Marine Junior Engineer Training

About 45 years ago I joined my first ship as a Junior Engineer. After all this time, I well remember the trauma of leaving home and family for the first time. Then, flying for the first time, from Belfast to London where I stayed overnight, then flew to Boston and onto Portland, Maine, USA the next morning. I joined my first ship, the MV Orama there. She was a 60,000T oil tanker, it was in the middle of a blizzard, and we sailed ballast for the Persian Gulf via the Suez Canal as soon as I was aboard.

The following sections examine the type of training applicable to the junior engineer, with the first section being my recollections of the first few days aboard. Just to put the young engineer at ease, remember that we all had to go through it!

First Impressions of a Ship’s Engine Room Watch

I was called at 2345 and told to get into a boiler suit and down to the engine room smartish as the third didn’t like latecomers on his watch.

I got into my boiler suit and headed, bouncing against the bulkheads as the ship was rolling about and cork-screwing, in the general direction of the engine room that I had been shown earlier. There was a strong smell of crude that seemed to be everywhere.

I opened the engine room door… what a racket and hot as hell, even though we couldn’t have been at sea for more than a few hours.

I made it down to the control station just on the stroke of midnight and shook hands with my senior, Bob the third engineer.

Well, things went downhill from here. I was sick, hot, had a sore head with the pervading smell of crude and the continuous noise of the main engine, generators, and pumps all clattering away- something I would eventually get used to. Eventually the watch ended and Bob asked me to his cabin for a few beers; boy did these help! I had a good six hours sleep and felt a lot better after a seven bells lunch in the duty mess, ready for another go at watch keeping.

Whoops! Spoke to soon: there goes my lunch into the bilges and back came the clammy feeling and headaches that Bob blamed on the gas-freeing that was going on in the cargo tanks.

Anyway, I made it across the Atlantic and soon the weather became warmer and we changed into “whites” as rig of the day as we approached the Suez Canal.

The sickness and headaches disappeared and I looked forward to the transit of the Suez Canal. I must have enjoyed the experience as I stayed at sea for many years. They were the best years of my life.

The next section examines the different aspects of training, safety first, then practical and theory and spending time off-watch to relax, which is very important to the young engineer.

The Training Sequence

There is so much to learn. No sooner have you picked up the duties of one watch, when the Chief swaps you to another watch and you start all over again. We will look at the responsibilities of each watch and the senior engineer duties later on.

Learning the different systems- checking temperatures and pressures of the many engine components, pumps, and coolers- where do you start? I have referenced an article I wrote some time ago regarding control of ships systems; this gives links to numerous systems in the engine room and deck departments that should help the junior engineer.

The sequence of training the junior engineer in these applications is as follows.


  • Safety is the first priority to instill into the junior engineer; show him emergency engine room exits, where there are hot pipes, and remind him not to lean over too close to the propeller shaft when checking condition of shaft bearings or stern gland.
  • Attending a few firefighting drills with the deck or engine room emergency teams is mandatory on some ships. Similarly lifeboat stations must be attended unless on watch. (He should be given time off to attend one or two of these as well.)
  • Explain what the emergency alarms and lights signify; the full list should be available in the ship's library.

Main Engine Components: Purposes, Operating Temperatures, and Pressures

  • The junior engineer is given a short list of temperatures and pressures to find on the main engine, with a brief description of their locations. This should be repeated two or three times a watch, using different locations, each time checking the results against the logbook for verification.
  • The junior should sketch the components, the location of the gauges, noting the temperatures and pressures that he is checking and have their purpose explained to him.
  • He should be encouraged to ask questions and be given as simple explanations as possible.

Main Engine

The operating principles of the engine should be explained: two and four stroke, trunk, and crosshead engines.


  • These should be traced out one at a time; I usually start them off with an easy one like the fuel injector nozzle cooling system, get him to trace the inlet and outlet piping to cooler and header tank. Tell him the purpose of the cooling (make it simple); it keeps the nozzles cool and stops carbonization of atomizer holes due to overheating.
  • The bilge system is another easy one. This entails lifting the plates and crawling over the tank tops. Get him to pump the bilges first (but tell him when bilges must not be pumped overboard). This is the last of the easy systems, so continue to the main engine systems.
  • Jacket cooling water system- draw a simple diagram of a liner on the blackboard, if there are still blackboards in the engine room. Ours used to be beside the control station and we noted any relevant info, e.g. water on the deck or keep an eye on No.1 exhaust temp.
  • Lube Oil System- once under the plates, he can crawl to his heart’s content, and when happy with piping runs, he can get cleaned up and trace out inlet and outlet to lube-oil coolers. Teach him to dip lube oil sump and what to look for regarding emulsification due to water ingress.
  • Lube oil purifier and clarifiers– purpose of keeping them running at all times except when being cleaned.
  • Lube oil filters- purpose and when to clean due to high differential pressure.
  • The tracing out of systems are continued: fuel oil, piston cooling, seawater cooling system, etc. Make sure he is keeping a record of these in his training manual; these should also be available in the ship's library. (I had a wee black notebook that served this purpose and fitted into the boiler suit top pocket).

