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School's In

“The purpose of this class,” announces the burly man by the blackboard, “is to save engines from people like you.” Larry Berlin is not a man to mince his words. Tall and grizzled, the head of training for East Coast Yanmar diesel importers Mack Boring is an imposing figure. It is all I can do not to flinch guiltily as his eyes bore into me. Has he somehow sensed that I once left old oil in an

“The purpose of this class,” announces the burly man by the blackboard, “is to save engines from people like you.” Larry Berlin is not a man to mince his words. Tall and grizzled, the head of training for East Coast Yanmar diesel importers Mack Boring is an imposing figure. It is all I can do not to flinch guiltily as his eyes bore into me. Has he somehow sensed that I once left old oil in an engine over an entire winter, among other equally egregious crimes like sometimes skipping fuel filter changes?

But no, Larry has not singled me out. I quickly figure out that all we boat owners are, in his eyes, guilty until proven innocent—guilty of mechanical malfeasance, that is. It is his mission to set us on the path to righteousness, to save us from diesel damnation. Like the other sailors sitting in this classroom in Mack Boring’s Union, New Jersey headquarters, and like some 20,000 other boat owners before us, I am here to learn how to keep my engine in top working condition.

Although I’m not a complete mechanical nitwit—I’ve swapped out engines and transmissions in cars and motorcycles, and I do the routine maintenance like oil and filter and coolant changes on our project boat’s Yanmar 2GM20 diesel—I confess to a certain nervousness about delving too deeply into the mysteries of the marine diesel. Since we sailors ought to be as self-sufficient as possible, this was a hang-up that had to be dealt with, so I figured some intensive mechanical counseling was in order.

Mack Boring has been running clinics for people like me for many years, mostly at its Union HQ, but also in Middleborough, Massachusetts, Wilmington, North Carolina, and Wauconda, Illinois. You can go to a one-day Basic Diesel primer that covers the basics of the internal combustion engine and progresses through routine maintenance; then, with that under your belt, you can do the two-day Hands-On seminar that involves the dismantling and rebuilding of key parts of a marine diesel. I have managed to skip the primer and launch straight into the fun part.

Over the two days, Larry will patiently walk us through every aspect of the operation of a diesel and its ancillaries. We are each given a ringbinder full of tables, lists, exploded drawings, numbers and notes, corresponding as much as possible to the engines in the boats we own. My fellow students have come from as far afield as Montreal and sail a variety of boats, not all of them with Yanmar engines; the lessons they’ll learn here will apply to any diesel, even if the details differ. They are all sailors—powerboaters, who generally have bigger and more complex engines and systems, get their own seminars—and their boats range from Hylases through Irwins, Freedoms, Catalinas and Beneteaus.

Arranged down the middle of the training room are a half-dozen two-, three- and four-cylinder Yanmars, and we’re told to pick the one that most closely approximates our own diesels. I gleefully swoop on the lone 2GM20; everyone else has a bigger engine, so I get this one to myself. Over the next two days we’ll switch between our seats, where Larry will explain what we’re about to do and why we’ll be doing it, and our engines, to practise what he’s preached. When it comes to things mechanical, there is nothing like the laying-on of wrenches to reinforce book learning.

There’s little point in a blow-by-blow account of the course. Time goes quickly as Larry talks us through the systems, occasionally diving off at an always-educational and often-entertaining tangent. His knowledge of diesels and their problems is encyclopaedic, his instruction peppered with hints and tips so useful that I scrabble to write them all down.

On the cooling system: “Never use green antifreeze. The silicon it contains will react with the aluminum in your engine block.” My heart sinks as I recall the vivid green antifreeze I’ve used for the last four seasons. It should have been pink or orange.

On lubrication: “When your engine is shut off before it comes up to proper operating temperature, you’ll get carbon and varnish around your cylinders.” Eek. How often do I shut down the engine as soon I clear the mooring field?

On engine longevity: “Once a month, motor at hull speed for three or four hours to clean your engine. This gets the oil hot enough to evaporate the water it contains, which will clean the carbon and varnish deposits off your cylinder walls.”

On general maintenance: “Use a Magic Marker to mark components before you take them apart so you can put them back correctly…Use paint to color-code nuts and bolt heads and the wrenches that fit them…Replace the O-ring on your diesel filler cap every year…A cheap nut driver that fits the hex head on a hose clamp is much better than a screwdriver…” And so on.

In between all of these nuggets of wisdom, I am in boat-geek heaven, taking apart the heat exchanger, removing the mixing elbow, unbolting the fuel delivery lines, replacing the injectors, bleeding the fuel system and adjusting the valve clearances, and firing up the engine to see if my handiwork has helped or hindered. There’s absolutely nothing like taking someone else’s engine apart.

Larry drifts between groups of students, dispensing advice and patiently re-explaining procedures. He tells us that by giving us the confidence to maintain our engines this course will save us all thousands of dollars in service costs over the years, and perhaps even more than that. “We don’t have engine failures,” he tells us as the second day winds down, “We just have customer failures.” As I scrub the oil from my hands I vow not to be one of them, green antifreeze notwithstanding.

For a complete list of Mack Boring diesel seminars, click here.

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