Adventures in Engineering: The Kat
Well, I suppose as I have all the courses done for upgrading, I can share my “Best job I ever had,” to quote the movie Fury. I have only a few pictures so this will be type heavy.
Quick background on myself. I’m a Marine Engineer, acquired my license in 2013. Currently I hold around 20 Canadian marine licenses, certificates and endorsements recognised by the IMO (so I can not only sail on vessels anywhere in Canada or North America, but anywhere in the world if I want). As of now, I hold all certification to apply for a Senior Watchkeeping Licence. This includes advanced certificates in Passenger, Oil Tanker, and LNG Vessels.
The most relatable reference is Scotty from Star Trek. He is stereotypically based on Chief Marine Engineers of vessels in the 60’s (even down to many of them being Scotsman), many of his problems on the show are based on malfunctions engineers have encountered on vessels.
Everything you’re about to read is from my recollection. It is not 2nd hand, exaggerated or embellished for the sake of storytelling.
The company, and all names have been changed or withheld for the sake of liability.
60 Days on The Kat
The Summer of 2014 I spent up in the Arctic onboard a vessel (which was an interesting contract in its own right). The contract was roughly 70 days and I departed in mid-October. I was called a few weeks later by the company to serve on a vessel I’ll refer to as “The Kat”. While I wasn’t too happy not having more time off, I accepted as I needed money to pay off school.
The Kat was built in the early 60’s. A tradition bulk carrier about 400’ft long and with 8000 tonnes of displacement. It had a 5 cylinder 2-Stroke Slow Speed Diesel with about 3800shp and was engine room control (with the old Titanic like telegraph system). 3 naturally aspirated diesel Generators with about 300bhp a pop, and they were actual generators as The Kat was completely DC electric off a 480V main switchboard (as opposed to every commercial ship past 1970 that is Alternator and 3-phase AC).
The Kat electrical switchboard. Yeah, real Frankenstein shit...
I joined The Kat early November, as she was passing through Montreal on the way to a port near St. John’s Newfoundland. It raised my eyebrows when they told me this, it’s not typical to take something over 50 years old out of the St. Lawrence River Seaway and the Great Lakes. Apparently, there was some grandfathering bullshit scheming that had taken place.
I think the 2nd day I was woken up 2h before my watch to clean the sewage treatment unit. To be fair it wasn’t the worst. I got bundled up in disposable coveralls, wore a respirator and googles, popped the lid off and let it have it with a fire hose. Apparently, it was some new engineer ritual they had; I was more pissed that I didn’t get all my sleep than the actual work.
As we left the river is started to get rough, typical late fall storm for the North East. The new oiler on the 3rd Engineers watch before me on the 4-8 couldn’t hack it. He spent his time hugging the garbage can the entire 4h. 12h later we were in the thick of it, my watch handover with the 3rd was and I quote “If she lists over really hard, grab the life jackets over there and head topside. Don’t bother with the bilge pumps trying to save the ship.”
We eventually reached the port to discharge cargo without sinking. I learned the wonders of the DC electrics and incandescent lights. They told me to remove the fuses for the lines I was working on, naturally I tried to cheat and didn’t. I tried to remove a shattered bulb underneath the scavenge box (engine intake manifold). It shorted which resulted in a big bright flash and then all the section lights were out. Now I’d have to find and replace the fuse I’d blown.
About a week after joining, I came down on watch to find the 3rd Engineer replacing a head on one of the generator engines. There was a hairline crack internally from the valve seat. He told me that the guy I had relieved had been the 3rd engineer and the Chief had kicked him and his oiler off after 2 weeks because they had left rags in the Generator engine oil sump after completing an oil change. Notice how rags is plural, yeah that confused me too. Why the negligence? I’ll never know. He also mentioned that he was getting off soon and doing all the maintenance as to make it easier for me as I would be bumped up to 3rd.
The 3rd left a week later at the Welland Canal while we steamed to Ohio and load. I spent 6h dealing with the telegraph and at the controls of the main engine as we went through the locks. The 2nd Engineer and I would be doing 12h days to help the new 4th Andy get familiarized with The Kat. Andy graduated the same school as myself, but 2 years ahead. We’re the same age, and today he’s my best friend. Andy also tried to short cut The Kats electricals one day trying to replace a halogen on deck. He thought he had the right fuse but didn’t meter the light for power. Threw in the new halogen with the plastic wrapper which lit up and caught fire, then attempting to put it out almost caught his rag on fire.
