Tough engineer’s live, plenty Africa and little Hofbräuhaus
This report is dedicated to all former Doxford engineers and steam winch keepers
In the course of our voyage to West Africa, it became apparent that the repair work in Algiers had not been crowned with success. Cooling water was again detected inside the crankcase. Removal of the affected cylinder liner from the engine block was considered urgent. Since this highly demanding work cannot be carried out at sea, our next port of call was Lagos. According to our loading plan, a time window of just under 2 ½ days was available for this extensive repair work. Now we were moored in Lagos at the Apapa pier and preparing for the inevitable: It is quite rare for the same damage to occur twice during a voyage.
The regular pulling of pistons on this type of engine always involved two pistons and also included the associated, complex linkage down to the crankshaft. But these were repetitive, well-rehearsed routine activities. What now awaited us at the end of our voyage far exceeded a normal overhaul. A cylinder removal is a measure that is not undertaken without necessity during a long voyage. Usually, a shipyard with the appropriate equipment is called in to provide personnel support. Here, however, we were on our own.
The MS General Dufour, built for use in temperate zones, was completely unsuitable for African service. Like all ships of that era, she had wind scoops (cowl ventilator), but the extremely cramped engine room did not have a single mechanical fan. Therefore, the manoeuvring stand was supplied with fresh air through a long tarpaulin hose, which was caught by a wind sail. However, the effect was only local and only worked when the ship was moving. All auxiliary systems such as compressors, pumps, etc. were steam-driven. The large Scotch-boiler with three furnace tubes ensured hot and sweaty temperatures. Our firemen were not to be envied for their job.
As is well known, the engine room of our vessel was located at the stern. As a result of this arrangement, the layout of the other operating equipment in the engine room was extremely cramped. Even the slanted ship's sides were obstructed. This cramped space and above all the very limited space for handling the components were the biggest problem, along with the modest servicing equipment available. The handling of large and heavy loads, such as the withdrawal of an overlong cast cylinder liner was also a great challenge.
The Doxford opposed piston engine
The construction and peculiarities of the upright opposed-piston diesel engine are to be briefly explained here.
This English engine type is certainly an ingenious and space-saving design, good-natured and reliable in operation, as well as easy to maintain thanks to the simplest technology. In terms of construction, this drive was for me the logical further development of the good old steam engine. While the lower piston acts directly on the crankshaft, the force of the upper piston is transmitted indirectly to the crankshaft via the piston support yoke and the side rods and crossheads.
However, the open mechanics in the upper area, with the moving parts, such as the piston support yokes and the side rods, were not entirely safe for the watch keepers. The moving piston support yokes and side rods were lubricated with grease-cups. Agricultural machinery is also lubricated in this somewhat simple way. The oiler was responsible for filling the empty grease cups. Replacing the filled caps, with its fine thread on running parts, was always a test of patience.
A major weak point was the cooling water hoses for the upper piston, which connected the moving piston with the engine entablature. Highly stressed, they often tended to burst or tear during operation. And this happened later on the MS Baden several times during my watch.
Quelle: Sothern's Marine Diesel Oil Engines, 10th. Edition
Hot overhaul in Lagos
The tiresome emergency repair of our main engine in far-away Africa described here has long been history. However, the following report is likely to evoke nostalgic feelings and memories in many former "Doxford engineers".
To the best of my knowledge, only the following three traditional vessels of our Swiss merchant fleet, which have long since been scrapped: the MS General-Dufour, MS Baden and MS Anunciada were powered by this exotic type of engine.
Many of the working steps mentioned are likely to be familiar to the later engineers on modern diesel engines. However, the working conditions for the engine crew were decisively improved in later, newer ships. Today, air-conditioned engine control rooms are usually standard.
Before the start of the overhaul, the Primo (1st. Assistant Engineer) had informed his engine crew that we were in for a difficult and labour-intensive time here in Lagos. He intended to carry out this comprehensive and demanding overhaul work quickly and in one go, therefore shore leave in Lagos / Apapa would not be an issue for the time being. The chief had no other choice, a continuation of the voyage with this engine condition was too risky. Apart from the firemen, who were on watch-duty because steam was needed for the loading operation, the entire engine crew was to participate on the main engine repairs.
