When a cylinder fails, engineers still keep ship on schedule

Patrick McCormack’s routine as the first engineer aboard the 750-foot containership Horizon Anchorage cracked at 0800 hours. “When I came into the engine room, I could smell engine-cooling water,” said McCormack.

Horizon Anchorage on its way north from Tacoma, Wash.
   Image Credit: Brian Gauvin

“If you’re smelling water, you go to the main engine. It jumped right out. It was bubbling and steaming around No. 5 cylinder head.” The water was leaking out through a crack in the cylinder liner.

“Boring is good,” is a merchant mariner’s well-worn mantra. Winter weather aside, the adage applies spectacularly to the routine of Horizon Anchorage: regularly scheduled sailings from Tacoma, Wash., to the Alaskan ports of Anchorage, Kodiak and Dutch Harbor; standard watch routines; and standard maintenance on the bridge, in the engine room, and on the decks. Everything is geared toward avoiding surprise and staying on schedule. “It’s very important for the ship to keep on time,” McCormack stressed.

Image Credit: Brian Gauvin

The bridge compass at dawn in Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

Chief Engineer Bruce Sherman was notified and in turn notified Capt. Greg Cooper. The second and third engineers, Charles Arnet and David Weiner, set about locating the crack by blowing air across the cylinder head to isolate the source of the leak.

Cooper, Sherman and McCormack huddled beside the huge seven-cylinder MAN B&W marine diesel engine that dominates the second and third decks, rising 53 feet from its mounts in the engine room below, and crowning at the cylinder heads just below the main deck above. Camouflaged in the confusing landscape of the engine room, a spare 12-foot-high cylinder liner and water-jacket assembly and an equally tall piston and rod stood at attention, sparkling new, in a corner. Although changing a piston is a more common procedure, Sherman and McCormack determined that replacing the liner would simply involve taking the operation a step further. Both men had performed the procedure before, but not for some years. They were confident it could be accomplished during an 18-hour turnaround in Anchorage. However, ultimately it was the captain’s decision.

Cooper, encouraged by the confidence of the engine-room crew and conscious of the schedule, chose the Anchorage option, as opposed to completing the trip on just six cylinders. Sherman and McCormack devised a game plan for the work to be performed during port time in Anchorage. They also decided to change the piston while the cylinder was open, because the old one was approaching its scheduled replacement time anyway.

The trick was for the ship to maintain enough headway to make the morning high tide in Cook Inlet on the approach to Anchorage at 0400 the following day.

“Anchorage has the shoals and silting problems, and the big tides,” Cooper said. “So the timing for going in across the North Shoal with enough water under the ship is critical to the turnaround time.” Cooper was also concerned about docking in time for the 0700 shore workers’ shift, to ensure that containers could be unloaded and reloaded in time for a midnight departure on the next big tide.

At the time, we were moving along Alaska’s panhandle, two days out of Tacoma and one day from Anchorage. Since the ship left Tacoma, the voyage had been textbook routine: up Puget Sound, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca into Canadian water, along the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands and back into U.S. water at Dixon Entrance.

Reliability is the hallmark of container shipping, achieved with shoreside and onboard automation, machinery, and efficiency, all compatible with trucking, to achieve what has come to be called intermodal shipping. It began in 1956 with the company that would eventually become Sea-Land Service Inc.

“Sea-Land was the first containership company in the world,” said Sherman, at the computer in his office on the engineers’ deck, sandwiched between the mates’ deck above and the crew decks below. In 1980, Sherman first shipped out as the third engineer aboard Aleutian Developer, a ro-ro vessel converted to container cargo. In 1987 he was in the engine room of Sea-Land’s new containership, Sea-Land Anchorage, on her maiden voyage. Her name changed to CSX Anchorage, then to Horizon Anchorage.

Image Credit: Brian Gauvin

First Engineer Patrick McCormack guides a new liner into the cylinder.

So for 13 years Sherman’s pulse has competed or harmonized with the steady throb of the same Mitsui-MAN B&W 7170 slow-speed diesel that propels the ship. “The B&W has been a good, reliable engine. I sleep pretty well at night,” he said.

As the B&W chugged through seas, Horizon Anchorage chugged through owners. Sea-Land was acquired by CSX Corp. and renamed CSX Lines. CSX retained the domestic runs and sold the foreign fleet to Maersk, which formed Maersk Sealand. Last fall, CSX sold CSX Lines to the Carlyle Group, which formed Horizon Lines to operate the Guam, Puerto Rico and Alaska runs.

