In the fifth of a nine-part Q&A series, Foss Launch Operator Leroy Schlecht answers questions about his life, career, and nomination for this year’s awards.
On Jan. 4, 2020, Foss Maritime Launch Operator Leroy Schlecht participated in a rescue response to a “Pan-Pan” notification off Pier 39 in Astoria, Oregon. Schlecht and Deckhand Curt Dawson responded and rescued four U.S. Coast Guardsmen on top of an overturned vessel. Captain Schlecht quickly got all four safely transferred to the Connor Foss. His quick efforts helped avoid any further injury and prevented any loss of life.
Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?
I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I went to Benson Polytechnic High School. My parents fished – they had a sport boat, and we’d come down to the coast every weekend during the summer. I worked on charter boats from the time I was 12 years old until I graduated from high school.
Tell us about your career, your current position, and what led you to it.
I joined the Knappton Towboat Co. two days after I graduated from high school. I graduated on June 8, and I started working as a deckhand on a charter boat on June 10. I’d met Capt. Bill David, Sr. when I was 12. I was painting the bathrooms in a bar, and I told him I was saving up to buy school clothes and whatnot, and we kept in touch. He offered me a job straight out of school. I worked the ocean for a little bit when work was slow as a cook for Knappton. I transferred to Portland and worked on the PJ Brix for 12 years, decking upriver, going to Lewiston, Idaho, up and down the Gorge.
Then I had the opportunity to become a deckhand here on the Launch – they used to not have deckhands here, but Foss changed that. I took one of the jobs as a deckhand in 2000 aboard the Arrow 2 (now the Connor Foss) and worked that job for 10 years, filling in as a relief operator when needed. You wear a lot of hats. Then there was an opening when Mike Davis went into river piloting, and Foss moved me up to running the boat. That was 10 years ago. I’ve been with Foss for 41 years in June. It’s been a great life for my family.
Tell us more about that January day when you rescued the guardsmen in Astoria.
We’d just put a pilot on a ship and were coming back to the office when we saw the coastguard vessel working on a day marker. I came up to the office and was sitting beside the radio doing my paperwork when I heard a “Pan-Pan” saying there were people in the water off of Pier 39. I knew exactly who it was. We raced up that way – we must have been about three miles away – and saw four or five guys standing on top of their overturned vessel. They were out in the center of the channel where the current is strong, and it was blowing and rough. I called the Coast Guard on my radio and told them we had a visual. We came alongside them, deployed out ladders, and threw life slings over to them. They were in mustang suits. We pulled them over to our ladder, and they came up one at a time. Once they were all in the boat, we called 9-1-1 and told them we were en route to Pier 17 and to have paramedics standing by.
By the time we got there, there was also Coast Guard personnel on the ground and the Sheriff. The paramedics met us with stretchers and took them to get them checked out.
Is there something in your life that helped develop a safety mindset in you?
You know, when I first started, it was more “cowboy” – “let’s get her done.” In the past 15 to 20 years, the mindset has shifted. It’s all about coming to work with all 10 fingers and leaving with all 10 fingers. Safety is number one. There’s no doubt about it anymore. And it hasn’t been for the worst, that’s for sure. The industry is changing so much.
What was your first impression of Foss 40 years ago? Tell us your favorite story about your time with the company.
Honestly, Foss is just ahead of the curve on a lot of stuff. I believe that they’re trendsetters. Probably some of my favorite times were working upriver in the ice with Dave Nicholas, captain of the PJ now when the Snake River had frozen completely over. That was one of the most memorable times. As far as fun times go, it’s been just a great career. I can’t think of anything that’s not been fun and challenging at the same time.
Think about a time in your career when you felt like what you were doing was somehow less than completely safe. What did you learn from that experience?
When I first started, you didn’t even wear a life jacket. You’d be working down at the port docks, loading logs onto ships without a life jacket. OSHA cracked down on the Longshoremen, and we started wearing them. Back in the day, you would jump from an empty wheat barge to a loaded wheat barge. Today, there’s no way. You think of “safety first” as “one hand for yourself, one hand for the boat.” I find myself, in real-life situations, reminding myself “that’s not a very safe thing to do.” You look at safety now more than ever. It’s drummed into us, and it’s in a good way.
Speaking up for safety can be difficult for some people. What advice would you give to someone within our family of companies who’s convinced their feedback won’t matter – or worse, that they’ll somehow be punished for taking action?
We all have the Stop-Work Authority. In fact, my deckhand Billy Johnson – I’ve worked with him for a couple of years. He might see something that I miss. And vice-versa. It’s all about being a good team and understanding that every member of that team is valuable.