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Old 02-02-2016, 05:57   #1
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Diesel Mechanic School

Living aboard and cruising is still somewhat a twinkle in my eye as I'm still learning to sail. I've done some day sails and one overnight trip on a sailboat.

I am thinking of going back to school to be a marine diesel mechanic, specifically I'm looking at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, NC.

CFCC Diesel Mechanic

After reading quite a few blogs then discovering this forum I seem to hear that knowing such a skill would be handy for my personal boat as well as a way to earn some income either abroad or when at a fixed location. It's also important to note that this would be career that I would enjoy as I enjoy working with my hands.

What are everyone's thoughts on this career as a good way to sustain cruising?
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Old 02-02-2016, 10:54   #2
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

I worked at a boatyard which specialized in diesel work but we did the full range of services. I was an electrician. My opinion (and that's all it is) is that you need to get experience with a wide range of motors and installations to be a "good enough" mechanic to work on others diesels. To do that you probably need at least a couple of years, or more, working with more experienced mechanics as a trainee.

You would certainly be somewhat of a help with those in need in remote locations but you would quickly find that you will be stumped by a variety of issues that are brand specific and installation specific, not to mention the huge variety of gremlins that can cause problems on boats.

A diesel school will cover the basics of basic diesel motors but usually will not address the specifics of marinized diesels. They aren't really that much different in many ways but enough to be an issue. You will also need a big set of tools. Offshore sailboaters often already know a lot about their engines, and many of them will certainly know more than you do when you show up on their boats.

You won't have the opportunity to rebuilt motors out there. You'd need a shop with a lot of equipment.

Having said all that, it would be invaluable for you to learn all that for your own purposes and to help with the occasional problem on other boats. I've seen many guys out there who tried to make a living off of maintenance and repair of variety boat bits (water makers, electrical, electronics, diesels) but it is very hard to make much money and you get lots of opportunities to irritate (and more) those who hire you and then find out you don't really have much experience. Real damage can be done with good intentions. E.g. a non-boat diesel training program will not teach you how to align a motor to a prop shaft, or how to replace/fix all the hundred different varieties of raw water pumps/impellers. And you need the right tools for all that.

And, having said all that, some few are natural born mechanics and they can get through it all. IME very few. It is easy enough to get bad work from experienced mechanics.

If you do want to go to school for this, you'd be best to go for 2-4 semesters. One semester would get you to where you could do some very basic troubleshooting and oil changes. There are also some good marine tech schools that have good diesel training programs. You should check some of those out. Unfortunately, they may not be close to where you live so that would be a definite issue. In all honesty you're looking at 1-3 years to get where you want to go.

I wanted to learn marine electrical so I basically apprenticed (at 50 y/o) at a boatyard and it took me a couple of years before I felt more comfortable on my own in some situations. And I am still no where as good as the guys who have been doing it for 10-20 years or more. But it is possible. I had hoped that after 5 years full time working with one of the best electricians I have run into, plus two years of part time classes at a marine tech school, plus ABYC certification, that I would be able to find enough paying work to make some real money. I found out that I got the occasional big job. You have to be in one spot and build up a reputation to get regular jobs and it has to be where lots of boats come through.

And word gets out very quick if you are seen as not knowing very much, or worse, screw up a couple of boats. You could get more work with power boats in general. Sailboaters are cheap(er) and more self reliant and will only pay for help for very hard problems. Or they'll get "free" help from guys like me.

So that's one person's brain dump. Some others might disagree. I wish you luck with it as all things are possible.
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Old 02-02-2016, 11:06   #3
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

Thanks for the advice, it's all very helpful. I'm 28 and currently work as a Mechanical Engineer, though my experience and background don't translate to well to being a mechanic.

The experience that you shared is similar to what I am looking at doing. Get trained at a school and work in a shop/boatyard/marina wherever and gain experience for a few years. I'm open to traveling for school. I'm married, but she is willing to work something out. I searched the ABYC website for school recommendations, which is how I settled on Cape Fear due to location.
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Old 02-02-2016, 12:33   #4
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

Sounds good! Good luck with everything. I came from a white collar/professional career and found that I truly enjoyed working with the guys in my shop. I had tremendous respect for them and what they knew. It is hard work to mess around in boats and mechanics have to do a lot of oil changes, even the most experienced ones. Hot and messy in the summer and cold and messy in the winter. Very rewarding to fix things, learn new things, and mess around in boats. It was one of the best things I ever did. Not for everyone, and, just like all things, you work with some great guys and some real creeps. Ditto for customers.....
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Old 02-02-2016, 13:06   #5
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

The fun and exciting thing about small yacht diesel mechanic's is the tiny spaces engines are put in. Unlike semi's where the engine has easy access, boats tend to be a bit tight. Plus your going to run afoul of the local guys, who really don't like outside mechanics.

Which raises the question, how do you compete with a local diesel mechanic, say in mexico, who work for 200 ish paso's (about $18) a day.