These days, Sherman is more likely to suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome than busted knuckles. “The computer has been the biggest change,” said the chief.

Sherman is responsible for everything pertaining to the ship’s operation, from the coffee machines to the cargo, plumbing, electrical and propulsion systems. “This job used to be entirely on paper and Telex. Not only are we duplicating what’s been done before, but now we are doing much more.

“I spent one and a half years off the ship helping develop a software program for CSX,” Sherman said. The software, Maximo, is a business management program used by such companies as Coca-Cola and Microsoft. “Here’s the book,” he said, passing over a 2-inch-thick binder, a manual adapting Maximo to the requirements of container shipping. “The company asked for volunteers to work on it, and I volunteered.” As a consequence, he is a computer systems instructor at the Pacific Maritime Institute, and the ship’s computer guru.

Image Credit: Brian Gauvin

Engineer Cadet Michael Syntax with one of the wrenches used on the three-story, seven-cylinder diesel. It took the crew 18 hours to replace the liner and install a new piston.

“I’ve been here so long that if there is a problem, I’ve probably seen it, so I can give advice.”

As well as running the numbers for fuel consumption, engine performance, maintenance and replacement schedules, budgets and so on, Sherman sets the daily engine-room assignments. No. 5 threw a wrench into the day’s routine maintenance.

“This is Pat’s show,” said Sherman, respecting the division of responsibility between the chief and first engineers. McCormack runs the hands-on operations of the engine room. “He’s the first engineer. I’ll be around to advise and help, but he is the guy who is running this.”

McCormack, Arnet, Weiner and the engineer cadet, Michael Syntax, began disengaging as many hoses, pipes and fasteners as they could from No. 5, now rendered dormant, to get as much of a head start as possible on the job in Anchorage. Favorable seas and wind on the stern were sympathetic to the crippled engine, allowing Horizon Anchorage to maintain her usual cruising speed of 20 knots.

The aroma of freshly ground, freshly brewed coffee is as constant in the wheelhouse of Horizon Anchorage as routine is to the watches. “Prison grind,” or supermarket coffee, is shunned in favor of coffee-culture exotics brought aboard by the bridge crew. The bridge routine is not broken by the loss of a cylinder, but cups at hand, Cooper, Chief Mate Dave Crawford, Second Mate Bill Johnson and Third Mate Bill Fransen paid closer attention to the ship’s speed and the weather.

Coffee break on the bridge is a gathering of comrades who have sailed together often and garnered enough seniority on the union board to be able to ship out regularly, with some choice of ship and sailings. Cooper graduated from California Maritime Academy in 1979, started sailing out of the union hall for Sea-Land, APL and Matson lines. He is permanent chief mate on Anchorage and its sister ships Tacoma and Kodiak. He also has a master’s license and was acting as relief captain on the voyage. Crawford, Johnson and Fransen work off the union board, but Crawford, the acting chief mate, is hunting for a chief mate position. He and Fransen graduated from California Maritime in 1990 and shipped out together with West Coast Shipping. “Bill Fransen was my chief mate,” Crawford said. Johnson came up through the hawsepipe, starting out as a deck hand before becoming a licensed mate.

Image Credit: Brian Gauvin

A crewmember takes part in a firefighting exercise. Training for emergencies is a regular part of life at sea.

“I like this run because I’m home every 10 days,” Cooper said. “I like the people up here in Alaska, and most of the guys on this run are family guys. We don’t have the problems that you get with crews on the longer runs. Everyone has families that depend on their paychecks. This run is like driving a Greyhound bus. However, the wintertime is not much fun, but most of the time it is pretty routine.”

At 0220 Horizon Anchorage passed the western tip of the Kenai Peninsula and entered Cook Inlet under a twilight June sky. Abreast of Homer, Capt. John Webb of the SouthWest Alaska Pilots’ Association arrived by helicopter, landing on the stern deck directly behind the aft container holds. Sixty miles later, the ship slipped over the North Shoal with the sun rising blood red over the Chugach Range behind the lights of the city.

Cooper and the pilot manned the starboard bridge wing, and Crawford the console. Using a combination of the controllable-pitch propeller (CPP), rudder, and the bow and stern thrusters, they docked the ship. “The advantage of the CPP is that when we’re mooring, we don’t have to stop and start the engine,” Cooper said. The lines were tied and the gangway dropped in time for the beginning of the longshoremen’s 0700 shift.

