Making a career from a ‘tinkering mentality’

Posted 8/7/19

Passengers on the M/V Kennewick stroll the sun deck, watching seagulls soar by as Port Townsend sails away in the distance. From there, you can see the pilot room, where the boat’s captain steers with the help of his quartermaster.

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Making a career from a ‘tinkering mentality’

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Passengers on the M/V Kennewick stroll the sun deck, watching seagulls soar by as Port Townsend sails away in the distance. From there, you can see the pilot room, where the boat’s captain steers with the help of his quartermaster.

But the true propulsion is happening far below where the passengers walk, two sets of stairs below the car deck in the engine room.

Here, where no ferry riders can see them, two locomotive engines rumble loudly, in an engine room that spans nearly the length of the ferry itself, where three of the least visible ferry workers—the engineers and oilers—work 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep the ferry running smoothly.

On the Kennewick, there are always three people working in the engine room, a chief engineer and two oilers, who switch between working days and nights to maintain the engines. Bruce Ragsdale, the chief engineer on the Kennewick, has been working with Washington State Ferries for 29 years, and has been an engineer on the Kennewick since it came out of the boat yard and into the water. Robin Blanchard and Robert Frantz are oilers, who do regular checks when the engines are running to make sure nothing is astray, and help Ragsdale with maintenance projects.

All three take incredible pride in the Kennewick and its engine room, or “shop,” where tools of all shapes and sizes are lined up and categorized.

“Our shop is one of the nicest shops in the fleet. It’s like our own little city. We’ve got water, electricity, fuel, and anything we need,” Blanchard said.

Though the Kennewick is a smaller boat than the other ferries, such as the Edmonds/Kingston ferries, the engine room below deck is equipped with everything the three engineers could possibly need: a welding station, a pipe fitting station, a painting station, electrical supplies, tools, parts and fire safety gear. Most problems can be fixed easily with the supplies that they have. And the Kennewick does not have a history of problems, Ragsdale added, stating with shy pride and just a hint of smugness that the Kennewick has never run aground.

The name of the game for the three engineers is “preventative maintenance.”

“When we’re tied up at night is when we do our maintenance, including engine tuneups, filter and oil changes,” Ragsdale said. “All the things that need attention. During the day we’re keeping an eye on all the running equipment, taking a look at things, doing the rounds every hour.”

The crew works 12-hour days, seven days a week. They get one week off and then switch to working another seven days, but at night. That’s when they do 90% of the maintenance.

“If an engine doesn’t start, it’s on us to figure out what’s going on with it,” Ragsdale said. “We do carry most of the parts we need for almost anything that would break down.”

The average person knows that a car needs an oil change every six months or so. Air filters need to be changed, tires need to be swapped out and coolant needs to be refilled in order to keep a car running well.

Imagine running your car for 12 hours every single day. Now imagine your car has two locomotive-size engines and a generator to keep up on. That’s the kind of wear and tear that needs constant maintenance.

On the Kennewick, the engineers refuel at least once a week. They do oil changes every 250 hours on the generator and every 1,000 hours on the main engines.

Beyond the day-to-day maintenance, they plan preventative maintenance to do at night, searching for things that may need tuneups or replacements.

“I wake up on my week off and think about the boat,” Ragsdale said. “But I can’t think of anything I would love to do more than this.”

Though the hours are long, and switching from day shifts to night shifts can put you in a type of “limbo,” Blanchard said, their passion for keeping the boat in tip top shape makes it all worth it.

Frantz referred to it as the “tinkering mentality,” saying he enjoys getting deep inside the engines to solve a problem, or to find a problem before it becomes one.

“When we’ve got a problem and don’t know what’s causing it, the three of us will put our heads together and throw out ideas of what it could be,” Blanchard said. “The troubleshooting can be really fun.”

And though the three of them are stuck together, working in a windowless engine room for 12-hour shifts, the time goes by fast because they are friends.

“If you tried to do this as just one guy you’d probably go crazy,” Blanchard said. “But we all get along really well. The camaraderie keeps us working together really well.”

They talk about everything, he said. They’re big fans of boats, obviously, so that is a common topic. But they also like talking about cars, or home renovation projects.

And for most boat engineers, working in the engine room of a large ship means being gone for months at a time, off-shore on a large craft. Working on the ferry means the three engineers get to go home at the end of the day.

And while the current engine room on the Kennewick is a male-dominated group, Ian Sterling, the public information officer at Washington State Ferries said they are hoping to get more young, diverse engineers on board.

Going through programs like the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building’s marine systems program is a good start down the path of working on a ferry’s engine room, he said. Washington State Ferries helps with the rest of the training—working with newer staff to become oilers, then assistants to the chief, then chief engineers themselves.

Blanchard is on his way to becoming an assistant chief, after having 900 days of sea service and taking the assistant chief exam.

“I grew up fishing and I’ve always loved boats and wanted to work on one,” he said. “When I learned about this job I immediately wanted to do it.”

Working with Ragsdale, who knows the Kennewick’s systems like the back of his hand has only increased his love of the job.

“Some people do it because it’s a good job, others do it because they love working on boats,” Blanchard said. “I fit into the second category.”

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