The Engine Room

Obviously, the engine room houses the engines that run the ship and emit the constant (and reassuring) hum we hear everywhere onboard, inside and out.  In fact, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call this area of the ship ‘engine room’ because – in contrast to some ships where fuel is burned directly to drive propulsion – we don’t have any big fuel engines: instead, we have diesel generators that generate electricity. This electricity doesn’t just propel the ship, it also keeps the lights, refrigerators, laundry, computers, winches and everything else running.

Matt Peer is the Chief Engineer, and he oversees an incredibly hard-working team of three officers (Brian Kane, Sue Swader and Sahr Sankoh), four oilers (Henry Sherman, Buck Sampson, Willie Brown and Travis Jackson) and one electrician (Adam Goodbody). Together, they ensure that everything that generates and uses power is working properly and efficiently. They are basically in charge of a full-service power plant and associated equipment colloquially called “the engine room,” which is in fact many rooms that occupy much of the Lower Platform and the Second Platform decks of the ship. Yesterday, Matt kindly gave us a tour of his domain.

We started in the Switchboard Room which houses several banks of controls and electronics that operate the ship’s four generators. Usually, only two of the four generators are run at any one time. Each can generate 1 megawatt of power (a megawatt can power about 1000 average US homes). These generators convert diesel oil to electricity, which in turn powers the propulsion motors that drive the ship’s two propellers, two rudders, and the bow and stern thrusters. The ship can hold about 145,000 gallons of diesel oil, which is stored in a number of tanks distributed deep within the ship.

Matt in the Switchboard Room.   All photos by Dominik Zawadzki


Our next stop was the Main Control Station, where Sahr and Adam were busy monitoring and optimizing power systems and other essential functions. Throughout the day, the bridge – which oversees all systems – will call the control room to request, for example, ballast adjustments to improve stability, fuel use changes, or to send an engineer to check on a mechanical problem somewhere. From this room, the crew can also observe what’s happening on deck and elsewhere using various video monitors. In fact, in case of an emergency on the bridge, the ship can actually be driven from the control room.

Adam and Sahr in the Main Control Station

Next, we went to the Second Platform deck (or Hold level) to see the equipment related to water purification. The MSD (Marine Sanitary Device) is a mini sewage treatment plant that takes sewage water and passes it through four treatment stages: the first is a bacterial treatment process, during which bacteria break down sewage; this is followed by clarification, filtration, and finally chlorination treatments. A different piece of equipment is used to treat oily water (e.g., water recovered from hosing down decks or engine room surfaces) – for this, they use an oily water separator, which – as the name implies – removes the oil before returning the water to the sea.

Matt and Emily by the oil removing unit

On our next stop, we finally met the huge drum that holds the trawl wire – neatly and tightly wrapped around it (there are actually two – the second is a back-up). This is the drum that is carefully monitored by the engine room crew during dredging (or any kind of trawling that occurs off of the stern) to ensure that the wire wraps and unwraps properly during paying out and hauling in the wire. Communication cables (with conductors or fiber optics in them) could also be wrapped around this drum when any equipment that needs to send data up to the deck (or lab) is being towed behind the ship.

Emily standing by the trawl wire winch.

Next stop was the steering room where the two hydraulic power units move the rudders. Matt told us that this room is located right below the A frame, the aft-most part of the ship, and it felt good to have a sense of orientation in this big maze of rooms!

There are also work spaces within the “engine room” and one of them is designated for welding. Dominik wished he could have given it a try!

Welding shop. Note how organized and tidy this area is!


Dominik seems ready for some metalwork.

The main machinery space has a lower level and a partial upper level (or a catwalk). This area is very loud so wearing ear protection is mandatory. It is not only the loudest space but also the biggest of all and it truly looks like a power plant! The lower level houses, among many other systems, the four huge generators  and the two motors that turn the propellers.

Matt and Sara by the port side propeller motor.


One of the four generators in the Main Machinery Space.

Drinking water (and water for showers, laundry etc) is generated from sea water by reverse osmosis.   The reverse osmosis units are located on the catwalk above the generators. It is easy to take the availability of fresh/ potable water for granted on the ship. On some ships, fresh water is made by distillation of seawater using heat generated by the engines or generators. However, the generators on R/V Sally Ride are much more efficient and don’t generate as much heat, therefore, reverse osmosis units do this job.

One of the reverse osmosis units. Sara was amazed by how small this piece of equipment was (height of the white enclosure is ~ 5 feet).


Sara, Emily and Dominik in the Main Machinery Room. Two of the four huge generators  are in the background.

We truly enjoyed our tour, and now we certainly appreciate that power and electricity onboard is as much more than just the flipping of a switch.

All photos by Dominik Zawadzki

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