet.

Also, do you really need to get under way because the pirates are coming / the harbormaster gave you final notice and he really means it this time, but you just dropped a bearing needle into some inaccessible corner of the bilge? Bearing needles tend to be sized to round numbers, and the shank from a fresh, unmarred drill bit will do just fine so long as it mikes out ok.


What did you learn, Dorothy?

My motorman swore up and down that the level sensor in the effluent tank was “fucked up”. He wanted to clean the eye on the sensor. I said you go for it I’m gonna stand back in the corner. I watched as he loosened up the bolts on the flange. Waiting for the pop then it happened. An almost prefect radius of shit exploded onto the deck. I went to the store room and got him a new set of coveralls. We called back to the ECR that we had a “shitty situation” on our hands.

I would warn all new grads of trusting the wisdom of the guy who’s been sailing as a motorman or Oiler his whole life. He might have a good eye for the neatness, cleaning and rounds but stand back when he breaks a flange.


Yeah buddy, stay at this long enough and for every example of the “wisdom” there is a counterexample. Mine came early. Cadet, first ship, tasked by First to redo the lube oil piping on a feed pump. He gave some instructions and a professional Oiler to help. I allowed the Oiler to steer the job a bit too much and upon start up multiple oil leaks. Oh I got a Royal asschewin’ alright. Couple of lessons learned. One was get all the help you want but use your own judgement. You can’t delegate your responsibility. One was follow instructions - if the First tells you to use Copaltite, use it.

So it seems that Oiler did me a favor.

The best case scenario for me has always involved licensed and unlicensed personnel aware of their limitations, open to each other’s engineering reasoning and experience and getting to a point of mutual professional trust.


From what I observed they needed to be.

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Nothing like the smell of Copaltite to let leaks know that you mean business.


There was one guy who thought assembly grease was for everything: gaskets, threads of torqued fasteners, and beaucoup for orings… like mayonnaise. Couldn’t be told any different.

I learned many things but a couple stand out. I took a 6 month job on an AHTS in Colombia around '78. I only stayed 70 days because the company refused to supply even basic safety equipment. Triple screw 16-567s. The center engine was spare parts. The first week, we had a short rig move. While starting the off line 71 series gen, I shut it down after a few turns as it was knocking. We pulled the valve cover and found a broken spring and bent valve stem. We were anchored offshore and couldn’t get parts in time they said. My asst said no problem. He positioned the valve where it was closed, placed a piece of the spring around it. Then inserted a washer and 2 saddle clamps on the valve stem. He tensioned the spring to keep the valve closed and tightened the clamps. He backed off the adjustments on that rocker arm. We cranked it up and seemed to run fine with 1 valve in that cylinder. Didn’t need it for the move. I had to threaten to quit to get another head when we got back to the dock.

Fast fwd to around '90. There was a company overhauled the mains on 2 of our tugs with 12 E7Bs. After a few months, we started having ring failure on both tugs. The first failure I had no problem changing the mini-pack. The next 2 the blow-down cocks sheared when we tried to extract them. The stub sticking out of the head would not let us pull the pack. We had to loosen the head and jack it up and down until the stub fatigued and broke off. That was about 4 hours each. The other tug had the same cock failure. Got back to Jax and a new asst reported aboard. Tuna boat guy. I explained the problem and he says “I’ve seen this several times”. He then makes his “magic wand”. He takes a ft of 1/4 inch copper tubing, taps the end to restrict the outlet and the other end connected to freon hose and tank. Removed the valve stem, inserted the magic wand and gave it a short burst. The threads shrunk so well, the cock easily unscrewed from the head. (note: this was before freon regs were put into place)


this is a handy one … of course the only bit i need is always MIA !

Absolutely. . . I can say that having gone to an Academy got my “foot in the door”, so to speak. I learned far more practical knowledge during my cadet years and after I got out. Some on my own, some from crazy bastards like “Crazy Joe”. . .


I am still always surprised how much a heating or shrinking will do to a ‘fit’.

We had a guy like that. He was the C/E.

Then there are the ones who use nothing, or the wrong stuff, and you spend countless hours trying to extract frozen fasteners.

Ditto that. The few tuna seiner chiefs i’ve worked with, very sharp…they have the best stories too.

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