By Edwin Schiele
October 11, 1998. Despite our tropical location, a sweatshirt is a necessity on board. Most of the rooms on the ship are kept quite cool. Four hours of sitting in the control van and you think you are in New England during a chilly fall day. There is, however, a short section of the passageway on the main level where you can briefly experience tropical warmth. Walk through the door on the side of the passage, and you have entered a whole new climate zone. You have entered the engine room.
The door itself is rather intimidating. "Danger! High Noise Level. Wear Ear Protection." "Caution! Wear Eye Protection." "When Alarm Sounds, Vacate at Once!" Open the door and you are overcome by the piercing whine of the engines.
But Chief Engineer Lew Skelton eased my trepidation as he handed me a pair of ear phones and cheerfully led me down the stairs.
Below us sat the ships six engines. The forward three, which are 2,100 horse power each, run the ships motors. The rear three, which are half the size, run the ships services such as lights, computers, kitchen appliances, washing machines, and air circulation. In a pinch, they can also run the ship's motors. Not all the engines run at once, however. Typically, only one of the large engines runs the propulsion when the ship is towing the fish, two if the ship is in transit, and only one of the smaller engines runs all of the ships services.
We quickly crossed the walkway above the engines and entered a small room, closed the door, and took off our ear phones. On one side, windows looked out over the engines. On the other side, computer monitors, buttons, and gauges covered the wall. The engineers can start or stop each engine simply by pushing a button. One screen showed which engines were on line and where the power was being directed. A panel showed the shaft and propeller speed of the motors and the direction they were pushing the ship. Another screen provided information on all aspects of how the engines were performing, from the oil pressure to the exhaust temperature. If a problem occurs, an alarm will sound. The engineer can then scroll through the screen, identify where the problem is, and if necessary shut down the engine.
Obviously one of the greatest concerns is fire. The ship can hold up to 300,000 gallons of fuel, so it is easy to imagine how bad things could get. Should a fire break out, the first option would be to fight the fire with hoses. If the fire got out of hand in the engine room, the engineer could seal off the fire doors and as a last resort flood the area with either foam or halon gas. The halon gas would suffocate the fire, but would also suffocate anybody trapped inside.
Lew said that there has never been a fire on one of his ships.
We put our earphones back on and descended a flight of stairs until we were amongst the engines. Each engine turns a generator that produces up to 600 volts of electricity. A giant switch board directs the power to motors or the ships services as needed. The ship has three motors. In the back, there are two propeller drives called Z-drives. These are the main motors that propel the ship forward. The ship does not have a rudder. Instead, the shafts of the Z-drives can rotate the propellers 360 degrees and can therefore steer the ship in any direction. The third engine, called a bow thruster, sits in the front of the boat. This is the motor that serenades me every night with grinding noises that rattle my bunk as I try to fall asleep. It is used exclusively to maneuver the ship, although on a calm day, it can pull the ship forward in a pinch. The bow thruster takes in water then pushes the water out through a diffuser. Just as the propellers of the Z-drives can rotate in any direction, the diffuser can push the water out in any direction, and therefore can push the bow in any direction. The combination of the two Z-drives and the bow thruster enable the officers on the bridge to maneuver or pivot the ship every which way.
A computer on the bridge controls all three motors and keeps the ship on course. If the computer fails, the engineer could manually control the ships course from the control room.
The engine room is huge and I often lost my bearings. Lew took me to the switch board, then to the Z-drives, then to the machine shop, which is filled with every tool you could think of and is actually quiet enough to hear the baseball game on the radio. We briefly popped back up into the hallway on the main level, then down to the bow thruster in the front of the ship. I believed Lew when he said that he often goes through several shirts per day.