Plus most marine diesel guys don't rebuild injector pumps or even injectors all that much. You need a flow bench for that. Get rid of that and the engines are just like gasoline engines but without carburators. Nnewer common rail marine diesels have a wee bit more electronics involved.

I think a basic automotive class would be about as good. BTW I rebuild my diesel with a handful of tools. It's just not that hard really.
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Old 02-02-2016, 13:31   #6
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

There was an Australian couple finishing the world's slowest circumnavigation (10 years) that we met in Moorea. He was a diesel mechanic and had stopped in a number of ports to work for lengthy periods of time on their voyage. The boat was a center cockpit of around 38' that he'd set up a machine shop in the aft cabin. He had a small lathe and a milling machine plus all the tools needed for working on engines. For them, his diesel talents were the means to live the cruising life. Know in their longest stop in South Africa that he worked ashore, not out of his boat.
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Old 02-02-2016, 15:18   #7
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

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Originally Posted by sailorchic34 View Post
The fun and exciting thing about small yacht diesel mechanic's is the tiny spaces engines are put in. Unlike semi's where the engine has easy access, boats tend to be a bit tight. Plus your going to run afoul of the local guys, who really don't like outside mechanics.

Which raises the question, how do you compete with a local diesel mechanic, say in mexico, who work for 200 ish paso's (about $18) a day.

Plus most marine diesel guys don't rebuild injector pumps or even injectors all that much. You need a flow bench for that. Get rid of that and the engines are just like gasoline engines but without carburators. Nnewer common rail marine diesels have a wee bit more electronics involved.

I think a basic automotive class would be about as good. BTW I rebuild my diesel with a handful of tools. It's just not that hard really.
The plan wouldn't be to do to much work in foreign countries other than helping people out.

The loose outline of my plan is 1)go to school. 2) Work 5+ years in shop/yard fulltime. 3) Start sailing during the winter months and returning to the states to work in a shop during the summer months.

Not sure if I'm being naive thinking that I could easily find a shop job just returning for the summer. In a perfect world that's how I foresee it going.
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Old 02-02-2016, 15:21   #8
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

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Originally Posted by exMaggieDrum View Post
Sounds good! Good luck with everything. I came from a white collar/professional career and found that I truly enjoyed working with the guys in my shop. I had tremendous respect for them and what they knew. It is hard work to mess around in boats and mechanics have to do a lot of oil changes, even the most experienced ones. Hot and messy in the summer and cold and messy in the winter. Very rewarding to fix things, learn new things, and mess around in boats. It was one of the best things I ever did. Not for everyone, and, just like all things, you work with some great guys and some real creeps. Ditto for customers.....
This is what I am hoping to experience with the career change. Corporate engineering is turning out to be a drag. I want to do something with my hands. And if I want to sail and possibly live aboard I figured something in the field would be beneficial on multiple fronts.
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Old 03-02-2016, 01:55   #9
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

Speaking as a tradesman the school portion is pretty much useless. The real learning is in the 5000 hour apprenticship. Without this you are just a person who read some books and thinks they know something.
You can get just as much reading on you own and playing with your own engine unless you are serious about making it a career.
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Old 03-02-2016, 04:59   #10
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

I spent my career in heavy equipment and some marine repair.

I have done the work, been a troubleshooter, trained mechanics and supervised them over 34 years.

Many can repair stuff, change parts, tear it down and put it back together or bump into the problem.

For the rare few, including me, I think it's in my blood. I know this sounds like bragging but as a kid I wanted, almost needed, to know how it worked and would figure it out.

Even today, being retired, If someone mentions a problem, the wheels start turning.

I guess what I'm saying is that this field is not something learned in a book or school because it looks like an interesting thing to do.

It is my bad habit and I need to do it, so although retired, I offer my troubleshooting advice to all who ask. I take pride in getting it right and help people.

I don't actually do the work because I feel there are others who need the income but I enlighten the owner as to where to direct the mechanic or how to explain the problem so the mechanic can find it.

I was successfull in my career but now suffer the toll it takes on the body. At 57 I had 2 knees and hip replaced and suffer all kinds of aches, pains and limited mobility from beating up my body.

I look back now and believe the career path I followed was the only one I could and I am very satisfied with my choice.
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Old 03-02-2016, 11:28   #11
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

Quote:
Originally Posted by sailorchic34 View Post
The fun and exciting thing about small yacht diesel mechanic's is the tiny spaces engines are put in. Unlike semi's where the engine has easy access, boats tend to be a bit tight. Plus your going to run afoul of the local guys, who really don't like outside mechanics.

Which raises the question, how do you compete with a local diesel mechanic, say in mexico, who work for 200 ish paso's (about $18) a day.

Plus most marine diesel guys don't rebuild injector pumps or even injectors all that much. You need a flow bench for that. Get rid of that and the engines are just like gasoline engines but without carburators. Nnewer common rail marine diesels have a wee bit more electronics involved.