Next: The following sections complete the junior engineer’s training program.


  • We used to double up watches when on standby and maneuvering; this meant six hours on and six off. It had the advantage that the new junior could tag along with the more experienced junior and learn his duties.
  • Air vessels- keep topped up using air compressors. On my very first standby, the Second told me to top up the air bottles; I pressed the both compressor start buttons at the same time. Result – a near black out, as I put too much load too quickly on the gennies. Didn’t do that again!
  • Show him how to drain lube oil/water mix from the air vessels through the drain valves, explain why we drain this solution off (risk of explosion through leaking air start valve).
  • Show him how to adjust the main engine systems temperature and pressures using the seawater inlet/outlet valves to the relevant coolers.
  • Let him answer the engine room telegraph; this will increase his confidence when you feel he is ready to attempt starting the engine.
  • Let him record the engine movements and times into the movements logbook.

All the above will improve the junior engineer’s knowledge and practical experience. I did two six month trips as junior engineer on tankers. The first one I have described earlier had a B&W main engine. The next one was a molten sulfur tanker. Boy I thought the smell of crude was bad, but sulfur fumes- yuck!

I was promoted to fourth engineer on my 21st birthday, but that’s another story for my next book.

Maintenance and Break-down at Sea

I mentioned earlier that when I was at sea, the senior watch keepers had their allotted tasks to carry out during the watch. Very briefly these consisted of the following.,

  • Chief Engineer – overall responsibility for engines and mechanical equipment.
  • Second Engineer – main engine operation and planned maintenance schedules and records; taking indicator cards to calculate ships engine IP; cold storage, HVAC equipment and steering gear.
  • Third Engineer – overhaul and testing of fuel pumps, fuel injectors; air start and cylinder relief valves. Bottom end and crosshead bearings inspection and stripping for piston/liner removal (in port or breakdown); crankcase and hold down bolt inspection; main power generators maintenance; and operation of waste heat boiler.
  • Fourth Engineer – fuel system, HFO and diesel purifiers, air compressors, and taking bunkers with the Chief.

So as the junior is moved between watches, he can gain valuable practical experience in all the above operations, whether watch keeping at sea or on day work in port.


Relaxation was considered mandatory in my day. However with the cuts in officer and crew manpower, I doubt there is much spare time nowadays. This was cited as the main reason for accidents in the engine room and ships running aground caused by fatigued deck officers.

Relaxation during your time off includes having a game of darts and a few beers in the bar with the rest of the ships officers, watching a DVD, or just sitting sipping a drink while listening to music. Ask permission to visit the bridge, as most deck officers will welcome the company and be willing to show you around.

Fitness is very important. Remember the old films about cruise ship passengers jogging round the deck? Maybe this isn’t for you, but a lot of ships have a swimming pool and a quick swim before tea or after watch is an ideal method of keeping fit. If the engine room has an access by lift, use instead the engine room ladders to keep the weight down.

Although reading up on ships systems and studying doesn’t count as relaxation, the junior should set at least one to two hours a day aside for study and filling in his personal training manual.

Runs ashore also count as relaxation. Sightseeing was a favorite of mine, as was sampling the local cuisine. We always managed to scratch a football team together from the crew. This was good way to let off steam playing a ship’s team of different nationality – winners play hosts to the losing team.

I remember one time playing against a Russian icebreaker football team in Finland. They were a tough lot and gave us a proper thrashing. It was absolutely freezing and near dark at the end of the game. They invited us across for a drink of beer, well, whiskey made from wood and of course vodka, with raw smoked fish. I don’t remember much of that visit. They were away the next morning so I missed seeing her engines as we were supposed to visit them in the morning. From what I do remember, she would go astern in the thick ice, then full ahead and the bow was sloped so when she collided with fresh ice, the bow would ride up on it, then crash down with full weight onto ice – breaking it in the process.

Authors Notes

  1. As I said in the intro, it is the senior engineer’s responsibility to train up the junior engineers. I still do this through my articles on marine diesels and engineering quizzes when I write for Bright Hub.
  2. Remember that patience is required as some of these lads have never seen an engine, never mind an engine room. I was fortunate that I served my apprenticeship in a shipyard that built B & W marine diesel engines. Notwithstanding this, there is a big difference in building them and running them, as I soon found out on my first trip to sea.
  3. I fear that due to officers and crew manpower cuts, this training of the junior engineer must suffer as senior watch keepers are expected to stand longer watches. (This article should help the senior engineer compose a training program.) Another concern of mine is the use of unmanned engine rooms along with computer-controlled engine management systems. Soon we will all need a degree in electronic controls to sort out the smallest problem!