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Marine diesel innovator dies

Jan 1, 2003

On May 8, John H. Westerbeke died in Squantum, Mass., atthe age of 90. Up until the week before he died he had maintained his normal work schedule of four days per week at the Westerbeke Corp. in Avon, Mass. Westerbeke was instrumental in popularizing diesel engines for small boats. We asked contributing editor Chuck Husick for comments on how Westerbeke developed diesel technology:

"It may seem a long time ago to most of us, but as recently as the late 1930s many marine diesel engines more closely resembled a steam engine than what we know as a diesel. They were large, very heavy (often weighing 60 or more pounds per horsepower) and ran very slowly, with a top speed often less than 100 rpm. Their low speed allowed the engine to directly drive a massive, often five-foot-diameter, prop. With no gearbox or clutch, reversing the engine was accomplished as in a steam engine. The engine was stopped, the valve gear shifted, and the engine restarted to turn in the opposite direction. Starting was accomplished by blowing compressed air into the cylinder from a pressure reservoir kept filled by an engine-driven air compressor. Often, the pre-heat system consisted of some kerosene-soaked cotton waste, placed in a small, bowl-like depression in the top of the cylinder head, set alight with a match.

"In the 1930s John H. Westerbeke was captain of the trawler Vagabond, out of Boston, fishing the Grand Banks. His boat was powered by one of these slow-turning, direct-reversing diesel engines. He was aware of the new, for the time, relatively fast-turning diesels that were beginning to be used for various landside purposes. Equipped with gearboxes to reduce their seemingly very high operating speed to a more useful level, they produced as much power as the engine on his boat, but they were far smaller and lighter. A smaller engine translated into more useful room on the boat. Westerbeke took hold of the idea of making the fast-turning engine useful in the marine world and created the Westerbeke Company, a pioneer in the application of diesel power to numerous maritime applications."

The Westerbeke Corp. is now under the direction of his grandson, Robert Westerbeke.


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