– a century of the internal combustion
engine at sea - where to next?
At the beginning of the 20th century the internal combustion engine was
in its infancy and nobody, apart from a few visionaries, could have anticipated
the revolutionary effect that it would have on the whole of the marine
In 1876 a 44 year old German engineer, Nikolas August Otto, invented the
internal combustion engine through a sequence of operations referred to
as the ‘OTTOCYCLE’. Twenty one years later Rudolf Christian
Karl Diesel, a fellow German, demonstrated the first ‘compression
ignition engine’ which he proved to be twice as efficient as steam.
It would have been unimaginable, even to the visionary, that ocean liners
and warships, the great strongholds of the steam engine, could ever be
propelled around the world by ‘Diesel’ engines; but it happened.
End of the steam era
For the wealthy and more leisured classes, large yachts abandoned the
use of expensive, ungainly and slower steam for the comparative compactness,
safety and simplicity of the diesel. Press the button and, hopefully,
it would start; keep it topped up with fuel and you could run it all day
and all night - and you only needed one member of the crew to make it
go. No more stokers, no more coal, no more smuts and smoke from the funnel,
no more large areas dedicated to steam which always offered the threat
of blowing up.
In 1913 Camper Nicholson broke the mould by building the 149ft. ‘Pioneer’
and installing a pair of 250BHP Polar Diesel engines.
It was the start of a new era where designers could move the engines out
of the way to the stern, so they didn’t interfere with the cabins
or the saloon, and where they could also accommodate, in the engine room,
a generator to assure an adequate domestic power supply. And the boatbuilders
needed only supply one set of beds per engine and then concentrate on
the far more lucrative business of fitting out bigger and more luxurious
Yachts and small craft
At the other end of the boating world the petrol engine would reign supreme.
Small cast iron masterpieces with heavy flywheels to make them run as
smooth as butter. The Stuart Turner (most popular ever two-stroke auxiliary),
the four-stroke Albin or Thornycroft’s heavyweight, ‘Handy
Billy’, would become some of the workhorses of the inshore fisherman
and many a shipyard would use them to power their workboats.
But of far greater importance to the longer term prospects of boatbuilding
was the effect that these small, affordable marine petrol engines would
have on the leisure craft market and the vital role they played in an
attempt to bring small boat cruising to the masses. Further up the market
four-stroke petrol engines found their place either as ‘marinised’
or specialist marine versions of automobile engines.
Petrol engines eventually lost favour because of the flammable nature
of the fuel and the susceptibility of electrical circuits to salt water
but, if intelligently and properly fitted and maintained, their reliability
can be equal to a diesel and, if handled with due respect, the fire risk
should not be over emphasised. Considerations of weight and cost still
make them worthy candidates for small yachts particularly as outboards
and to power high speed, smaller motor boats. Outboards particularly benefit
from a good power/weight ratio which gives them portability, easy installation,
small space requirement and enables them to be tilted for the shallows.
New generation diesels
On the other hand diesels were heavy, smelly, full of vibration and expensive
and World War II had left the industry desperately short of materials
with a lot of inferior quality African mahogany being grabbed by many
boatbuilders faced with few alternatives... that was until we got to the
fifties when two major developments would revolutionise the small craft
scene. The advent of the small, high-speed, marine diesel engine coinciding
with the introduction of GRP and ‘production line’ manufacturing
can be seen as the revolution that reincarnated the small boat industry.
This new generation of small diesels emerged as beasts of a very different
colour with better power/weight ratio and the ability to start ... “even
when wet”. With the technical and marketing expertise of such manufacturers
as Volvo Penta, Gardner, Kelvin and Perkins, the small marine diesel became
clean and desirable.
Over the last twenty years Japanese manufacturers have grabbed the market
by the throat and developed highly sophisticated, lighter weight, smoother
and less expensive small engines which today dominate the small diesel
market and rightly so.
The gains that we have made are freedom and flexibility for designers,
reliability and lower costs for owners and an unprecedented expansion
in the market for the boatbuilder not forgetting the invention of the
That magic combination of small, high-speed, reliable ‘clean diesel’
engines and shiny, low maintenance GRP also led to the creation of today’s
Step aboard and go..
The vast majority of those who put to sea these days can be properly described
as ‘weekend sailors’.
He/she expects to step on board without getting the ‘Docksiders’
wet, ‘drive’ a boat (packed full of ‘goodies’
such as a refrigerator, TV, electric lighting, showers, air conditioning,
fully kitted galley, electric winches, bow thrusters and enough electronic
navigation equipment to make NASA jealous) with power to spare probably
against the tide and wind. The pressures of ‘modern living’
mean getting out on a Friday evening and being back on Sunday ready for
the office on Monday morning.
The combination of that engine, that material and the enormous expansion
of marinas (which is a direct result) can make all this possible and if
the English weather forgets the plot then we can stay on the pontoon and
enjoy the surrounding facilities and amenities.
This culture benefits the small craft industry right down the line from
designers, builders and marina owners to chandlers, marine engineers,
sail and rigging makers, insurance companies, banks and finance houses
and, of course, yacht brokers and small craft surveyors.
And the whole industry of charter and flotilla holidays is built solely
on this mindset.
Internal combustion reigns supreme
By the end of the twentieth century the internal combustion engine had
taken over the world and, with it, the marine industry. Now we must look
for alternatives that will benefit future generations.
Sadly, our long love affair with the piston driven internal combustion
engine must go into decline because it is not an efficient mechanism.
It does not achieve complete combustion and therefore expels polutants.
It burns fossil fuels thereby creating nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide
and carbon dioxide all of which seemingly add to the greenhouse effect.
It is smelly, noisy, vibrates and, with a multitude of metal-to-metal
parts, is inherently unreliable and wears out.
And, if we want to bang a final nail into the coffin, the internal combustion
engine that we are likely to have fitted in our next floating dream (assuming
it to be in perfect tune and condition) will only transfer about a third
of the available energy in the fuel into useful thrust from the propeller.
So to suggest that heavy, longer term R&D investment should be put
into the internal combustion engine, particularly piston driven machinery,
for the benefit of future generations would seem to be foolishness in
the extreme. In the short term ‘next generation clean diesel engines’
is a worthwhile attempt but in reality it is only smoothing the path towards
the day when this century old technology draws its pension.
We need the next breakthrough in motive power. Just as Nikolas Otto and
Rudolf Diesel revolutionised engine design and thinking at the turn of
the last century, we too need some radical thought backed by strong R&D
and a willingness for the application.
One thing is certain - the next generation is going to demand a ‘greener’
solution than the internal combustion engine will be able to supply. It’s
time for the engineers to get back to the drawing board.
Roger Josty (May, 2005)