Activity heated up in the engine room, where there simply isn’t much room for activity. With the hoist over No. 5, the exhaust assembly and cylinder head were lifted off and set as far off into a corner as possible. Arnet and Syntax, armed with rags, solvent and scrapers, cleaned and inspected the unit. Weiner slid an 8-foot ladder into the cylinder, resting it on the 27.5-inch-diameter piston head, and climbed in, disappearing up to his shoulders. He cleaned the area around the liner, water jacket and block. Arnet moved to the lower engine room and walked into the open crankcase. He unfastened the piston rod from the connecting rod with the help of two hydraulic screw jacks that exerted 14,000 pounds of pressure on the nuts, stretching them so that he could loosen them by hand. 

Once Weiner and Arnet were done, McCormack turned the crank to bring the piston to the top of its travel. As a small crowd gathered around Sherman operating the hoist remote control, a triangular lifting device was bolted to the piston head and hooked to the hoist. With McCormack up on the engine guiding, the 12-foot piston head and rod assembly was lifted out and set in a rack that allows the rod to hang through the engine-room floor. Next the huge liner and water jacket were hooked and lifted out as a piece, moved and set on the floor at the far reach of the engine. That was about it for space. After a coffee break, out came the rags, solvent and scrapers, and the engine-room crew prepared the cylinder and replacement parts for reassembly.

Image Credit: Brian Gauvin

Chief Mate David Crawford at the starboard bridge wing console as the ship docks in Kodiak, Alaska. With him are SouthWest Alaska Pilot Capt. John Webb and Horizon Anchorage’s master, Capt. Greg Cooper.

Midafternoon and it was time to put No. 5 together again. Joergen Jensen, a B&W specialist, who flew up from Transmarine Propulsion Systems in Seattle, joined in the fun. Essentially it was the morning in reverse, only slower, and with more care paid to the precise alignments when lowering the new parts into the cylinder so as not to damage them.

“All the tools connected with this job are big,” McCormack observed. To wit, Syntax held a crescent wrench fully a third his height. “And that’s not our biggest one,” added the first engineer.

“Pat’s conducting a symphony,” said the chief. “In the course of his job, there are hundreds of tasks that go towards completing it, all the draining, the shutoffs.” Indeed, a quick perusal of only one of the engine rooms revealed a riot of pipes and wire, spigots, valves, wheels, tool caches, ducting, blowers: an apparent chaos of machinery and systems feeding Mitsui, the B&W hulk. The reassembly process stretched into the evening.

At 2100, McCormack fired up the lumbering 22,500-hp engine for a warm-up and test. The work that began at 0600 ended with a tired crew shuffling around clearing the flotsam of the day: tools, sealants, rags, bits and pieces of inventory pulled from storage.

Horizon Anchorage slipped her mooring at midnight and headed down Cook Inlet, across the North Shoal, bound for Kodiak, on time.

Image Credit: Brian Gauvin

First Engineer McCormack, right, and Joergen Jensen, from Transmarine Propulsion Systems, lower the piston and rod into the cylinder during the final stage of the repair.

Fresh-bean, freshly ground coffee is also standard fare in the engineer’s coffee room, the aroma fueling the conversation of a satisfied engine-room crew that had reestablished routine. Even McCormack, who had to monitor the engine through the night after the previous day’s efforts, was exuberant. In all he put in a 30-hour watch. In a profession that is long on routine and short on excitement, the engine crew had successfully quelled the impertinence of a breakdown.

Kodiak and Dutch Harbor were entered in the log: Kodiak blanketed in a misty fog; Dutch, a welcome but unusually calm harbor that day. From Dutch Harbor, Horizon Anchorage headed out around Priest Rock, through Akutan Pass into the Gulf of Alaska, picked up the Great Circle and followed it south.

The conversations during the return trip were enlivened by speculation about a piece of cargo: a 1970s-vintage, four-wheel-drive, convertible Jeep truck. The truck, nestled between containers on the weather deck was in full view from the bridge, a well-storied vehicle headed home to rest after conquering Alaska.

Clearly it had been rode hard and put up wet, and the crew spent many hours trying to imagine what it had endured.

At the crack of dawn on the 10th day, Horizon Anchorage was greeted by Mt. Rainier, glowing behind the Maersk Sealand terminal like a sentinel watching over Tacoma. The ship was a few hours ahead of schedule.

By Professional Mariner Staff