Women’s Diesel Engine Workshop

Cruising World digital editor Eleanor Lawson enrolls in a diesel engine workshop organized by the National Women's Sailing Association.

Diesel Engine

Engines have always made me nervous. I avoid them whenever possible. Look at this mess of metal: what is all that, anyway? As long as I know how to sail, I’ll never have to use the engine, right? __ Maybe in some alternate universe where the wind never dies, all food can be stored warm and I can read in the dark. Eleanor Lawson

National Women’s Sailing Association

Nervous and excited, I enroll in a diesel engine workshop organized by the National Women’s Sailing Association. The first day of the class, I arrive at Mack Boring in New Bedford, Massachusetts with nine other women. I’m ready to face my fear. I think. Beth Burlingame

Diesel class at Mack Boring

A text message from my soon-to-be father-in-law instructs me to “Learn how to purge the air out of a Perkins 4108 all the way to the injectors.” The pressure is on. I’m not sure what an injector is. Eleanor Lawson

Parts of a diesel engine

Instructor John Farrell walks us through the various parts of a diesel engine and what they do. In the beginning it sounds like a foreign language and I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into, but he takes it slow and answers our questions as they come up. Eleanor Lawson

Identifying parts of an engine

I like to think that in a class full of men I’d have the confidence to speak up when I don’t understand something, but the women’s-only format of this class makes me feel comfortable asking even without the preface of “This might be a dumb question.”

John Farrell with an impeller

Soon we’re identifying raw water pumps and following the hoses to see how salt water is used to cool the antifreeze that cools the engine. We divide into teams to inspect and replace impellers. “If you find one missing blades like this one, you’re having a bad day,” comments John. “Now you need to open up the heat exchanger to find the bits that fell off.” And so we do just that. Eleanor Lawson

Diesel engine class

It’s amazing the confidence boost that comes from successfully completing a task. After learning to service the engine’s cooling system and practicing on real engines, the whole class is buoyed by a sense of achievement. We can DO that! We just did! Bring on the next challenge! Eleanor Lawson

Feeler guage

Next we go through how to check and adjust the valves. Here, Janet uses a feeler guage to judge the distance between the rocker arms and valve springs. Eleanor Lawson

Loosening fuel injector lines

Lauralyn loosens the fuel injector lines so the engine won’t inadvertently start. Eleanor Lawson

rotating crankshaft

Deb manually rotates the crankshaft to get the pistons in the right position. Eleanor Lawson

adjusting diesel valves

Shaye adjusts a rocker arm to the optimum height. Eleanor Lawson

Karen Hensey diesel engine maintenance

Karen rotates the crankshaft to check the next valve. Eleanor Lawson

Eleanor Lawson Diesel Engine

I’m getting the hang of it. Maybe engines aren’t so scary after all. Deborah Gayle

Mack Boring Diesel Engine class

All along the way, John gives tips and suggestions along with real-world applications. Checking valves, he says, should be done every two years. Eleanor Lawson

Sharon Matthews in diesel engine class

Sharon has pictures of her own boat’s engine. John is able to give specific advice. Everyone wishes they had thought to bring pictures. Well played, Sharon! Eleanor Lawson

diesel maintenance workshop

Did you know sailing with your shifter in reverse while the engine is off can make your transmission seize up? I sure didn’t! Note: This is known to be true for Yanmar engines, but may not apply to other brands. Eleanor Lawson

Anne Mullett changes a fuel filter

Next we move on to fuel filters and how to change them. Anne rocks it. Eleanor Lawson

bleeding a diesel engine

We even bleed the air out of the line after changing the filter. Eleanor Lawson

winterizing a diesel engine

John goes through winterizing an engine, which is useful information as most of us are from New England. He reminds us to check everything in the fall to avoid surprises in the spring. Eleanor Lawson


At the end of the class, we start the engines. They work! If you’d like to take a class, check out Mack Boring. To learn more about the National Women’s Sailing Association, click here. Eleanor Lawson