The next few weeks didn’t have too many calamities. We got extremely behind with the discharge and loading at ports though with their equipment failures. Something like 17 days behind. At some point the oilers with the 2nd and Andy cleaned the scavenge space (inlet manifold) of the main engine without me. The problems began after we left Wisconsin mid-December for another trip to St. Johns.
The Descent into Chaos
On Lake Erie the bridge lost Autopilot for the steering. So, we rigged up a bunch of industrial portable fans to blow on the motor and receivers. If they lost it again, it usually meant a circuit fuse for one of the fans had gone or a goof had turned it off.
One of the worst things about being on the vessels at this time is the Christmas rumours. It’s almost always started by a deckhand or mate about how the vessel might cancel a trip be tied up before Christmas. Typically, the Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway begin to freeze up at the end of December stopping the sailing season for the Lakes. Talk like this drive people nuts because it changes every day and they’re always wrong. On top of this, shit was about to get REAL.
Christmas on The Kat
We had to receive diesel fuel due to low level with our subsequent delays. It was so low the Chief was forced to take it in the Welland Canal as we passed through back to load cargo at Montreal for St. John’s. While maneuvering at the lock to get alongside the Capt. backed into the lock wall HARD. We took the fuel and went on our merry way. In Canada we don’t really do fuel quality checks. We sort of expect that the fuel is good… Not this time.
We do a fuel transfer for about an hour a day, it’s done through a centrifugal fuel purifier from a very large storage tank where we receive the fuel to a smaller day tank which supplies the boiler and generators. It was after the transfer the next day the problems hit. First was the boiler; flame out, would not re-fire around 6pm. Plugged fuel filters at the burner about 1/2 way through maintenance schedule. With the filters replace it fired… For an hour. It did this all night. I changed boiler filters 4 or 5 times. We had a diesel bucket to try and wash out the sediment accumulation from the pleats as we didn’t have an infinite supply of new filters.
Naturally the 2nd Engineer suspected we got shit fuel, so he began draining the receiving diesel fuel tank. He had something like 27 5gal buckets of straight water, so 500L of water when I came down. The real problem was the sediment though, it was our real nemesis at the moment. The centrifugal fuel purifier from the 60’s was useless and couldn’t deal with it. It was basically down to the local equipment filters. When we exited Lake Ontario into the Seaway a few days later I believe the boiler filters were being changed daily (usual was every 2mo) and my generators would last 100h running (or 4 days) or they fuel starved (I almost blacked out the boat when I forgot it was time and the lights started to dim). The chief ordered something like 120 fuel filter cartridges from NAPA Auto Parts.
My oiler got off in Montreal just before Christmas as we waited until the 27th to emergency load. He was from the Philippines and spoke almost no English. He was replaced by a guy from Senegal… He spoke NO English; zero, zip. In fact, the only one in the engine room staff that spoke French was the Chief. There I was, a 25yo punk on a dying 50yo ship teaching the oiler his job via Charades. And it got worse, MUCH worse.
We then lost the boiler feed water pumps (what fills the boiler with water). Apparently, the boiler upgrades had run both pumps through a single contactor (essentially a large relay) for the water level control and turning them both on, and having them start and run at the same time smoked it. The temporary solution was to draw 240V from the sewage unit with a power cable and the oilers would have to watch the water level and manually start and stop one of the feed pumps. I still remember bringing Andy down and we both laughed at the ridiculousness of some jank draped power cable to power a pump. Shutting down the boiler is not an option as we burned heavy fuel oil (basically just above tar) underway and need the fuel system hot or else the fuel solidifies in the tanks.
We left again for St. Johns and would arrive there just before the New Year, still dealing with fuel contamination and the boiler pump problem. We were lucky that it was still relatively warm as we travelled down the river. We hit another storm off the cape that was even worse than the first one. There were a couple times the chair and I went sliding a good 15ft across the deck (and then back another 20ft usually) from the console.
I noticed that one of my generator engines was losing oil pressure after about an hour of running. I did the rudimentary viscosity test and it was better than the others but still opted to see if I could bring it above alarm with fresh oil and new oil filters. The oiler and I found some more rags in the sump, the mix of rage and disgust when I told the Chief this was notable. Neither the rags nor the oil was the problem, nor was the oil pump as we replaced it the next day. Even with the rockers and covers off I could not find any abnormal oil seepage from the top end head galleries for the rockers or mid covers for cam bushings. The engine was just really, really worn.
