Engineers are a rare breed. They work in hot, grimy conditions and oftentimes see the least amount of liberty. Yet below decks — the place most Coasties steer clear of — the engineers take pride in "their" space.

Beneath the decks, near the keel©

By Lisa D. Healy
Soundings Staff

Reprinted By Permission of The Author

... For there’s not much that men can do, that these men haven’t done,
Beneath the decks, deep in the hole, to make the engines run.
And every hour of every day, they keep the watch in hell,
For if the power ever fails, their ship’s a useless shell.
When warships converge to have a war upon an angry sea,
The men below just grimly smile at what their fate might be.
They’re locked below, like men
foredoomed, who hear no battle cry,
It’s well assumed that if they’re hit, the men below will die.
— excerpt from “The Men Who Sail,” a poem written by Chief Warrant Officer H.S. Walker, dedicated to Coast Guard engineers

 

Down below.

Where few Coasties dare to go.

The bottom of the boat.

It’s hot. It’s noisy. It’s intimidating. And it’s a vital area on board every ship — the engine room.

In "the hole" on Coast Guard cutter Forward, you’ll find Jake and Elwood, two 18-cylinder, 3,650-horsepower 251 ALCO diesel engines. They are named after the Blues Brothers, movie characters made famous by Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi.

The space Jake and Elwood inhabit is immaculate. The stainless steel exhaust covers shine, and the white deck is spotless. Without a doubt, it is one of the tidiest spaces on board the cutter. It takes a lot of work to keep it that way.

“Our guys take pride in their engine room,” said Chief Machinery Technician Alvin Murray, the Forward’s main propulsion chief.

Engineers are the only ones likely to be found in the engine room. Crew members meander about the other decks visiting crew members from other departments, yet most of the the Forward’s crew admit they have rarely entered into the dreaded sauna that lies below the main deck. That’s unfortunate, say the engineers, because there is a unique camaraderie between those who sail below that is seen in few other departments.

They work hard

The Forward is four days away from home port. After conserving fuel for the last 59 days, this seems to be the perfect time to run the required full-power trial. In actuality, the increased speed will barely reduce their arrival time. But the crew hears the engines roar and morale picks up. The engineers love the opportunity to play with their expensive toys.

“This is when we get to enjoy ourselves,” Murray said. “We get to give it all she’s got.”

Rarely does a cutter cruise at maximum speed. It’s not economical to spend the tax-payers money on unnecessary fuel costs. Lt. John Wallington, engineer officer (EO) on board the Forward, said that once the cutter increases speed, the fuel consumption also increases dramatically.

But the engineers do need to know that the engines are capable of operating at high speeds in case of an emergency at sea. The test is a two-part process. The night before the actual test, the engineers conduct DEMPs — diesel engine maintenance program — a requirement for every 1,000 hours of operation.

During DEMPs, the engineers manually operate the engines at nearly full throttle. While the engines are running at maximum capacity, various parameters of the engine are recorded. The engine room is completely manned. At the throttle in the air-conditioned control booth during DEMPs is Chief Warrant Officer Lee Fleming, the main propulsion assistant (MPA). There are six engineers inside the control booth in front of the main propulsion control monitoring system (MPCMS) console they have affectionately named Sylvia. The console monitors all parameters of the engineering plant. Some engineers monitor engine room activity on monitors mounted on Sylvia. Outside the comfort of the control booth are engineers clad in dark blue work uniforms and headphones. There are microphones attached to the headphones so that the engineers can communicate in noisy engineering spaces.

Oftentimes, the engineers are found playing practical jokes on each other, but not during DEMPs.

“We have a much heightened awareness and concern,” Fleming said.

And there’s good reason for that. If accidents such as a ruptured fuel line or major oil spills happen at high speeds, they occur quickly. Therefore there are eight engineers on watch during this evolution.

The safety of the engineers is a concern, too. There is water nearby to keep them hydrated in the 120-plus degrees. Every few minutes, sweat-soaked engineers take cover in the cool control booth before heading back out to wipe up oil and watch for problems. Heat exhaustion is on everyone’s mind. Only a few days ago one of the engineers suffered heat exhaustion during a main space fire drill. She was dressed in an FFE (firefighter’s ensemble), which are fireproof coveralls designed to protect the body from intense heat and flames associated with a machinery space fire. Unfortunately, the suits also don’t let body heat escape. Without proper hydration, the suit can be dangerous.

Even with the heat and danger, the fun for engineers begins with full-power trials conducted after successfully completing DEMPs.

