Engineer’s Angle: Engineer key to safety on a yacht

Jun 17, 2019 by JD Anson

Engineer’s Angle: by JD Anson

Whether tied to the dock or a thousand miles from shore, the safety of boat and personnel are of paramount importance to the crew.

All the departments on board are responsible for the overall safe operation of a yacht. The galley needs to keep the food sanitary, and the interior must monitor for slip and fall hazards. The deck crew must watch for dangers when handling tenders, and the captain must watch the weather and routing to avoid navigational hazards.

But it is the engineering department that is most responsible, as it is involved in all these areas.

Behind all the pretty stuff inside, there is a miniature version of the engine room. There is plumbing not only for water and AC, but high-pressure hydraulic piping that runs to stabilizers, bow thruster and windlasses through the interior space. Fuel is stored beneath the bunks and deck. High-amperage, high-voltage cabling is strung everywhere behind walls and in floors. A wayward drill in any of these could spell disaster. Knowing what is on the other side is clearly important. Loose or corroded pipes and fittings are sleepers waiting to create havoc. The interior staff know when something smells or sounds amiss. If they come to you with a concern, investigate thoroughly.

On the other side of the coin, many interior spaces become ad-hoc storage closets. Interior staff will squirrel away items to the point of having to lean on the door to close it. These areas are not free parking for napkins and cups, but are designed to contain and protect electrical and machine components. Pressure on wiring can loosen the conductors, potentially starting a fire to be instantly fed by those same napkins. Establishing rules for where and how storage is used is very important.

The chef cannot store foods safely if the refrigeration is not working properly. Keep refrigeration coils clean by dusting and vacuuming them on a monthly basis. Place an independent thermometer in each compartment, and ask the chef to monitor them and notify you of any changes. Promptly repair any failed burners or thermostats on the ranges to ensure the capacity is sufficient for food not to have to be shuffled between hobs.

Many deck crew are entry-level novices and must be trained on how to use the deck equipment. This includes not only cranes, but anchor windlasses and capstans. All of these are dangerous if not handled correctly. This equipment is just a shiny version of what would be found in an industrial facility on shore, where regulations would never allow untrained personnel to be operating them. On several boats, I was shocked that the skipper would entrust a green deckhand with retrieving a 2-ton tender in a rolling bay. I have seen deckies get knocked to the deck by a swinging tender because the person driving the crane did not understand how it worked. Taking the time to teach them how stuff works will help avoid serious injury and unnecessary repairs.

While the man at the helm is responsible overall for the vessel and its passengers, he relies on his experienced crew to keep dangers at bay. The captain needs a properly operating boat in order to do this successfully. Propulsion and generators need to be reliable – failure at a crucial moment could be catastrophic. Likewise, the electrical system must be in optimal condition to power navigation equipment and directional control. Several times I have found jury-rigged components that were meant to be temporary, but the needed repair was never done because it was working “OK for now” and slid quickly down the priority list. Should the engineer leave, the new crew will not know of the issue. This compromises the integrity of the system, and thus, the boat as a whole.

The entire boat is a place where danger lurks, but especially in the machinery spaces. Liquids, electricity, heat and moving parts can be a hazard to anyone not being careful. Using the crew to do hourly underway watches worked well for me, but I took the time to train them on how to do it and what to watch for.

The engineer is the one person on board most responsible for the safety of the vessel and who has a moral and legal responsibility to act in a forthright manner. Turning a blind eye to problems can open a legal can of worms for both the owner and crew.

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