Small working groups were formed. While one group disconnected the connecting rods from the crankshaft in the engine casing and removed the heavy bearing shells with chain hoists and muscle power, another group was busy dismantling the fuel and cooling water lines on the cylinder station. For the time being, I was busy providing the necessary tools and hoists, but then I was assigned to help inside the engine. Working in the extremely narrow, oil-soaked crankcase was very strenuous. More than two men could not stand inside at the same time and yet a third person would often have been necessary. Impact spanners (large spanner, designed to be struck with a heavy hammer) were used to loosen the bearing bolts on the connecting rod.
However, these were so heavy that they had to be suspended with chain hoists. I was now responsible for moving these giants, while the 2nd engineer took a swing from a safe position with the heavy sledge hammer. Quarter turn after quarter turn the nuts on the stud bolts were loosened, thus releasing the bearing shells. Scraping and “blueing” was a time-consuming activity. This entailed the bearing shell being “blued”, refitted, the crankshaft turned, then the bearing shell removed and scraped. This was repeated until the semi-circular bearing surface wore equal all over, then the bearing was refitted. This is the only way to avoid overheating later on. Our steam-driven turning gear was unique. It took a few minutes to complete one full rotation of the crankshaft, so that we could take a well-deserved break. All these tasks are well-known standard activities for every engineer, but in these latitudes not far from the equator they became a physical torture without sufficient fresh air. To make matters worse, the boiler plant had to supply steam for the auxiliary services at all time. The breaks on deck to take a breath of air became more frequent and longer.
In the meantime, the faulty cylinder liner, was removed and secured for further treatment. The removal and re-installation of this overlong and weighty machinery part with the available means was a masterly achievement. Now the most strenuous and dirty work was in store for us two wipers, the cleaning of the scavenging air ports. It now became apparent how aggravating the tight space conditions are for a speedy revision process. The whole exercise was a miserable, sweaty drudgery. We were pushed to the limit of our capabilities and our will to persevere was put to the test. There was no lack of motivation, as we had the common goal of being able to set off on our safe return trip home as quickly as possible.
After two long, hard days of work, interrupted only by short breaks for food, the engine was ready. With the ship securely moored, our main engine was started for a trial run, which went satisfactorily. Now there was nothing stopping us, shore leave was the order of the day. All participants hurriedly got ready for shore, the penetrating smell of diesel and petrol had to be washed out of the pores and hair and the battered hands had to be cared for.
Well-deserved shore leave
The Swiss crew soon adjourned to the "Dressler Bar" in Apapa, which is well known to seafarers on the West Africa run. The large beer garden was a place of international understanding, especially between black and white. Under the open African sky, there was musical entertainment, but above all cool German beer such as the well-known "Becks" or the "Sankt Pauli Girl". Many seamen from the German "Woermann-Reederei", which operated a liner service to West Africa, also frequented this place. This might have been the reason why German evergreens and hits were so often played here, far from home. Suddenly, as we sat in front of the umpteenth beer, a song that was well-known at the time came out of the jukebox. It was based on a poem by Gottfried Keller entitled "Im afrikanischen Felsental marschiert ein Bataillon" (In the African rock valley a battalion is marching) and describes the hardships of the foreign legionnaires far from home. A song performed in German in front of a multicultural audience in an African beer garden was certainly not an everyday occurrence. The German performer of this song triggered emotions in many of us that are difficult to describe. It was a mixture of fatalism, physical exhaustion, secret pride in success and the feeling of having given everything, but also suppressed homesickness. We listened spellbound to the somewhat melancholy lyrics of the song, which aptly reflected our state of mind at the time, and some of us furtively wiped a tear from the corner of their eye. Even today, when this song is played on the radio, which is rare, I find myself far away in distant Nigeria for a few moments.
On the return voyage, it became clear that we had done a good job. The main engine ran smoothly and there was no more ingress of cooling water into the crankshaft casing.
In the meantime, times have changed in international shipping. In the fierce competition, the cost pressure is absorbed by seafarers from third world countries and the reduction in size of the crew. Due to their training and the reduced crew numbers, these crews are hardly in a position to carry out major overhauls on their own. For this, shipyards have to be visited. Today, even large freighters sail with a crew of less than 20. For the above-mentioned reasons, but above all due to the lack of seafarers willing to sacrifice, our operation at that time cannot be repeated in the history of Swiss ocean shipping.
Heinz Läuffer, 14th. August 2017