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Engineer’s Angle: Takes right person to make career in engine room

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Engineer’s Angle: by JD Anson

Day after day of dealing with crazy guests, doing late watches and washing the same piece of paint over and over can get tiresome. Worse is coming down to the crew mess exhausted, plopping down for some cold water and two minutes of AC, and seeing the engineer start his third episode of “Below Deck.” (Remember the one where there was some kind of conflict between the crew?)

Resentment builds. Why is this guy special? Who does he think he is – the captain? Then, “How do I get this job?”

The recent explosion in yacht ownership has created a dire need for engineers to keep the boats running and satisfy insurance requirements. Pay is at the top of the crew scale, sometimes even surpassing the captain’s. It’s a great job for the right person.

What does it take? Being dependable, honest, responsible and able to work under pressure are musts. Breakdowns are never scheduled and usually happen at the worst possible time, so being flexible and able to adapt quickly to any situation is crucial. Some problems, such as the boss’ reading lamp not lighting, are just an inconvenience. But others can be life-threatening, with the safety of the yacht and all on board at stake.

Anyone who has been around yachting long enough can relate tales of neglectful, incompetent engineers who pretend to do the oil changes and maintenance, but are really falsifying logs out of laziness. This exposes them to serious charges should an incident occur, not to mention a bad reputation in the industry. Everybody knows everybody in yachting – or knows someone who does.

That said, how does one find their way to the hottest, noisiest part of the boat? There are several paths to getting propellers on your epaulettes. Some do years of training in schools, but have no practical experience. Some just call themselves engineers because they like to tinker, and hope for a job. Others do the engineering equivalent of coming up through the hawsepipe (exhaust?), thrust into the role because of need. (This was my experience). Regardless, everyone is green in the beginning.

One way is to volunteer to help the engine department. Most engineers love to share their experience and will be happy to teach what they know. Getting a foot in the door by assisting with oil changes and pump repairs will bring valuable experience that can help determine if life below deck is a good fit, without having to first take on the full responsibility of engineering.

Signing on to a large yacht as an assistant engineer is another path. Support from the more senior crew takes stress off the job. The downside is insulation from problem solving, because the more experienced crew will have the answers already. The greatest way to learn is to have to solve the issue on your own.

This leads to the third option: Just do it. Go out as an engineer and find a job. But do know that any captain who will hire an inexperienced engineer probably has done so before, and the boat will most likely reflect this by a poor state of condition. It’s the ultimate in being tossed right into the fire. So much will require immediate repair to be safe or even work properly. Lasting a year on a boat like this will be worth 10 years as an assistant on a quality boat. Making it a personal goal to get the boat back in shape and achieving that goal will lead not only to great work experience, but an unflappable reputation in the industry.

That engineer who has been drinking tea the entire charter has most likely been working like a dog while between trips, getting all needed repairs and maintenance done while the rest of the crew has been at the beach or golfing. Because the boat needs to be fully operational while guests are on board, most of the time only small tinker projects can be done to avoid any shutdowns. While on charter an engineer is on emergency standby for any problems that arise. The engine department will be right back in there as soon as the guests leave, repairing what broke during the trip and catching up on maintenance. Engineers have a difficult time getting time off, as all yard periods require them on board, as well as all guest trips and crossings. This can lead to burn out, and many end up quitting just to get a break.

Life below deck is not glamorous by any means, but can be a great gig for the right personality and lead to a long, lucrative career.

JD Anson has more than 20 years of experience as a chief engineer on mega-yachts. He is currently project manager at Fine Line Marine Electric (finelinemarineelectric.com) in Fort Lauderdale. Comments are welcome below.

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