I did some work on the main air compressor but screwed up on the copper head seal, so we were down a compressor for a little bit while I sorted out a “used but good” seal. The previous 3rd had told me not to touch it, but I was a young idiot.
New Year partying would have the cook get plastered in downtown St. John’s and call the Capt. at 2am because he didn’t know how to get back to the ship. That didn’t go over too well as you might imagine. An electrician came and looked at what had happened to the boiler contactor and fixed it for us so that went back to automatic water level control. We would leave a few days later, back into the shit weather. I remember we tried to make anchor during my watch and having to re-fire and find another shelter because we were dragging.
Old Man Winter Wakes Up
Heading back to Quebec though would have temperatures snap and plunge well below freezing at the start of the year. I woke up to the sound of Andy outside my cabin on deck. The deck officer’s crapper pipe from the 2nd deck (which for some reason ran outside the superstructure) had frozen at -9C /16F and he was trying to heat the pipe with the tiger torch to no avail.
The 2nd warned me going from the salty gulf into the fresh water river that we might lose the cooling on the generators due to ice slush accumulation in the sea chest filters blocking flow. I would have about 5min to swap the cooling system from the normal seawater flow to a loop from the aft peak water ballast tank. 14h later it did come into alarm. I managed to get the suction from the aft peak tank but I had traced the wrong valves for the discharge to loop it, so it went overboard instead of re-circulation. The water ran out of the aft peak right as the 2nd engineer relieved me at midnight. He sorted it out but that was 100% my bad, I really thought I had it lined up right.
Winter is where the deck crew becomes envious us with the warmer engine room, a curse in the summer but a blessing in the winter. It got even colder and The Kat had basically no accommodation heat. It did, it just wasn’t at all effective. I was sleeping in a winter hoodie (with the hood up and tied) 3 pairs of socks and all the clothing I had on top of my blankets. Getting changed was a brisk 10s affair. I believe it was now about -15C/5F and there was ice traveling down the St. Lawrence as we were trying to make Montreal. We we’re lucky in that the fuel sediment issues were now mostly resolved.
Andy closed the engine room air inlets one day at 2am because the cold night winter air was freezing the pressure line from the boiler to the pressure sensor and causing false alarms. While this solved the boiler issue it caused the fire detection system to go off due to all the exhaust leaks in the engine room and the alarm rang for the whole ship.
Freeze! Stop Right There!
I would wake up one morning to both the 2nd Engineer and Andy downstairs when I started my watch. We were having main engine cooling issues this time, which seems counter intuitive when the outside temperature is getting near 0F. We were still underway so I took the console for engine control and asked them what they were up to. They wanted to switch flow to the other strainer and pop open the current sea strainer and check for ice and blockage, despite the sea water pump pressure being good. I figured it wasn’t the problem but clearly there was no flow. Strainer was clear so the block was down the line. Next suspect was the sea water overboard valve or water discharge port had iced up as we continued into fresher water up river. They went at it with the tiger torch and sledge hammers. The chief came down at this point. At I think we had to shut down and anchor in the river as the oil temperature climbed.
Time got really weird at this point at the end of the first week of January. We gave up the 4h watches and I think I was downstairs for 16h straight. Andy and the 2nd Engineer were putting in similar times. The Chief was down for hours too. Only the oilers were doing their 4h watches. The ice had built up around us so with myself at the controls and the chief beside we tried to dislodge but we still had little to no main engine sea water cooling flow. The bridge would ring down full ahead, I would match. 25% rack, start air ahead for 5-6s, the big engine would catch, jump straight to 50% rack, and then slowly wheel up to 70% redline as the turbo would need time to spool and we wouldn’t “roll coal” too much, the blowers could handle 50% hence the jump. The RPM would stay low as the vessel could not power out and the oil temperature would rapidly climb over the course of just a few minutes. It would take us about an hour for the oil temperature come down and to try again. We tried 3 times during the day with no success in breaking through.
We called for tug assist at this point to keep us on station and I stayed down during the night as the other 2 had been up longer than me. I remember noticing the tug around 10pm. It had a vibration and noise that I could hear and feel through the hull. I don’t remember the hour when I was relieved, sometime in the early am.
I would wake up and come down to the vessel still stuck. We were still a good 4h sail away from Quebec City, let alone Montreal. The Chief came down shortly. Round 2… I’m not sure what they did (if anything the temperature outside may have slightly warmed) but the main seawater cooling flow had been restored. The Chief and the Capt. talked for a bit on the phone and we gave it another try. Exact same as before alternating between ahead and astern spins but not having to wait for oil temperature. Still no breakthrough. The chief gets another phone call and heads upstairs.