I think a basic automotive class would be about as good. BTW I rebuild my diesel with a handful of tools. It's just not that hard really.
I agree 99% with this. What I saw in the shop is that if you have enough time you can figure out any engine. But the good guys knew that Detroit Diesels are not like other diesels. We even had one very experienced guy just do DDs. He was fast and knew their idiosyncrasies. Every brand/model has them. Out in the field, or even in a shop, good manual are hard to find. If you are just rebuilding your own engine you have time to figure it out, ask questions from others, get parts, etc.

A skipper who hires you to work on his engine may not have a good manual (usually doesn't) and there are lots of little but critical issues with all of them. One issue is timing of injection pumps. You have timing issues with all engines but all of them are handled different ways. Some big some not so big. Good experienced mechanics have seen lots of different kinds of engines and either know exactly what special things to look for for a particular model or have enough experience with many types that they know where to look. But time is money and learning on the job on other peoples boats is a money loser for someone.

I have a lot of respect for you rebuilding your motor. You're right in that it is all basic stuff, not rocket science. Except for the new electronic rail engines. You need a PhD to work on those. And some expensive diagnostic gear. Most sailors don't have those yet.
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Old 09-02-2016, 12:36   #12
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

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Speaking as a tradesman the school portion is pretty much useless. The real learning is in the 5000 hour apprenticship. Without this you are just a person who read some books and thinks they know something.
You can get just as much reading on you own and playing with your own engine unless you are serious about making it a career.
The goal would be to make it a career. I agree that learning in the field is immensely more valuable than learning in a classroom. For me the classroom would provide the foot in the door to attain a job to begin my career.

Is beginning in a school the best way to go? I feel without much experience with diesel engines schooling would be the best way to start.
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Old 09-02-2016, 12:55   #13
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

I would seriously try to get some shop experience before school, might get lucky and get something that will lead to hours especially if you explain you are enrolled in school and looking for a career.
Most people I know myself included would rather hire somebody who has at least a little bit of real world exerience, basically knowing that work and school are in reality two very different things.
Had a couple bad experiences with workers who had done their first classes and think they know how everything on the job is supposed to be because the book said so (Usually young guys who have never had a real job).
Big difference when you are up to your knees in mud working on heavy equipment or hanging upside down bent sideways in a cramped engine compartment.
Book goes out the window and common sense/problem solving are your biggest assets.
Good luck, I've made a lot of money in my trade, enough to retire at any time I choose, lol did much better than most of the people in my high school graduating class.
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Old 10-02-2016, 10:13   #14
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

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The goal would be to make it a career. I agree that learning in the field is immensely more valuable than learning in a classroom. For me the classroom would provide the foot in the door to attain a job to begin my career.

Is beginning in a school the best way to go? I feel without much experience with diesel engines schooling would be the best way to start.
IMO you can go either way. There is a BIG shortage of marine tradesmen in the US if all the stories are true. Having school will show that you were serious enough to go after it. But don't expect it to get you the job.

FME a business wants someone who is:
- reliable
- shows up for work sober and on time
- is productive (relative to experience)
- gives the job priority when they are on the job (leave the cell phone to breaks and don't make the breaks long - if you think no one will notice they will)
- learns what he/she is shown
- doesn't make mistake after mistake after mistake
- isn't afraid to say they need help or to ask a good question
- doesn't ask the same question 15 times
- keeps a tidy and organized work area
- absolutely respects customers' boats - leave no grease, mud, dings, and scratches (this will get you fired quicker than anything else)
- isn't an embarrassment to the business
- gets the tools needed after learning what those tools are (you get some slack starting out but you will be expected to get your own as you go and you will need the basics to start - most shops don't give you a basic kit to start - that is on your dime - and it can be very expensive)
- shows enthusiasm an willingness to go the extra mile
- doesn't take extra long breaks and long lunches or have too many excuses why they need to go do personal business all the time (i.e. my personal life is more important than the job)
- is polite and respectful to the owner, the supervisor, his/her workmates, and customers
- in that same vein - listens to customers and don't try to show them how stupid they are (even if they are - most actually have a clue as to some things)
- doesn't show up in a tie to an interview but is not a slob either.

Basically you need to impress whoever is doing the hiring that you are a good investment to train. If you intend to go one place, get some training, and then trade up to another right away they won't give you the time of day.

But as some others have said, going to school isn't required or even best. But depending on you it can be a good investment. Many think you should just go up through the school of hard knocks as they did. You can do both since you'll be in that school right away. Just don't expect it to open doors for you. You will have to open the doors and convince the owner that you will do the job. And jerks need not apply.

I'm sure you have thought about some of this. I'm saying it because I have seen so many new hires do or not do some of the most obvious things and the next thing they are doing is trying to collect unemployment after they were fired for cause. And don't believe that everyone is OK in this connected age of whipping out your work to check texts, social sites, phone calls, especially in the trades. Even if you are on a boat out by yourself it gets noticed after you don't get that oil change done and get on to the next thing. You will be monitored for how much you get done, constantly.

My two cents FWIW. Good luck.
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Old 10-02-2016, 14:05   #15
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Re: Diesel Mechanic School

Ex, great advice for life in general. Thanks
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