Engine Room Emergencies

How a boater's engine room window can prove to be worth the investment.


Never did I think the decision to add a simple window to an engine room door would have significant implications and teach us a valuable lesson about offshore cruising and safety. The story begins in the spring of 2005 when my wife, Maria, and I were going through a long list of optional features for inclusion on our new Nordhavn 40 trawler with sales representative Jeff Merrill. By the time we got through the major items, our remaining budget was shrinking fast. We were down to the short list of items that were less than $1,000 each and started making cuts in anticipation of the post-commissioning expenditures that would still be required after the boat arrived. Anyone who has ever built a new boat on a budget can relate to this dilemma.

The option of a simple 10- by 12-inch window on the engine room door was next on the list and seemed to be something we could live without. I rationalized that the worst-case scenario would be an engine room fire. And since we had already optioned for the fire-suppression system, which had indicators in the pilothouse, there would be no need to look through a window or enter the engine room itself.

Jeff disagreed with my thinking and urged me to reconsider. “You never know what else may occur inside the engine room,” he advised, “and it’s better to know what you are dealing with before you open that door.” This reminded me why we decided on a Nordhavn in the first place — it was all about safety. I wanted the safest boat available if we were going to be offshore, and we felt a Nordhavn fit the bill. So we checked the box and added another couple hundred dollars to the price tag.

Fast-forward 18 months to when the boat had been built, shipped to the company’s West Coast headquarters in Dana Point, California, for commissioning, then taken for a six-month stay in Ensenada, Mexico, then home to San Diego. After spending some time in San Diego, we decided to take the boat back to Dana Point to have a few remaining warranty items addressed. The trip is about 60 miles and takes roughly 10 hours at our normal cruising speed. To arrive at Dana Point during daylight hours, we’d have to cast off at about 6 a.m. The weather forecast promised clear skies and calm seas, and we anticipated a pleasant day on the ocean.

We woke at 5 a.m. and began our normal routine of checks. Within an hour, everything was completed and we were under way. By 7 a.m. we had turned north around the tip of Pont Loma and settled in for the balance of what was shaping up to be a very comfortable cruise. Part of our normal cruising routine while under way includes hourly engine room checks where, in addition to visual inspections, I also record over a dozen temperature readings on the engine and surrounding systems.

It was about halfway through the trip when I went downstairs for a routine check and looked through the window in the engine room door to see what appeared to be a cloud of smoke. Needless to say, my heart rate increased as I ran back upstairs and told Maria that we might have a problem. The first thing we did was discuss the appropriate course of action if, in fact, we had a fire on board. I then checked all engine instruments, which indicated that all systems were operational within their normal range. The fire-suppression system had not engaged, so I guessed temperatures within the engine room must still be within in the normal range as well.

There was no reason to panic at this point, as we were only about eight miles off the coast and knew we could get help quickly if need be. With Maria in control of the boat from the safety of the pilothouse, I went back downstairs to take another look. Peering through the window, I could see the entire engine room, but it was cloudy. I touched the window and it was not hot, so I cracked opened the door and didn’t smell smoke. Puzzled, I covered my face with a wet cloth and eased into the engine room to have a look around. It didn’t take long to identify the problem — the dry stack exhaust on the Lugger engine had blown a gasket where it made a 90-degree elbow bend and was releasing a small amount of exhaust gas into the compartment. Relieved there was no fire danger, I left the engine room and returned to the pilothouse.

I did not know how long the Lugger would continue to run with the exhaust fumes filling the air, so I had to make some decisions. Should we change course and head for Oceanside, which was about 15 miles away or risk it and continue on our original course to Dana Point, which was still some 45 miles away? I felt that as long as the leak didn’t get any worse, and if I could find a way to vent additional fresh air into the engine room, we would be able to stay on course for Dana Point.

The engine room on a Nordhavn 40 receives fresh air from two large vents located on the sidewalls of the aft deck. This design, while ample for cruising even in hot climates, does limit the amount of fresh air entering the engine room. I remembered the guest room, where the engine room door was located, had two small windows. Going downstairs, I opened both of the windows for the first time since owning the boat. This brought in a steady flow of fresh air as we cruised along at 6 knots. I then opened the engine room door fully. This resulted in a reduction in the amount of exhaust in the engine room. After 15 minutes, I could only smell a slight amount of exhaust in the guest room. Upon returning to the pilothouse, I opened both side doors, all the forward-facing windows and the salon windows downstairs. I double-checked the carbon monoxide sensor we added to the boat, and it was reading normal.

With this simple fix we were able to safely continue our trip to Dana Point and added the exhaust leak to our list of warranty items, which the company took care of the following week. We felt proud to have managed the problem on our own while out at sea. Needless to say, I had to admit to Jeff that he was right about adding the engine room door window. Being able to see a sign of trouble prior to stepping into the engine room gave me the opportunity to alert Maria and agree on an emergency plan if things got worse. Things could have been a lot worse if there had been a smothering or small fire that could have taken off if I had unknowingly opened the door and allowed significant fresh air in to fuel the flames.

This incident provided a good lesson and heightened our awareness of potential situations that can occur during even a short, routine cruise. Now, as we make plans to commission a new trawler, you can bet an engine room door window is on the top of our list!

The U.S. Coast Guard is asking all boat owners and operators to help reduce fatalities, injuries, property damage, and associated healthcare costs related to recreational boating accidents by taking personal responsibility for their own safety and the safety of their passengers. Essential steps include: wearing a life jacket at all times and requiring passengers to do the same; never boating under the influence (BUI); successfully completing a boating safety course; and getting a Vessel Safety Check (VSC) annually from local U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, United States Power Squadrons(r), or your state boating agency’s Vessel Examiners. The U.S. Coast Guard reminds all boaters to “Boat Responsibly!” For more tips on boating safety, visit www.uscgboating.org.