Main engine failures.

Main engine failures.


CHIRP has received several reports recently concerning main engines failing to start, and associated issues.

 What the reporters told us:

  • Two separate reports where the main engine failed to go astern during final approach to the berth.
  • Fully laden log carrier departing port and heading to China. When pulled off the wharf with tugs, ME failed to start. Although the ME was tested in my presence when boarding, after the first unsuccessful attempt to start it the starting air pressure reading appeared too low. Vessel was brought back alongside with tugs and secured with moorings. After 1 hour of subsequent work/testing of ME the vessel sailed without further incident.
  • Vessel drifting for more than thirty-six hours awaiting a berth. When instructed to proceed to the pilot boarding area there was an issue with the main engine fuel filters. As a result, the vessel was two and a half hours late. Main engine tested astern to the pilot’s satisfaction before proceeding inwards. The Master said that the ship had been rolling, which may have resulted in air locks in the fuel oil system.
  • Main Engine failed on departing port. Tug re-attached and steering maintained. Engines restored after approximately five minutes. Pilot informed that a sensor failure was the cause.
  • When manoeuvring this vessel into port the main engines failed to start astern. The vessel was stopped, swung and berthed without the use of her main engine, using the two tugs and the starboard anchor.

Further Dialogue:

Regarding the last report, CHIRP queried whether the pilot knew whether the vessel had conducted pre-arrival engine tests and whether the use of an anchor was a standard procedure for berthing. This was the response. “The vessel came to the pilot station from her anchorage and as part of the pilot/master exchange, I specifically asked if the engine has been tested astern, which the master confirmed it had. Anchors are cleared away as part of our pilotage procedures. In this case the starboard anchor was lowered to the waterline and made ready during the vessels swing in the basin, because I knew I did not have main engines available – I wanted another braking source in addition to the tugs. After numerous failed starts, the Captain stated that they needed more air and it would be two minutes. I continued to swing the vessel using the two tugs and prepared the anchor for use. During the astern approach to the berth, the captain said the engine was back online, but only for ahead movements, not astern. I tested the engine and it failed to start, from there I dredged the starboard anchor and used the tugs to finally berth the vessel.”

CHIRP Comment:

Having discussed this report the Maritime Advisory Board commented as follows;

Engineering Perspective:

Marine diesel engines can fail to start for any number of reasons, most of which are entirely predictable and therefore avoidable. Filters can become blocked, service and circulating pumps can fail, starting air pressures can drop.

Knowledge of equipment and systems cannot be guaranteed so simple tests are all that are required to prove equipment reliability and provide confidence to the Master and pilot when entering or leaving port.

When already under way, these procedures can be as simple as test starting any stopped engines and proving ahead and astern operation.

If the engine is to be shut down for a period of time, the Master should inform the bridge and engine room of the acceptable period of notice before the engines are required.

Longer readiness states will allow all circulating pumps to be stopped, starting air and fuel to be isolated from the engine, indicator cocks to be opened and turning gear to be engaged. A full testing procedure will be required to ensure the engine is fully ready.

The readiness state can be reduced through leaving the circulating pumps running and turning the engine on turning gear every hour, and further reduced by using turning gear every 30mins, followed by kicking on air leaving only a test run on fuel should the engine be required in the intervening 30mins.

If immediate readiness is required, the engine should be kicked over ahead and astern on fuel every 30 minutes with the engine ready to be passed to bridge control immediately if required.

Routine tasks need to be maintained even with an engine shut down, Sumps still need to be checked with many engines having a “running” and “stopped” level which should be adhered to. Additionally, weather conditions should be considered because rough weather can cause confusing oil level readings such that a low oil level might not be identified by engineers and this might prevent an engine start when required. Rough seas can result in dirt and debris being stirred up and drawn into fuel and lubricating systems which in turn may cause filters to block more rapidly than usual.

It is essential that system checks are carried out during readiness state routines or when starting an engine. Are filter differential indicators showing green? Are system pressures and temperatures correct? This information can be recorded in the movement book providing a log for the next engineer who has to conduct the readiness routine.

A check list will ensure common practice between personnel, either due to crew rotation or simply a watch change over and will prevent complacency. The simple act of leaving a starting air bottle supply valve closed may allow a test start of an engine due to the residual pressure in the system but will not allow future engine starts when the Master tries to manoeuvre the ship.

Finally, good communication between the Master, bridge officers and engineers will ensure everyone knows what they have to do and when. Early communication of any issues with the machinery will allow the Master to assess the situation and take the corresponding corrective action.

Nautical Perspective – good seamanship responses to engine failure

  • Mitigating the risk of a machinery failure lies generally with the Engineering Department. But mitigating its effects on safe navigation rests squarely with the Bridge and Deck teams, in the spirit of the ‘ordinary practice of seamen’.
  • In terms of planning and preparation, routine ‘good seamanship’ precautions for the loss of ship’s engines should include
    • having a proper pilotage plan for every approach to port, berthing, unberthing and departure. This should include intentions for tug usage, and should incorporate ‘escape’ options at various points, based on a clear understanding of the weather and tidal conditions, and the available room for manoeuvre
    • briefing that plan well in advance to all personnel and departments involved
    • (even where a tug is not normally used, it is a wise precaution to have lines and manpower available to take one quickly in emergency)
    • having at least one anchor ready for letting go whenever in pilotage waters
    • thoroughly testing communications (both equipment and procedures) between bridge, engine control room and relevant parts-of-ship
    • proceeding at a speed slow enough for an effective response (manoeuvre, anchor etc.) to take effect
    • rigorously enforcing the ship’s watertight integrity


  • Classic ‘good seamanship’ responses in the event of actual engine failure will depend overwhelmingly on the prevailing spatial, resource and environmental conditions. Considerations should include;
    • if sea-room allows, turning immediately away from the nearest point of impact
    • employing tug assistance
    • deploying anchor(s) to check the way and inhibit drift/leeway
    • if a collision and/or grounding is inevitable, opting always for the least damaging impact aspect
    • minimising the high risk to personnel from ropes/lines under strain.


  • Occasional table-top discussions among deck, engine and bridge teams can greatly help reinforce awareness of the risk of engine failure, and of the seamanship options available for its mitigation.


Report Ends……