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Diesel Digest: When did yachts start using diesel engines?


Diesel Digest: by Capt. Jeff Werner

The 1890s were heady times for Rudolf Diesel. He was a successful young engineer living in Berlin with his wife and three children. After a disastrous experiment with a steam engine that exploded and almost killed him, he turned his research to the Carnot cycle, a theoretical construct that explored how to efficiently turn heat into work.

In 1893, Diesel published the scientific treatise “Theory and Construction of a Rational Heat-engine to Replace the Steam Engine and Combustion Engines Known Today”. It was a long title for his desire to establish a new type of engine, a breakthrough in efficiency technology, to replace steam and gasoline engines.

At that time, steam engines wasted as much as 90 percent of the fuel that powered them, giving them a 10 percent efficiency rating. Diesel’s invention, at first called a compression-ignition engine and which eventually bore his name, theoretically had an efficiency of 73 percent.

Diesel obtained a German patent on his new engine that same year and built his initial prototype. It only ran for about a minute. His persistence paid off though, and after much tinkering it continuously ran under its own power in 1897. His diesel engine was ready for efficiency testing and production development. Although it was only 26 percent efficient, it was better than the gasoline-powered internal combustion engines of the time.

By 1899, diesel engines were licensed to be built in Germany, Switzerland, Russia and the United States. Diesel granted Adolphus Busch, who was in the midst of developing the Budweiser beer brand, the U.S. license. Busch’s company built the first diesel engine in North America.

For use in marine propulsion, reciprocating piston diesel engines offered two options: either connect the rotating crankshaft to a propeller in some fashion, or connect it to a generator to make electricity for a battery-operated electric motor. Both commercial and military naval architects chose to use both options.

In 1902, the French submarine l’Aigrette was launched with diesel electric propulsion. Machinenfabrik Augsburg and Nurnberg built the licensed diesel engine for that underwater vessel. Today, that company is better known as MAN.

Submarine propulsion design was greatly influenced by l’Aigrette. By 1911, the French had 60 diesel submarines and the British had 13, while the other countries soon to be embroiled in World War I were building their own diesel electric submarine fleets.

The first commercial diesel-powered vessels were built in 1904. Petit Pierre, a French canal boat 125-feet long, had a 25-hp engine with a variable pitch propeller for reversing. This barge-like vessel was used exclusively in the protected inland waters of the Marne-Rhine canal.

Vandal, a 245-foot shallow-draft oil tanker plying the canals of the Volga-Baltic Waterway, used diesel electric motors. It was a revolutionary design at the time. A diesel engine turned three generators to supply power to reversible DC motors. It proved so successful that railroad locomotives use an almost identical propulsion design today.

The first large seagoing ship powered by diesel engines was Selandia, built in 1911. It was a Danish liner built for the cargo and passenger trade for the run between Thailand and Scandinavia. The ship was 370 feet in length, capable of carrying 7,400 tons, and propelled by two diesel engines. Two 1,050-hp engines drove the ship at 11 knots. Since Selandia was not powered by steam, there were no smokestacks needed for the coal smoke, which gave it a remarkable silhouette for a ship of that era. The diesel exhaust went up through her rear mast. This caused the new breed of diesel-powered ships to be called “smokeless” or “phantom ships”.

The history of diesel engines aboard yachts isn’t as well documented. Therefore, the Diesel Digest column is challenging the readers of The Triton to discover the first yacht or recreational vessel to operate under diesel power. Email your submission with corroborating details to The winner will receive a gift from Diesel Doctor that will aid the fuel preventive maintenance program aboard a yacht. Good luck.

Capt. Jeff Werner is a 25-year veteran of the yachting industry as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, and a certified instructor for the RYA, MCA, USCG and US Sailing. He also owns Diesel Doctor (

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