Squeak, Squeak. Sounds Like a Head Gasket Blowing – Again.
When I was a young lad at sea in 1966, I was sailing as a Junior Engineer on a molten sulphur tanker owned by Denholms of Glasgow. The main engine was an RD Sulzer that had a habit of blowing cylinder head gaskets. I dreaded the attendant squeak-squeak sound coming from the engine-room as it was all hands turn to, usually at the most inconvenient times. It was one such time, in very heavy seas, that a head gasket started to blow, and this led to a very dangerous situation.
This is an article about a main engine breakdown at sea, leading to an accident when using the engine room’s overhead crane. Although it occurred over 40 years ago, I still know that I learned from that!
We begin the article with the breakdown that led to an incident with the overhead crane.
Breakdown of Sulzer RD76 Main Engine at Sea
I was awakened from the ritual Sunday after lunch snooze by the dreaded squeak-squeak sound from the engine room, followed by the slowing down of the main engine. I jumped into a boiler suit and headed down below, noticing that a fair old heavy sea was running.
I made my way to the stores and selected a new head gasket as the Second Engineer, Electrical Engineer, and a couple of greasers got the air spanners and overhead crane ready. The overhead crane ran fore and aft on two cogged crane rails, with an under-slung bogie which contained the cross travel mechanism. Long travel and cross travel was carried out manually using chain wheels mounted on their respective driveshafts on the bogie.
The long travel and cross travel brakes were also operated by chainblocks, with the main hoist being pneumatically operated.
The engineer on watch shut down the engine and we isolated and disconnected all the piping to the cylinder head and undid the cylinder head bolts.
The Electrical Engineer at the Crane Controls and Some Heavy Seas
Our electrical engineer was about 18 stone and built like a bull, so he was always delegated the job of manually lining up the crane over the cylinder head, then after locking the long travel and cross travel brakes, he lowered the cane hook using the pneumatic hoist, and we connected up the lifting strops to the cylinder head.
We had done this so many times in the last three or four months that maybe we were bit lackadaisical. Maybe pulling with insufficient force on the brake operating chainwheel to lock on the long travel brakes contributed to the mishap.
Anyway, the electrician was just lifting up the cylinder head, when the ship gave a massive list to port, then swinging slowly back to starboard, causing us all to grab something solid. However, the ship wasn’t finished with us yet. She went right down by the head and, after corkscrewing her way back up again, the aft end went way down.
The Accident and the Aftermath
This was too much for the crane, and the long-travel crane brake control failed. The crane took off aft down the engine room, trailing our electrician and the cylinder head along behind it. But worse was to come: as the crane was careening aft, the cylinder head collided with numerous injector cooling water pipes, leaving several damaged copper pipes in its wake.
I ran after the electrician and the both of us managed to take a few turns of the crane’s operating chains round the handrails, whilst the greasers roped the errant cylinder head and tied this to the rails as well.
I went off to sort out the cooling water pipes and by the time I had straightened the bent pipes and made new ones, the engine repairs had been completed so we connected up the injector cooling system, refilled it, and then ran the pump.
Leaving the watch keepers to restart the engine, the Second and I climbed up to the crane maintenance platform (see sketch of engine room layout below) to inspect the crane control brake system.
The brakes consisted of a round disc welded onto the drive shaft, and a sliding, keyed brake pad mechanism which held the pad against the disc, effectively locking the drive shaft. We had a look at the cross travel brake pad lining and these were good, but on stripping back the long travel brake mechanism, we found these pad linings to be nearly worn down to the rivets. Nevertheless, there was a little adjustment possible so we did this, and our faithful electrician ran the crane down the rails. He locked the brakes then tested them by swinging his 18 stone on the long travel chains, but the crane didn’t budge.
The electrician and I were in the Second’s cabin having a cold beer with him and discussing the incident with the Chief. He remembered the crane having an overhaul by the makers during the last dry-dock, nearly a year ago.
He had brought the crane workshop manual with him, and it recommended checking and adjusting the brakes regularly, depending on how often the crane was used. Well, with our engine's track record of blowing cylinder head gaskets, he reckoned we should check the crane brakes every two months. He went off to fax head office to order off two sets of spare brake pads, and one complete brake operating mechanism.
Now we knew what caused the brakes to fail, and had taken the actions to ensure it wouldn’t happen again, so what had I learned from that?
Well, in a ship’s engine room, it is not only necessary to maintain the engines and pumps, but also the support equipment we use to carry out the repairs. A ship’s crane load brakes failure caused an accident in our engine room, and it could have been much worse. Besides more property damage, somebody could have been badly hurt or killed.