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Clean, Lean & Still Mean


Story and photos by Shaw McCutcheon

The modern superyacht engine room becomes a destination.

There was a time when the engine room of a yacht was a hot, noisy, smelly place that only an engineer could love. To the owner, the engine room was a place to be avoided, in part because it conflicted with the gracious, elegant spaces elsewhere on the boat, and in part because the inner workings were so incomprehensible. It may have been the beating heart that brings the vessel to life and keeps it moving, but God forbid the owner hears any thumping or other evidence that the room exists. Predictably, then, many of the advances in engine room design have focused on concealing all traces of it.

Today, however, the engine room has come full circle, from a necessary inconvenience to a point of pride. Modern super-yacht engine rooms are light years advanced from their grimy forebears. Most now resemble hospital operating rooms in their obsessive attention to organizational detail and cleanliness. Hampshire II, a 258-foot (78.6-meter) Feadship launched last year, sports an enclosed, air-conditioned catwalk through the engine room for the benefit of awed guests.

Then there are yachts such as Mr. Terrible, a 154-foot (46.9-meter) Delta built in 2007 originally for an auto-racing family and now called Usher. The engine room, with two specially painted fire-engine-red MTU V16 diesels, was created to be the nautical equivalent of a showroom hot rod and is often the first place visitors are taken. The bilges were faired to external-hull quality, and many elements, right down to the nuts and bolts, are polished stainless steel. The room is evenly illuminated by 32 lights, each lightbox specially constructed with sound-deadening insulation and lead shielding so as not to corrupt the room’s overall soundproofing in the overhead. All the ship’s systems were set up to accommodate easy maintenance. The batteries, for instance, slide out for easy access; each air-conditioning unit is removable by simply undoing a couple of bolts; sinks were specially designed just to handle fuel and oil waste.

But there is more than just aesthetics involved in these projects. Yacht designers have realized that an immaculate, well-organized engine room means less costly time in the repair yard, a better-run vessel and enhanced value for the yacht when it’s sold.

In 2006, Delta Marine launched the 240-foot (73.1-meter) motor-yacht Laurel. During the design phase, the engineering team managed to extract from the owner and the interior designers a few extra feet of space in the engine room. There’s a natural tension between engineers and the interior design team because each is clamoring for more space.

“The owner wants to have a lot of space on a yacht,” says Kim Nguyen, who has been designing engine rooms for Christensen for more than two decades. “They don’t want to sacrifice too much in the guest cabins so the engine room can be bigger so you can access everything. I agree with the engineer’s agenda, and it makes his job easier, but that’s not the owner’s agenda.”

Simon Liebke, until recently the yacht’s chief engineer, praised the owner for the extra three feet of space. “It’s made a massive difference as far as layout and being able to maintain the equipment,” he says.

The engine room’s not perfect, he says, but the builder did a lot right. The rear bulkhead of the engine room, for example, is “soft” in that it can be easily removed. That recently allowed the yacht’s three generators to be replaced through the bulkhead, instead of the normal procedure of moving them out through a hole cut in the hull side. The whole operation took only two weeks.

Engine room design in the past has largely concentrated on two different tracks. On the utilitarian side, various systems—generators, air-conditioning units, watermakers, piping, etc., must be placed where they don’t interfere with other systems. The other track involves concealing as much as possible any evidence that the engine room exists. Years ago, owners were resigned to noisy systems belowdecks when the boat was running. In today’s yachts, however, technological advances in sound control mean barely a whisper in the staterooms just adjoining the engine room while the boat is running. This is especially true of displacement yachts, which have more interior space to work with.

Today, it’s commonplace that all the main equipment—engines, generators, air-conditioning units, etc.—are on rubberized vibration-dampening mounts. Overheads and surrounding bulkheads are thick with lead and other noise-control materials. Essentially, noise and vibration reduction has come so far that further improvements have only a marginal effect.

“The boats are now so quiet that you have to work on other things like air-conditioning and other noise sources for improvements,” Ronno Schouten, chief designer for Feadship, explains. So Feadship, for one, is focusing on such items as the bow thruster, which on many yachts is very noisy. The improvements increasingly involve electrically driven—and much quieter—rim thrusters.

Another good reason for a yacht owner to focus on engine room design is simple, but sometimes ignored: crew satisfaction.

“If the machinery space is well laid out, accessible and maintenance is addressed, it makes it easier for a shipboard engineer to do their job and like their job,” says Delta Marine’s Dan Filonowich.

Jed White—until recently chief engineer on April Fool, a 200-foot (60.9-meter) Feadship—found that in a well-laid-out engine room with all the equipment segregated into relevant areas, it was the little things that made the difference. For instance, instead of a normal home-style refrigerator in the galley, Feadship had placed the unit’s cooling compressors in the engine room, allowing him to work on the fridge from his own domain instead of messing up the galley. “It was a dream to work in,” he says.

One of the biggest drivers in future engine room design will revolve around sensitivity to the environment and ways to get better mileage out of a gallon of diesel fuel. Front-line engineers such as White suggest, for instance, that using heat naturally generated in the engine room can be harnessed to pre-heat various systems and reduce fuel use. For example, if hot water can be pre-heated by the engines or exhaust systems, relatively little electricity would be needed by the vessel’s water heaters.

Another challenge comes from the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which is proposing new limits on pollutants from ships. Reinforcing IMO’s position, some countries and ports are also proposing tighter restrictions of their own on both atmospheric and waterborne pollutants. Yachts will require more sophisticated treatment systems to meet these new regulations.

“The treatment systems for exhausts are very, very large,” Falonowich notes. “We talk about how engine rooms are going to change in the future. That singlehandedly is going to be the biggest factor in the next five years.”

The yachting experience has always been about going out on the water and having fun. But some of today’s yachts are also celebrating something else—that a yacht is also a self-sufficient organism, virtually independent of the environment around it. The engine room is the source of that independence, a space to be extolled. Already, Feadship is building another yacht with a catwalk through the engine room, and this time there will be a seating area so visitors can reflect on the heart of the organism.

“We want to celebrate the machine-ness of it,” says Tim Hamilton, Feadship’s American representative. “Being able to walk through it, almost like a guest space, is celebrating the fact that in the end you’re living on this living machine.”
Modern Trends In Engine Room Design(Justin Ratcliffe)
“Today it’s all in the details,” says Rob Doyle, who heads up Rob Doyle Design in Kinsale, Ireland. “Piping and cable tracks, for example, are pre-designed in 3-D to keep diameters and distances to a minimum and facilitate maintenance. Much of the focus is on making the engine room a more pleasant place for the crew to work, so sound shielding for main engines is becoming more common, whereas in the past the engineer always had to wear ear protectors. Sound dampening is also a top consideration for owners who do not want to hear generators and pumps kicking in, or noise from the ventilation and exhaust ducting when they’re enjoying dinner on the aft deck. Another area that has developed dramatically over the last few years is electrics. Higher hotel loads and computerized phasing of generators to avoid power spikes has meant bigger and more complex switchboards, which has led to air-conditioned control rooms even on smaller superyachts.

“For most owners, the engine room is just that—a room with engines in it. But for others it has become a trophy room to show off to their guests, much as they would the engine bay under the hood of a supercar. We’re currently working on an 86-meter project for one such client that has a soundproofed glass corridor running through the two-tier engine room. We have another client for a 40-meter project who has asked for full headroom in the engine room, whereas once the engineer would have had to crouch to get in there, even though this affects the height of the main salon above.”