A wobbly 14-second video shows part of the giant diesel engine, as tall as a man at 6 feet and as long as two at 12 feet. Three cylinders sit in line, the rocker arms and tappets frivolously exposed like fuel and oil lines. The whole assembly sounds like a loud sewing machine that’s playing a waltz as intake and exhaust valve springs do their thing: compress and release.
If you are into old boats and engines, there’s nothing quite like this Washington Iron Works three-cylinder diesel from 1929, with all its key parts fully uncovered and easily accessible. This magnificent machinery appears to have traveled in time from a different era when high tech was all mechanical, and when power was doled out by the teaspoon.
It produces only 100 hp, good for 6.5 knots cruising and 7 knots WOT at 350 rpm. That’s placid by today’s standards, but this engine has been around for 90 years, doing duty as the main propulsion system of the David B, a charming little cruise ship that was fastidiously restored and now plies the waters between her home port of Bellingham, Washington, and scenic points far to the north.
“It’s the oldest running Washington Iron Works diesel,” says Jeffrey Smith, 50, the David B’s co-owner and captain. “When we got her, it was the oldest [Washington Iron Works engine] in existence. Typically, they were used in generators and logging equipment.”
The 65-foot, 67-ton vessel that the engine powers is named for David W. Branch, once a manager at the cannery firm of Libby, McNeill & Libby. Built from Douglas fir planks on steam-bent oak, and laminated fir frames by Lake Washington Shipyard in Houghton, Washington, the David B launched in 1929 and went north to the cannery in Ekuk on the Nushagak River. There, she worked for about 25 years, towing a fleet of small, unmotorized fishing boats to their salmon fishing grounds and back. Then, things changed in the early 1950s.
First, the river altered course, which left the David B high and dry on a beach. Then, the economics of commercial fishing shifted, rendering the decades-old vessel obsolete. She fell on hard times, which lasted until 1998, when Smith and his wife, Christine, found the boat on Lopez Island, Washington. They bought and restored her to near-original condition under their corporate banner, Northwest Navigation.
Until their first passenger trip in 2006, they toiled for the boat and sleuthed to find engine parts, an odyssey neatly chronicled in Christine Smith’s book, More Faster Backwards, published in 2011.
The David B’s amenities include a deck-level galley with a wood-burning stove, a salon with panoramic views, and four guest staterooms with private heads. Eight passengers can sign up for the experience of adventure cruising and witnessing the beauty of the Inside Passage, the fjords and the wildlife of the Tongass National Forest.
The owners take pride in keeping their guests happy while preserving their classic boat and introducing upgrades in quasi-homeopathic doses—by adding navigation and communication electronics, for instance, or replacing the old glassed-over, tongue-and-groove deck above the galley with lighter, stronger and watertight aluminum. It’s also become nearly impossible to source parts for the diesel, so Jeffrey Smith makes them in his machine shop.
He added blowers to the engine room to lower the ambient temperature, which used to reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, it’s about 85 degrees Fahrenheit. And he installed a sophisticated skimmer system to separate engine oil from the bilge water before pumping it overboard.
The lifeblood for the Washington Iron Works is 40-weight oil. About a gallon of the stuff gets distributed to 74 ports every two hours while the boat is underway. The captain and mate normally do it, sharing the duties for running the ship and serving passengers. Only once in a while, guests volunteer as oilers and wipers.
Last September, on the southward trip from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Bellingham, Dan McGuire of Santa Cruz, California, who restores old boats and builds bottle ships (see Soundings April 2019), and Ron Fletcher, a retired diesel mechanic from Vancouver, British Columbia, wanted to be part of the David B’s business side, happily reporting for duty when it was time to administer 10W-40 oili to valve rocker gear, push tubes, rockers, followers and injectors. They also drizzled some Marvel Mystery Oil on valve stems.
“David B’s engine is quite different, with a marine gear for reverse forward and neutral,” Fletcher says. Having taught diesel mechanics at Vancouver Community College, he’s a subject matter expert who’d learned about exactly these types of engines many years ago in a class designed to produce engineers for the towboat industry.
The Washington Iron Works diesel also was ahead of its time, Fletcher reckons, because of a common-rail fuel system, which is typical for contemporary marine diesels. “The difference is, of course, fuel pressure,” he says. On the 65-foot David B, with her mechanical spray valves, the maximum is 3,000 to 5,000 psi, while today’s diesels use piezoelectric injectors and up to 50,000 psi.
Last, Fletcher was impressed by the quick starts that compressed air produced. “There’s no cranking forever,” he says. “She just fired up instantly.”
That’s a good thing, because weighing anchor on the David B requires running the main engine. A dog clutch connects the engine shaft to the windlass. Once it is engaged, the rotating shaft runs forward and gears up to the windlass, which then reels in the ground tackle.
After an estimated 45,000 total lifetime operating hours, Jeffrey Smith says, the engine is best checked not just by monitoring gauges, but by listening to whether her sound makes the right music. If something needs tweaking, he’s got the goods.
“Restoring an old Volkswagen, you need a lot of specialty tools,” he says. “This engine is the same. When we bought the boat, a pile of these goofy wrenches with crazy shapes came with it. So, I put them all in a wooden box.”
Another go-to tool Capt. Smith employs in the engine room is, as strange as it sounds, the king of diamonds.
“When the engine runs, we want all cylinders to warm up evenly, which I can check on a pyrometer gauge,” he says. “If one needs help, I use a playing card as a shim to increase fuel flow.”
And that’s just what an oiler might have done 91 years ago.
This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue.