Mel Thunderbolt | My Happy Place
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My Happy Place

We engineers have to have ‘know-how’ on every little thing, but I’d take a pair of overalls and the hot sweaty heartbeat of the engine room over a chamois any day. One day I will find myself doing an oil change on the main engines and the next day I will be fixing the A.V and satellite problems.  From plumbing to electrics to hydraulics, we engineers have to know how to make it tick. That’s what makes us yacht engineers pretty diverse in the work that we do; it’s the variety that makes it so much fun and challenging.  I am constantly learning with every step along the way and I still have so much more to learn.

I love the problem solving and the challenge that the job entails. With every new day comes a new challenge, a new problem to solve or a new issue to face.  No two days are ever the same. Being an engineer stimulates my mind and inquisitiveness.  That pure sense of achievement when I am able to fix something or solve a problem… This for me is exhilarating!

The Engine Room by John Baillie

“The sparkling triple expansion

With its noise and whistling steam

The thumpity-thump of the crankshaft

And the connecting rods all agleam.

The clickety-clack of the valve gear

And the swish of the feed water rams,

The aroma of engine lubricants,

The sound of the oilman’s salaams.

The whir from the boiler air fan,

The condenser’s different smell,

The leaking steam from loose packing,

The gurgle from the bilge box well.

The sudden blast from the boiler room,

As the junior blows the glass,

The aroma of sweat and Brasso,

As the fireman cleans the brass.

The startling ring of the telegraph,

And the action that it brings,

The harmony of disciplined colleagues,

Like music at it swings.

Sunlight streaming through skylights,

Dazzling on polished steel,

Moving around the engine room,

As the quartermaster moves the wheel.

The slowing down of the engines,

And the final telegraph sound,

The quietness of finished with engines,

The joy of homeward bound.

Just reading this beautiful poem takes me right to my happy place – The Engine Room. I can clearly see it with my mind’s eye and then, all of my senses come to life. My name is Mel and I am an engineer. I am a woman.

In my Happy Place

Women have come a long way, in all things over the centuries, including being at sea and engineering. Sailors have a long tradition of superstition. One of the longest standing superstitions was that women onboard a ship brought along bad luck. They were thought to bring on bad weather or even worse, anger the gods.  In some cases, women found onboard a ship in days gone by were tossed overboard in order to attempt an appeasement of the gods. I think in all probability, it had more to do with us women causing a big distraction on a ship full of men.  There are stories in literature of women who actually disguised themselves as men in order to get onboard ships and sail the seas.

A French woman named Jeanne Baret “accidently” became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in 1765 when she disguised herself as a valet on the ship called BOUDESSE.

Nowadays there are many female engineers following different types of engineering careers, from the military to scientific.  Sadly though, in yachting, female engineers are scarce and hard to come by and I’m not sure why…

To be honest, being a female engineer has not been the easiest and smoothest ‘ride’ for me, but I did not expect it to be easy and simple in any way.  I have met and worked with the most amazing captains and engineers who are all for supporting women in the engine room. It is in their opinion that women in the engine room are more focused than men.  They also seem to think that women are much neater on a whole and that there is less “mucho” testosterone flying around the place.  Women tend to work harder and put their ‘all’ into the job as they know they are under the spotlight at all times and are always being put to a test.

I have also worked with ones who have not been supportive of women as part of their engineering team.  Derogative comments, belittling, sexual innuendoes, have come and gone over the years. All in all, experience has taught me to build a thick skin and act like one of the lads with quick return ‘one-liners’.

I allow nothing to disillusion me in any way or try to stop me from following and living my passion. This is what I love doing and I’m here to stay.

I once worked as an engineer on a yacht that was having work done in a shipyard in Turkey.  The contract workers were very confused as to why I was trying to point and show them around the engine room – they didn’t know what I was doing being in the engine room in the first place and didn’t know that I was actually employed on the yacht.  One sweet gentleman kindly took me aside and asked me if I was lost.

I believe that being a good engineer – whether male or female, takes a lot of determination.  Anything is possible if one has enough dedication and a love for what you do.  Yes, one needs to be physically fit as an engineer, and although some tasks are done with strength and body force, all tasks are done with intelligence and precision.

A wise chief engineer once taught me the following golden rules to remember in the engine room.  They have stood me in good stead.

  1. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
  2. Left to themselves, things go from bad to worse
  3. If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one thing that does go wrong causes the most damage.
  4. If everything appears to be going right you have obviously overlooked something.
  5. Nature always sides with the hidden flaw.
  6. An object will fall where it will do the most damage.
  7. Any tool dropped whilst being used in the engine room will roll to the most inaccessible part of the bilge.
  8. Under the most rigorous, controlled conditions of pressure, temperature, volume, humidity and other variables, a certain type of turbo alternator will start only if it damn well pleases.
  9. Nothing is impossible to the man who doesn’t have to do it.
  10. The Chief Engineer is always right.
  11. When the Chief Engineer is wrong refer to Rule No. 10.
  12. When all else fails read the instruction book.
  13. If the facts do not conform to the theory, they must be disposed of.
  14. The odds are five to six that the light at the end of the duct keel is an oncoming train.
  15. When several officers share a taxi, the one in the front seat pays for all.
  16. Experience gained is proportional to the amount of machinery ruined.
  17. If there is five minutes of sunshine during the day, it will be obscured by smoke from the soot blowers.
  18. If it jams, force it.
  19. If it breaks, it needed replacing anyway.
  20. Everything takes longer if you think about it.
  21. Any pipe cut to length will be too short.
  22. The man who can smile when something goes wrong has thought of someone else to blame.
  23. Any efficient machinery should be immediately stopped and overhauled.
  24. Smile… tomorrow will be worse.
  25. Once a job is fouled up, anything done to improve it only makes it worse.
  26. Everything put together falls apart sooner or later.
  27. Negative thinking produces negative results. Positive thinking produces negative results.
  28. You always find something the last place you look.
  29. Technology is dominated by two types of people: Those who understand what they do not manage; and those who manage what they don’t understand.
  30. Every idea evokes three stages of reaction, they can be summed up the following three phrases: It’s impossible – don’t waste my time. It is possible – but it’s not worth doing. I said it was a good idea all along.
  31. Anything good in life is either illegal, immoral or fattening.

These rules are hilarious yet so true and I thought I’d share them with you.

We engineers are a different breed – a unique type of specimen.  We need to stick together and share our stories and doing so will allow us to become the best that we can be.

Until next time.

Melissa Van Der Walt