We spoke with Tim Ivory, a marine engineer who specializes in restoring and preserving vintage boats. He began his career on the retired FDNY fireboat John J Harvey, earning a reputation for ingenuity and passion. This led to regular commercial work in the Harbor and North River, where he developed a following among owners, companies, and preservationists.
Now, Tim works as an independent engineer. Despite a packed schedule and constantly shifting workload, Tim found the time to talk with us about what makes a maritime engineer and why he loves working with classic machinery.
What is a Marine Engineer?
A better question might be, “what aren’t they?”
“Engineers are expected to be machinist, chemist, electrician, firefighter, mechanic, physicist, and magician,” Tim summarized. “And, most of all, the on-board insurance policy.” While aggrandizing one’s own specialty is traditional, there is very little exaggeration in Tim’s job description.
Modern marine engineers are trained in all but the magic; that comes only with experience. Chief Engineers are responsible for everything that keeps a ship and its crew alive and operational. A partial list might include power generation, ventilation, lighting, hull integrity, safety equipment, air conditioning, logistics and supply, maintenance coordination, propulsion, water systems, and fire suppression. Anything not deck equipment or a human being is, on some level, the Chief’s responsibility to maintain.
“It’s all about the boat,” Tim said. “If the boat dies, so does the crew, the job, the livelihood.”
In some instances, the ship’s engineer is tasked as liaison between shore employees and the ship’s Captain, making sure schedules, safety guidelines, and budgets are satisfied. Their logs are also used to demonstrate adherence to local environmental and maritime laws for the waters in which the ship is operating.
Working on vintage boats, like the Fireboat John J. Harvey, or Tim Ivory’s own tug, Spooky Boat, is an even greater challenge. In addition to modern systems and practices, an engineer has to be hands-on familiar with several preceding generations of each technology. In the John J. Harvey, for example, many of the fireboat’s mechanical systems date from the 1930s, some were installed during a major engine upgrade in the late 50s, and the ship’s electrical wiring was entirely replaced in the late ’70s.
Even at the most basic level, some of the materials from which their systems were engineered are either no longer available or growing scarce. “When most of the fleet that I work on was built, plastic was not used anywhere. Composites, like Bakelite and Micarta, were king. Now, trying to find materials which have the same properties can be a challenge.”
Economics dictate vintage marine engineers take their education even further. Tim finds it often isn’t practical to order replacement parts from a machinist; retooling for such a small volume would incur additional costs they would have to pass on to him. “In the past year, I have studied foundry practices, machining, and heat-treating steel,” he said. “It’s more cost-effective to do it myself.”
Why Classic Vessels?
“When I was a pup,” Tim recalls, “I had a fascination with things mechanical.” This led him to skip college in favor of training as an automotive technician, but the John J. Harvey’s five massive Fairbanks-Morse 8 cylinder Opposed Piston diesel engines stole his heart.
“Engines are my passion,” Tim says. “The rest of the boat is just there to protect the engine. You have to take care of the systems that take care of the crew as well. That way, they can take care of the boat.” If you take this view, with every mechanical system on board linked directly to the focus of Tim’s passion, it’s easy to see why he was driven to know everything.
Becoming a ship’s engineer was the natural progression of Tim’s autodidactic passion for maritime technologies, but modern systems don’t entirely satisfy him. “Today’s equipment is designed around taking away the human element,” he explained. “Automated start up, shut down, and controls make the new engineer a data processor and secretary to the Coast Guard.”
Working with older, classic vessels not only allows Tim to use every aspect of his training but requires it. “Vintage equipment gives me the space to apply all my skills. I can’t always just purchase spare parts; the stuff doesn’t really exist.”
“I’ll never be a millionaire, not this way,” Tim admits. Following his passion is much more important, even with all the headaches and financial pressures accompanying work on vintage craft. “If you can wake up and tell yourself, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be,’ then you’re successful. I can think of many people in my life that are better off because I was where I was supposed to be.”
As with much of what Tim has to say about maritime engineers, what may seem like hyperbole or aggrandizement is nothing less than plain truth. Tim never mentioned this during the course of our interview, but we will: During the 9/11 attacks, Tim and his crew on the John J Harvey used their craft – essentially a floating museum – to personally evacuate 150 stranded New Yorkers. They then used the Harvey as a pumping station to replace the broken water mains of Lower Manhattan, rigging connections between old and new technologies on the fly and with whatever came to hand – even empty water bottles. (Without functional water mains, there are no functional hydrants. Without hydrants, fire trucks can’t put out fires.)
Chief Engineer Tim Ivory and his crew worked for 80 hours without relief because that was where they were supposed to be.
So You Want to Be a Marine Engineer?
Becoming a marine engineer doesn’t necessarily require college in the traditional sense. Tim himself is the first of his family’s nine children to eschew higher education. On the other hand, hands-on knowledge of a dizzying array of fields is required. A ship underway is a self-contained, floating city, with its engineers responsible for every technology on which it relies.
“If it’s going to break,” Tim said, quoting a captain of his acquaintance, “it’s going to break out there.”
The US Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center supervises licensing and training requirements for ships’ engineers. To qualify for a Chief Engineer’s license, you must serve 360 working days at sea at each subordinate grade, with logs and letters from supporting Captains or companies. You must pass a medical exam, drug test, and receive first aid/CPR, and both basic and advanced firefighting training. (NMC Chief Engineer Checklist here, sample exams here.)
This is in addition to the practical knowledge you need to master in order to pass the test. Formal apprenticeships or academic programs are available but not sufficient on their own. “You have to be curious. You have to look for the answers. Otherwise,” Tim cautions, “you’re only as good as the guy that trained you.”
“In my case,” he adds, “I have an extensive library and many old boats to learn from.”
Vintage ship engineering isn’t something you do for the money, but it’s a great way to hone your skills while you train. “You won’t find a better source of practical knowledge. To be high school age and have access to any floating preservation project, you will get an education that no money can buy.”
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View all Marine Engineering JobsImages from Fireboat.org, klsbear and Timothy Vogel