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Diesel 101


The author (left) and another student get a torque-wrench tutorial from instructor Larry Berlin (right).

A friend of mine who I considered to be a knowledgeable, experienced boater recently made a remark in passing that startled me: "The most important tool in my toolbox is my checkbook." He was serious. Every time he noticed a drop of lube oil or antifreeze in his bilge or that his engines didn't sound the way they should, he'd call his mechanic. He said it wasn't worth his time to investigate problems himself. "That's fine," I said, "but you often cruise for several weeks, right? So what will you do when you're 30 miles offshore in six-foot seas and you lose an engine?"

At one time or another most of us find ourselves in such a position, and while we might not have the skills or experience of a seasoned diesel mechanic, we can still learn a lot about those diesels grumbling beneath our feet—maybe enough to get us home in a pinch. But even if there isn't a crisis, no one wants to have to call a mechanic for every little problem—some of those fellas are making a hundred bucks an hour, and the clock starts ticking when they leave the shop and stops when they get back. So what boater, besides my checkbook-wielding friend, would pass up an opportunity to learn how to perform basic maintenance and repairs on his or her diesel engine?


The author (left) takes one last look at his notes under the watchful eye of Berlin before getting greasy.

Not me, for sure. When I learned that the Mack Boring location not far from my home in New York offered one- and two-day diesel-maintenance seminars, I jumped at the chance to attend. The company recommends everyone start with the one-day course, "Welcome to a Day With Your Diesel," then follow up with the more in-depth two-day session, which usually starts the next day. Pricing for the one-day class is $195 prepaid; the two-day class will set you back $495 for the sessions held on weekdays, while the weekend two-day course costs $695.

A course is only as good as its instructor, and Mack's most valuable asset is master diesel mechanic Larry Berlin, who has been the director of the school since its inception. It's hard to imagine Berlin within the confines of a cramped engine room: Well more than six feet tall, with a neatly trimmed white beard, tremendous hands, and wide shoulders, he looks more like a retired NFL lineman. I imagined that when he needed to move a 275-hp 4LH-STE to a work station, he'd just wrap his arms around it and pick it up, instead of using a chain fall. But I guess he didn't want to soil his shirt and tie. Despite his bear-like looks, he's an amiable man with 40 years' experience with diesels, and he knows how to handle the half-dozen students who usually show up.

"The 50-hour service checkup for a Yanmar diesel is around 600 bucks," Berlin reminds us as a few latecomers putter in, clutching owner's manuals from a variety of Yanmar-powered boats. (Mack Boring is the nation's oldest Yanmar distributor, and not surprising, those are the powerplants we'd be turning wrenches on.) A scheduled tune-up at around 50 hours is standard for diesels, he says, but regular service calls are not, "and we love to come out to your boats." As he speaks I notice a few of my classmates shifting uncomfortably in their seats. That got the class' attention. "Most engine problems are caused by lack of maintenance," he reminds us.

This article originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.