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Back to Basics

Fort Lauderdale's International Yacht Training offers a true hands-on dieselengine course with small class sizes.
Instructor Hartley MacDonald lectures to his students during an in-class segment (the author is at right). The course is five days long.

The Applied Engines Course (AEC) is generally viewed as the first step that an engineer must take to allow him to work on a yacht, and indeed, the curriculum is geared almost exclusively toward those pursuing a career in maritime engineering. But could this in-depth megayacht-oriented engine class be just as valuable for a boat owner? To answer that you first have to look at the curriculum: Unlike other diesel courses, this one focuses on marine applications, so it emphasizes problems that are more prevalent in an oceangoing environment, such as electrolysis and shaft alignment. And since it awards a license that's certified by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the body that supervises shipping in Britain, and is also recognized by the U.S. Coast Guard, participants know that the information they receive will meet strict governmental standards and that the material covered will be both relevant and directly applicable to at-sea needs.

Class members disassemble a White diesel engine.
The author works on getting access to the engine's crankshaft.

Many places offer the AEC; I chose International Yacht Training (IYT) in Fort Lauderdale for my course. Its emphasis on hands-on work appealed to me. Of course, five days of classroom instruction coupled with the actual handling of equipment won't have you rebuilding your own engine, but that isn't the intent. As the accompanying materials state, "This short course does not attempt to make diesel engineers from the course participants but should enable students to carry out regular servicing and be more aware of possible faults developing before they become major problems." And as we're all aware, preventative maintenance is the most important way to protect both your boat and your wallet. If you know what can go wrong and how to diagnose problems, you're less likely to have to deal with larger and more expensive issues later on. Even if you have electronic engines with automatic shutdowns, this course can help you in discussions with engine manufacturers and-heaven forbid-insurance companies.

to the rocker-arm assembly

Another reason I chose IYT is that its course also includes General Engineering Knowledge (GEK) certification. As a matter of fact, the session I took was the first one IYT had offered. (A GEK certificate will soon be required on all Marshall Islandsflagged charter vessels.) This component goes beyond just the engine, covering the basics of all main systems: electrical, hydraulic, sewage, refrigeration, etc. Although it is aimed at larger vessels, the course work is scalable to smaller boats (i.e., a walk-in 'fridge works on the same principals as an under-counter unit). In order to complete both the AEC and GEK components within just five days, IYT expects applicants to have a solid, basic knowledge of engines and systems. Indeed, the MCA requires that you have at least 30 days of sea time in the engine room of a yacht prior to taking an AEC class. (Ironically, getting 30 days of ER experience is easier for an owner-operator than a crewmember of a charter yacht, since the latter requires an AEC to perform engineering duties.) To get the most out of this course, you should be comfortable with the basic workings of an engine and most onboard systems and be prepared to study-hard. I spent a few weeks prior to my trip flipping through the 500-page course manual IYT sends you when you sign up, as well as all four nights of the class researching the next day's assignment.

The General Engineering Knowledge component covers basic ship's systems. Here, the author and instructor put the plates back in a fuel purifier.

Much of this prolonged studying was due to the added GEK section, which IYT compresses into the same one-week schedule it had offered for the AEC alone. I wondered if this packed course would prohibit us from covering any key material, but any doubts I had were put to rest by our instructor Hartley MacDonald. His bona fides are multitudinous: He's been an engineer aboard 700-foot Great Lakes ore boats, crewed on 40-foot sailboats in the Florida panhandle, and done about everything in between. His onboard experience, coupled with a few years of teaching at his alma mater, the Great Lakes Maritime Institute, give him an edge in deciding which material to cover in class and which should be covered as homework (the final exam can refer to anything that it's in the 500-page binder).

There weren't too many brainteasers on my first day, which consisted of a classroom review of the basic workings of a diesel engine (both four-stroke and two-stroke) and its components. On day two, we went into the shop and began to strip down our fourcylinder White diesel piece by piece, as MacDonald explained the function of every component. Each of the six students took turns removing and examining parts on the workbench.

When we removed the valve cover from the cylinder head, MacDonald showed us how to measure the clearance between the pushrod and the rocker arm and how to correct it if it's off. He also let us in on a tip for keeping your push rods organized in case you need to remove them: "Punch holes in a cardboard box, so you can stand them up. This way you will know which side is up and which rods go to which cylinder." This kind of pragmatic advice permeated the week. After the demonstration, we immediately got back to the wrenches and soon had the cylinder head lying on a bench nearby. In the afternoon, our GEK lesson covered steering gears, hydraulics, shaft bearings, and stern tubes.

The third day began with a GEK segment, which included a lecture on the inner workings of a fuel-purifier; afterwards, we went into the shop and took one apart piece-by-piece. "Anybody can read a book on this," MacDonald noted, "but taking one apart brings the lesson home."

The mixture of hands-on learning and schematics presented in the classroom made things much clearer than either could have alone. Perhaps the best example of this was our lesson on an axialpiston pump, with a cutaway housing. Spinning the actual pump revealed much more than the sketches in our notes.

The classroom lessons were just as demanding; we spent most of day four at our desks prepping for our exam the next day. We had to memorize and understand all of the schematics in the course manual, from sewage-treatment systems to hydraulic runs, and be able to draw them.

Indeed, the majority of the final exam focused on full schematics of items such as a reverse-osmosis watermaker, a three-stage water purifier, and a single-phase alternator, all of which we had to draw and label from scratch.

The general body of knowledge that makes up IYT's AEC/GEK course turned out to be pretty essential. "The GEK was the best part," enthused classmate John Chippendale, "It really made this worthwhile." Of course, as we mused over a drink afterwards, adding even more hands-on aspects would make the course more valuable than it already is, like a day doing checks on all the systems aboard IYT's 42-foot dive boat. "It's definitely under consideration," IYT headmaster Chris Taylor told me.

Taking advantage of an engine course meant for engineers can illuminate systems well beyond those related to just powerplants and give students the opportunity to put questions directly to an expert. IYT's balanced mixture of theory and hands-on work can help boaters better understand their vessels and let them perform basic upkeep and make the right calls should any system fail. That alone may justify the tuition of $1,100 and one week of your time.

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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