Engine Sounds

by Mike Hemming

As Dex will tell you, I am an unreconstructed snipe of the MM variety. He will also lie and call me many other things, but he can call me a snipe any day, all day. Why? Because I loved it and still do. Not the grease, bloody knuckles, heat and cold, but the sounds. Sounds... A smokeboat engine room was the first stereophonic, surround sound, pound your eardrums to cracked putty, sounds. All American boys and men love engine sounds... They start making them as soon as they hear their first engine. Six months old and they will push a block around going 'rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr' and 'mmmmmmmmmmm'. Smokeboat snipes live 4 or 6 hours at a time inside the noisiest place in the world, outside of standing under the space shuttle at blast off. But that beautiful racket has a 100 different components. Valves, pistons, injectors, and pumps all sing their song differently. In time, you learn which cylinders are running hottest from the sounds it makes, the ones that the valves are going to burn soon. To the outsider it’s a cacophony of clattering pounding parts; to a snipes ear it’s the music of power. There is no power sound like a big FM or GM engine cranked up to 'goin home turns'. Pounding out those sea miles by squirting those mega amps and volts back to maneuvering. Heating the cubicle to add that hot insulation smell to our insane little world. As the whole ass end of your boat quivers and shakes under the violent application of 6,400 horsepower. Horsepower created by sucking in a whirlwind of air mixing it with hundreds of gallons of diesel per hour, compressing it and burning it in a crashing mixture of sound.

One sound I always hated was the scream of the airbox covers when lighting off for snorkel. The sumbitch Dutch guy that invented it should rot in hell forever. It ain’t natural for an engine to run 60 feet down. Other sounds I liked were the rush of air going in the blower intakes, the injectors and the valves clattering and whine of cooling water pumps.

A motorcycle dude once tried to tell me how great it was to have a gasoline engine between your legs cranking out a 100 or so horsepower. "It is such a rush" he said.

I smiled, nodded and said, "Sounds like it."

Too bad he missed sitting on the coffin cover of a Fairbanks Morse with 20 pistons each bigger than his whole engine, pounding out some serious power.

The downside to all this sound was what it does to your ears. You know at a reunion, all the engine room snipes sit around saying "Huh?" and "What was that agin?". I knew partial deafness was coming and wore the earplugs and 'mickey ears', but it came anyway.

Once some sound engineers came aboard the Carp. Just one of the monster GM’s running at idle set their meter needles off the scale.

"You guys shouldn’t be subjected to this much noise!"

"Sure tell COMSUBWHATEVER to let us go home then... Or maybe some nice shore duty chasing Waves through the EM Club", Shaft and I laugh.

Right now as I sit here in the quiet my ears 'hear' a constant faint high-pitched whine. Aw hell, it was a small price to pay, for the sweetest sounds of all. Spin the header drain valve shut, stomp the air start valve, hear the 500-pound air roll that big engine over. As the oiler madly spins the inboard exhaust valve, you reach for and pull up the throttle to the start position. Adding fuel, the turning cylinders starts the shuddering shaking roar of a big engine starting. Just as the engine hits 200- 300 rpms, you reach for the outboard exhaust valve, pulling it open allows the engine to come smoothly and noisily up to speed. As smoothly as a diesel ever starts that is.

"Just once more, just once more" I have heard many an engineer say, "Just once more".

If hell is snorkeling, then heaven is sitting topside late on a warm night, listening. Listening to that sound that two smokeboat rockcrushers make that aren’t quite synchronized, sound that rises and falls as they go in and out of synch. Sitting there, a cold cup of coffee and one last cigarette with your oiler before going below for some racktime. Sitting, listening, thinking, not saying much, like men do. In that way that women can never understand. Listening to sound of cooling water rushing over the side, swishing over the low rumble of engines on the finishing rate.

Yeah, just once more, just one more time.