You open a cupboard and there is a standing pool of water that shouldn't be there. You flush your toilet and nothing happens. You are stocking your storage area just over the bilge and you notice a significant amount of water down below. The salon seemed to get really warm this afternoon and you don’t know why. Or you are doing something as simple as trying to open a drawer, and it’s stuck. There is nothing you can do to get your underwear after your shower. What do you do? Do you show up commando for work? No! You call your Engineer!
Engineering is the meat and potatoes of operating a yacht, where anything to do with electricity, fuel, water, air, refrigeration, etc. on board boils down to one, two, three and sometimes more people, depending on the size of the vessel. There is plenty of interest in learning to be an engineer on yachts where many deckies get called in to lend a hand, and where some become deck/engineers helping the Chief when need be. The trick to learning the art of engineering is to learn how to think like an engineer and to remain humble throughout the process. How can you be called back to help the engineer when you’re super keen and wanting to learn more?
The key to learning engineering is to be open. And to know there are several levels to becoming a successful engineering assistant or engineer. We like to break it down like this:
Level 1) Unconscious unconsciousness. This means you have no idea what you don’t know when it comes to Engineering. You know your own department, but you don’t know much further than changing a light bulb or pumping water out of a bilge using a wet/dry vacuum cleaner (did you take out the dry filter? Did you clean the vacuum after using it?! Did you put it away?!!)
You get called in to assist with an engineering project. Perhaps the water filtration is in need of a clean or filter change. You are guided through turning off water, valves, prepping for water to leak out of pipes/housing when you open the filter housing and how to install the appropriate filter and to turn the system back on again. And don't forget to label it so you know when the filter was last changed!
Get a note pad. Write down steps. And stop to think. This is the number one cause of ‘not getting called back to the ER’ – not thinking.
Level 2) Conscious unconsciousness. You’re starting to see what you don’t know and there is a massive amount of information and ‘stuff’ to learn before you could ever call yourself an engineer. You start to see the complications you didn’t see before and you start asking yourself appropriate questions (when cleaning the air handler filters, you notice the air handlers are not draining properly and there is water in the tray, month after month. How can you fix the issue?) You start spending more time looking at things and thinking versus rushing in to try the first solution that pops in to your head. And alerting your engineer accordingly. And you’re also starting to see you have no idea anything about electricity. Sure positive and negative doesn’t matter when connecting the VIP ceiling lights, but why? Why is one system 220V and the other only 24V? These are all great questions to have – it means you’re paying attention instead of just assuming you know the answers.
Level 3) Unconsciousness consciousness. This is when you didn’t realize you knew something. You are called in to help change the oil and filters on the 3412’s. You get the tools and gear you need and place it close to the engines. You find the filters in the storage container (you know how many you need) and you get a bucket or container in which to place the used filters to drain. You understand the process and you instantly know to drain the filter housing in order to not have oil all over the ER floor when you open up, before you do much else. And you know how long it takes to drain.. But you’re still confused about how air conditioning works and you don’t understand how to bring a boiler back online that blew a fuse yesterday. You’re now a bit more ‘in the zone’ and are a little more afraid to rush in to push buttons and to flick switches as you know what happens now when you do (if you’re a button pusher or switch flicker, you could possibly have been yelled at on more than one occasion!)
Level 4) Conscious consciousness. This is the stage at which you could consider taking some courses and learning how to become a properly licensed engineer. You realize what’s going on immediately upon finding a simple issue and you know how to deal with it. Some of this will come with experience (you know the boat well and the same thing happened last year). The notion of a leaking pipe or ripping out an appliance no longer phases you and you’re getting more comfortable talking ‘engineering language’ with the Chief on board. Lunch time is generally spent talking about a failing solenoid valve and your afternoon project of opening up the Alfa Laval to give it a thorough clean. You are now an air con ‘expert’ in that you understand how the system works and find a leak somewhere as pressure won’t remain constant.
The bottom line is there is a lot to learn about engineering on yachts. And unfortunately many ‘engineers’ don't reach the conscious consciousness level before deciding they are an engineer and applying for engineering positions. And some boats actually employ these people. If you don’t come from engineering, it’s a great idea to get in with your engineer (by listening well, by following his/her guidance and by asking lots of questions). Never assume you know more than you do and you might just find that by asking what might seem to be a stupid question, you might just earn the respect of your Chief Engineer enough to be called back to do a project. They would much prefer you asked a stupid question than to make a stupid assumption that causes them a lot of grief down the road. Just make sure it's not the same question you asked a half hour ago when they already explained the answer...!