REMINISCENCES | Back to basics

Coming through a tricky section of waterway in the Moreton Bay Islands, the car ferry Seaway came to a sudden silence as all engines died. This four-engined car ferry had the latest 60-series Detroit diesels, the first installation in the Southern Hemisphere. Audio visual alarms on the bridge were ringing and flashing while the Master, the engineer and myself muttered some sailor type expletives which could be translated as “oh bother!!”

“CODE 96” the display units read, and as we furiously searched for the engine manuals, we wondered why it just didn’t tell what was wrong. The engineer found the manual and hurriedly turned to Code 96. “Your bus is travelling too fast” was the explanation. We had to reset the start sequence and within a few minutes had all engines working again, narrowly escaping a grounding in the zig zag channel called the “W’s”.

Detroit Diesel then advised us that the same engines were used in US school buses and the engine controls were coded for a number of applications. As simple sailor types, we just wanted to know the RPM, temperature and pressure. We did not want or need an engine that would spit the dummy when it thought it was on the other side of the world carrying school kids. Alas, this new breed of electronic engine could do lots of clever things, but even then, ten years ago, had compromised its reliability by being too complicated.

My latest phone, according to the sales girl at Telstra, can take photos, text messages, and emails. She then proceeded to hand me the 165-page instruction book. After four months I have managed to get to page three. Most of my earlier mobile phones, along with many pairs of sunglasses, are resting on the seabed in various countries marking my travels around the world. So I am not interested in going any further with phone instruction manuals than page three.

The whole world is going multi-skilled but if you can do many things, can you do one thing well? Does the same apply to electronics? Engineering friends tell me that the Tier 2 marine diesel engines which are compliant to the tough new US environmental laws on SOX and NOX emissions, actually are running at four per cent less efficiency, but most importantly, do not get anywhere near the life of their earlier counterparts.

The clever technowizards at Furuno and other navigation aids manufacturers have come up with NAVNET and similar systems, so that all the functions can be shown on one screen. Pretty clever eh? Until that screen goes out of action then you have not only lost the Satnav, but the radar, sounder and whatever else you were interested in.

Call me old fashioned, but I prefer a simple echo sounder that gets echoes of the sea bottom, and a radar that just finds things that you can’t see, and a plotter that gives hints as to your position without the need to gaze into a mirror to see who is lost. Yes it is more expensive, but if I lose one of these aids, well at least I have a chance of finding my way across the water without too much stress. It is a well known fact that marine electronics, including refrigeration and lighting now only require about half the electrical power they did ten years ago, such are the advances in electronics. Even the amazing Azipods have harnessed huge propulsive power in such a neat small package outside the vessel itself, right in the hub of the propeller. Very smart engineering wizardry indeed.

Add to this the high levels of sensitivity of such electronic wizardry, that a good old fashioned bolt of lightning can fry most of your electronics. Only two months ago, my small sailing yacht received such a bolt, and every electronic gadget on board was fried. Even the 100 amp switches on the DC circuit were turned to little piles of sand. That intense surge of voltage, rapidly seeking its shortest path to the water, fried the skin fittings, engine and stern leg in the process. What happened to the old days when yachts had earthing wires and grounding plates? The production boats of the new world order don’t seem to have bothered with such remote possibilities as a heavenly zap together with an Afro hair-do.

Ryan Leigh Smith, Manager of the Gold Coast City Marina [Queensland, Australia] tells me that five cruisers have had similar strikes in the last three months with similar levels of damage. Some were vessels on the hard stand. Even a surge of power from welding on board the vessel in water is highly likely to blow the modern sensitive electronics and we are now advised to disconnect all AC and DC circuits before high current welding is done in water. Who knew that until recently?

Time to “dumb down” the machinery and electronics I think, and get back to basics. The numerous alarms going off constantly on all modern vessels has the crew dismissing most of them as alarm faults, and creating a risk factor when a real alarm is being raised.

Relearning seamanship and vessel handling with one small propeller may not be on the agenda for my fatcat friends who need two props, a bow thruster and stern thruster to get alongside the local marina in flat calm conditions.

Perhaps it is even time just to get back to pure sailboats, leadlines and a sextant.

Stuart Ballantyne

Active naval architect and vessel operator, Stuart is your first port of call for musings on vessel design and operation, and is a staunch proponent of improved passenger vessel safety.