“This is as good as it gets,” said Chief Machinery Technician Robert Hill.

After breakfast, engineers enter into the control booth through the galley scuttle. A chief and first class machinery technician don black safety gloves, double-hearing protection and head for the engine room as part of the safety watch. One maintains communications with the Engineer of the Watch (EOW) in the control booth and the other paces the cat walk keeping a close eye on the engineers and the equipment.

Before the test can begin, there’s an important ritual that must take place inside the control booth. The EO arrives with Lifesavers candy for everyone. The EOW assumes control of the emergency manual throttle and the full-power trial is under way.

Only minutes into the test, Jake is giving the engineers problems. They talk to Jake but it doesn’t help. They tell each other it’s best not to push Jake too far. The governor, which controls Jake’s speed, seems to be the problem. Elwood seems to be cooperating with his caretakers.

Suddenly there are three simultaneous alarms: high lube oil, jacket water temperature and exhaust temperatures. The engines are backed down. Fleming decides that’s the end of the full-power trial.

“It’s a sad day,” Murray said.

The engineers aren’t happy that only 40 minutes into the two-hour trial mechanical problems force an end to their fun.

Suddenly Fireman T.J. Arnold enters the control booth.

“There’s a lube oil leak,” he said.

“Where’s it coming from?” Fleming asks urgently.

“I don’t know,” replies the watch stander.

“Well, investigate and report back,” Fleming said.

Senior engineers take control of the situation and leave the control booth with Arnold only to discover the leak was jacket water, potentially serious to the engines but not as serious as leaking lube oil. The problem was deemed not to need immediate attention, but would be investigated in due course.

Engineers work hard both under way and in port. During port calls, the engineers can be found taking on fuel or repairing equipment that couldn’t be fixed under way. Of all the divisions on board ship, the engineers usually have the least amount of liberty time.

Why do they do it? Most engineers have the same answer to that question — they don’t have to paint.

They play hard, too

Anyone in a stressful and demanding job needs to find ways of coping with the daily rigors of each workday. The engineers on board the Forward have definitely found a distraction from the hot and tiring work of being engineers.
Unfortunately for the MPA, it’s at his expense. The engineers like to refer to Fleming as the Main Passenger Afloat. But it’s all in fun. During the full-power trial, Fleming was at the helm of the exercise competently leading the decision-making process.

It seems Fleming has a serious problem. His treasured coffee mugs keep disappearing. Word has it that Tinky’s (chief machinery technicians Hill and Murray dubbed him “Tinky” because they claim Fleming tinkers in their business) mugs have been medevaced off the cutter with recently departed crew members.

“The first mug was medevaced to Portsmouth and is en route to Alaska,” Murray said. “The second mug is a purple plastic mug Fleming won during casino night on New Year’s Eve. That one is probably in Hickory, N.C.”

Even a chain and lock couldn’t keep Fleming’s mug safe. He awoke from a snooze in the wardroom only to find the chain guarding his mug had been cut. Some say it was the work of the executive officer and a student engineer.

However, the engineer officer has not been without his problems, either. One day, as the captain and executive officer were discussing important plans outside their staterooms, they noticed two chief machinery technicians with power tools near the engineer’s stateroom. Only minutes after sighting the two, the door to the engineer’s stateroom turned up missing.

But Tinky does seem to take the brunt of the engineering capers. They recalled one of their favorites is the case of the missing ear protection. After searching for his missing hearing protection, Fleming decided to take a break for dinner. When he removed the cover to his tray in the wardroom, frozen in a large block of ice were the missing headphones. According to sources in the engine room, the headphones were not properly stowed for sea.

Fearing that Fleming had no intention of stopping his tinkering, the engineers found a way to make him less dangerous. They purchased Fleming his own green tool belt complete with plastic tools which he proudly has on display in his stateroom.

“I don’t know if they do it all in fun or if they do it because I let them,” Fleming said.

To the outsider it may seem disrespectful, but when push comes to shove the engineers are all business, as evidenced during the full-power trial.

They know when to work hard. And they know when to play hard. Unfortunately for Fleming, the play is usually at his expense.


The full power trial episode brings back memories of returning to port from many a long weather patrol. This EO always kept enough fuel in his back pocket to afford that luxury. It was worth all the preliminary work, the high noise level, the chicanary of hiding the fuel, and so forth just to walk through the berthing areas and see the smiles on the faces of the sailors polishing their shoes, pressing their blues, and other symptoms of that dread disease, "channel fever." - Jack


©Virginia Pilot - 2001

Return to Coast Guard Stories