En­gi­neer­ing is a dy­ing craft

Canal Boat - - Me & My Boats -

Tim Leech, a friend of ours – in­deed a friend of many boating en­thu­si­asts – very sadly died re­cently. Tim ran the dry dock at Dut­ton stop lock, right at the top end of the Trent & Mersey.

How­ever, to say that is what he did is not even to hint at his skills and knowl­edge, for he was a hugely knowl­edge­able and mas­ter­ful engi­neer es­pe­cially in the world of what you could loosely call vintage ma­chin­ery.

I ac­tu­ally only met him three or four times when I had call for his ser­vices to help with our Lis­ter JP3 en­gine but, as is the way in this in­ter­net age, I al­ready knew him as a ‘vir­tual friend’. Not through Face­book but via one of the canal fo­rums where he was al­ways ready with sound ad­vice and com­ments, even to those many peo­ple who were never likely to be able to of­fer him paid work in ex­change. In­ci­den­tally, I’ve gen­er­ally found that this will­ing­ness freely to share knowl­edge is a hall­mark of peo­ple with spe­cial­ist skills like his.

But a col­umn isn’t the place for an obit­u­ary, though Mrs B and my­self feel a spe­cial sad­ness over the pass­ing of this ge­nial bear of a man, work­ing amid his de­light­fully chaotic sur­round­ings.

No, his pass­ing makes me re­alise that yet another of a de­clin­ing breed of tra­di­tional engi­neers has gone. Engi­neers who work with oily fin­gers, Whit­worth span­ners and feeler gauges rather than di­ag­nos­tic tuners and Snap-on tool chests. Who know clear­ances, tol­er­ances, wear rates, stresses and strains based on years of ex­pe­ri­ence and a know­ing look rather than blindly bolt­ing on a re­place­ment from the parts depart­ment.

When you have an old en­gine, as we have had in all our boats, you rely on peo­ple like these. Way back, we had a 1933 Nor­folk Broads cruiser with a Mor­ris side-valve petrol en­gine that needed a re­build. I took it to a lo­cal spe­cial­ist; they gave one look and called from the back of­fice this an­cient chap (the firm’s owner and well into his eight­ies as it hap­pened) who walked with crutches and wore bot­tle-end glasses. He iden­ti­fied it im­me­di­ately, knew ev­ery el­e­ment and took per­sonal charge of the

‘I mean old boy in a cow­shed. Yes, lit­er­ally, I had to shoo the cows out of the way to find the en­trance to his work­shop’

re­build. Who there could do that now I won­der?

On our last boat, Star, we found a back street en­gi­neer­ing shop in Tip­ton who could ma­chine a new shaft for our bro­ken (and ir­re­place­able) wa­ter pump. They did it overnight.

And dur­ing the re­build of Harry, I trav­elled sev­eral times down to the lo­cal ma­chine shop for jobs. When I say ma­chine shop, I mean old boy in a cow­shed. Yes, lit­er­ally. I had to shoo the cows out of the way to find the en­trance to his work­shop. In­side, he was work­ing alone in an Aladdin’s cave of ma­chine tools. A few years ear­lier he’d been made re­dun­dant when the Birm­ing­ham car in­dus­try took yet another down­ward lurch and set up on his own. When he re­tires – or worse – who will do what he can?

I first came across Tim in the flesh when I dis­cov­ered ex­actly why our com­pli­cated JP3M wa­ter pump was leak­ing. It was knack­ered. The pump is like a mini en­gine with a pis­ton, con-rod and bear­ings. And, ba­si­cally, ev­ery­thing that should be round was oval. Tim bored it, sleeved it, made new bits and, gen­er­ally, re­turned it to ‘as new’ con­di­tion.

A few months later I was des­per­ately seek­ing another ‘hen’s teeth’ item; the en­gine’s unique fuel fil­ter. “I think I may have one of those ly­ing around,” mes­saged Tim. He did: not just one, but two.

Peo­ple with the skills, re­sources and pa­tience to do a job that prob­a­bly doesn’t pay as well and cer­tainly doesn’t keep your hands as clean as a cosy of­fice num­ber are, sadly, but truth­fully, a dy­ing breed.

Will there be a next gen­er­a­tion to re­place them? I doubt it. I was in an Aldi the other day and saw an ad­vert for ‘ap­pren­tice store staff’. When you can do some­thing called an ap­pren­tice­ship in su­per­mar­ket work, what chance any­one tack­ling the long, de­mand­ing tra­di­tional ap­pren­tice­ships in craft skills like en­gi­neer­ing?

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