The Art of Dredging

Dredging and shipping

On the social integration of engineers onboard ships through the ages.



For ages, mankind built ships and powered them with oars and sails.

Since rowing large ships was considered inhumane early on, the habit was abandoned and ships relied solely on windpower.

The ships were self-sustaining to the max.

Whenever they lost a mast, they chopped down a tree and made a new mast. Whenever they were leaking, the crew bailed out the water, beached the ship and closed the gap with some timber.

In exotic places, they traded a fistful of nails for fruits, piglets and sex.

Ships were independant from shore support. Their carbon footprint was excellent, and there was no need yet for a Marpol convention.

Some rookie caracters took these sailing ships and found new continents, discovered that the earth was not flat, and some of them returned home as heroes.



End of the 19th century, steam engines were mounted in sailing ships. It was a humble beginning; the engines were low powered and prone to breakdowns.

The engineer operating them was a lower rank onboard, who tried to hide in his little dark engineroom whenever he was not necessary. Yet more crew was needed to shovel coal in the furnaces of the steam engines, and coal had to be bunkered about twice a week. It was a bloody mess.

Off course, captains preferred sailing rather than steaming around. Sailing towards distant horizons was quiter, cleaner, more fitting to their romantic, leisurely souls.

But gradually ships were oufitted with less sails, and sails where seen as backup for engine power, untill sails and masts were abandoned altogether, for the black smoke vomitting  steam engines.

Coal as fuel was replaced by oil, which is a mess also. One of the main properties of oil is that it is lighter than water, hence floats on water. This has been a source of media attention and upheaval ever since.

With the genesis of engine powered ships came the birth of the engineer. Gradually the crew was composed of less sailors and more engineers, until their numbers rose to almost half of the crew.

The great British admiral Jellicoe found it necessary to give a tap-on-the-shoulder of engineroom personnel after the battle of Jutland, 1916. "Well done for a bunch of coal-shovellers."

Engineers were a new breed of human beings, closely related to cavemen. They were not trusted by the original inhabitants onboard (deck crew) and were banned to their own accomodation on the aftship.

 This was a form of apartheid, indeed, and it took many more decades before engineroom and deck started to intermingle onboard.

This process is still ongoing to this day. 



With the ship's engines, came the engineers, came the hurry, came the stress, the stomach ulcers and the invention of the E.T.A.. The whole face of shipping changed.

The idea of sailing at sea and getting somewhere eventually, was shoveled down with the coal. Ships were scheduled to arrive in ports in hours and minutes, not in seasons, as before.

The engineers gathered prestige, up to the moment that the chief engineer could almost set his foot aside the captain's foot. Engineers climbed the social structure onboard fast. This affected the attitude of many an engineer , and it did certainly affect the captain's mental health.

The grinny smiles of engineers were everywhere onboard, and their job became inevitable.

All what was manpowered before (steering gear, pumps, windlasses, laundry ...) was now controlled by engineers. This gave them leverage beyond control.

Nowadays, engineers are highly specialised. You cannot take them out, or the whole ship goes to smithereens within a day.

Whenever we have a technical problem, it hurts my feelings to go to these bright minds and ask the same non-technical question every time again: "How long will it take to repair ?", Sorry guys; other people ask me on the phone, and I have to give them some straight answers also.

I sail already ten years on one vessel, and still every week I hear about new systems that are running somewhere on this ship, and of which I never heard before. It's amazing that these systems have been online for ten years without problems. The engineers must have taken care for them all that long, occasionally fiddling them with their adjustable spanner. They can be very caring for their kit.



In the slipstream of the engineers developed yet another technical spin-off; the ship's electrician.

At first, this kind of guy found employment in changing lightbulbs and the occasional fuse.

Today he's busy over a laptop, and by changing a "0" into a "1", he can blackout the whole ship at will. Or he will jump in an electric cabinet and find the reason for a malfunction in a jungle of electric ropes and stuff, within minutes.

Nobody understands exactly what an electrician is doing onboard, and how he does it, but they always seem busy and important. They are de facto out of human control.

If asked what they are doing, you may get either a very technical answer, or some blank stares over a multimeter.



Once, we had an audit on the "Amerigo Vespucci" by the Deutsche Wasserschutz Polizei, must have been in Wilhemshaven, I guess.

The German police officer found an error in the oil record logbook; the chief engineer used some wrong code. They fined the chief with 50 mark, for using the wrong code.

I was sitting beside them, having fun at it all, untill the police officer completed: "...und eine Geldstrafe in Höhe von 100.-Mark für den Kapitän, da er für den Chefingenieur verantwortlich ist." (*)    Outch !

But it was yet another lesson: ultimately the captain is responsible for chief, engineers and engine room. Most probably the captain has the same technical background as a banana. But anyhow: he has end responsibility.

Well: it won't work out unless chief and captain can team up with each other, understanding each others needs, perceptions, vulnerabilities, expectations, and anticipating on them.

Dredging is teamwork.



Marc Van de Velde

 (*)  "  ...and 100 DMark fine for the captain, because he's responsible for the chief-engineer" 

Found some pretty good sites for and by engineers:

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