The Cost of Freedom is Always High
I’ll go back a few years to what one of our instructors said to us “One day, each one of you will have to run an engine to destruction to get out a situation”. The Kat had a tired engine, it already had a minor cylinder liner crack was leaking cylinder oil into the cooling water. The oilers would have to skim a little bit of oil off the top of the coolant tank each day. Redline (like an actually drawn red line) was 70% rack. The chief came down the stairs some 10min later.
Chief: “I talked to the Superintendent. We have to get out of the ice at all costs”
Me: “We’re going over 70% rack?” I asked that knowing it could be rhetorical.
As such, he didn’t verbalise yes. His look was enough for me to know.
There’s that scene in Star Trek where they have to eject and light off the dilithium core to escape a black hole… While not as dramatic as that external combustion, we would in essence be doing an engine sacrifice to escape.
I remember sitting there in those minutes waiting for the telegraph to move from engine standby to full ahead. Knowing that the Chief and I with near certainty were about to condemn the ship to scrap. It’s a hard feeling to explain; sitting at the front of huge lumps of iron that achieved the size of an urban two-story single unit town home, knowing that with a few movements of my arms and hands I would begin the injection of its death sentence.
Engine Room Telegraph of The Kat
The telegraph bell tolls and the needle swings to full ahead. I look over at the chief, he nods. Full Ahead. Match Telegraph in Acknowledge. 25% rack, start air ahead for 5-6s, the engine catches, jump straight to 50% rack, and then slowly wheel up to 70% redline. We’re still not making any advance. I look again at the chief. Non-verbally; Your rack chief, your honours. He nods again and begins to wheel up past the redline. At 85% the aft of ship where we are started to bounce up and down. He stopped at 95% and over the course of maybe 20s we began to see the RPM climb which meant the vessel was starting to make headway. Another 20s and he wheels back down to 70%. We begin the few hours journey to Quebec City. We found that while the main engine cooling was now okay, the main engine charge air cooler now had a seawater flow issue. I was trying to balance the inlet temperature by pulling back a bit and this annoyed the Capt. I was relieved about 1.5h from docking in Quebec City.
I woke up the next day with a huge amount of relief. The last day on the boat. Get the paperwork signed, eat something, and be off on the jet in the afternoon back home that night. The 2nd was carrying on tasks for winter layup and asked Andy and I to do some. I did them but really didn’t see much point other than busy work considering the vessel was finished. One of the cooks found me and said there was “a huge steam leak in the crew mess bathroom”. Really the hot water line for the sink had cracked so it was simply a matter of turning off the water valve inside the impromptu sauna. Andy told me that instead of a skim there was about 4” of oil sitting on top of the cooling water when he went down in the morning. We had definitely destroyed the liner. With this being the last engine of the type in the world and no spares: le fin.
Around 1:30pm Andy and I left The Kat and took a cab to the Airport. We had a couple hours to kill. I had some 30 app updates to power through on the free WiFi and we had a couple rightly deserved beers for the last few weeks of tribulation. Like tired soldiers we now reminisced at the whole surrealist nature of the various and very serious situations. “Hey, remember when I showed you that janky cord from the sewage unit to the feed water pump the 2nd rigged up?” We started to laugh. “Yeah but dude, your oiler didn’t speak a word of English! Like how did that even work?” “Oh BTW, the 2nd Mate always told me that the lifeboat engine was good so we never started it weekly. Probably a good thing nothing bad happened…” We both broke out in hysterical laughter at a small table in Quebec City Jean Lesage International Airport.
That was indeed the last of The Kat. It was sold and scrapped within 2 years. The salvage company that bought it found my resume online (geee, wonder why I left…) and expressed a cheerful interest if I would be willing to sail it across the Atlantic. I declined politely but my head went something like “They’re going to sail it? Lord help them, that thing should be towed”. I told Andy and he thought we should do it, until I reminded him of all the shit you just read. A month or so passed and Andy actually knew someone that took the contract and they sent him some tidbits and a video. Underway, one of the main air compressors grenade-ed and the generator engine that had low oil pressure had seized. They were unable to run the bilge system oily water separator (with us, only the 2nd knew the tricks). The video Andy got and sent to me was the flywheel of the great engine churning up and slinging the water-oil emulsion accumulating on the tank top (floor) of the engine room as they were unable to separate the oil and pump clean water overboard. I believe I made a good call to skip that one.
That Oppo is the story of 60 days on “The Kat”.