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In the final installment of a nine-part Q&A series, TOTE Services Chief Mate Patrick Leahy answers questions about his life, career, and nomination for this year’s awards.

Patrick Leahy, Chief Mate of the UNSN Fast Tempo and USNS Wheeler, refused to initiate a scheduled cargo transfer because a diver was in the water alongside the offloading ship. His action aligned with the TOTE Services Dive Ops checklist and industry safety practices. At any point, the high-level pressures to meet a schedule could have impacted the safety of this situation. Still, he didn’t hesitate to speak up to ensure a safe work environment and prevent possible injury to a third party.

Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? 

I grew up in New Hampshire and summered on Cape Cod. I attended and graduated from Massachusetts Maritime Academy in 1994.

Tell me about your career, your current position, and what led you to it. 

As a kid growing up, I was always around the water and boats. I used to go fishing with my cousins when they worked for a small passenger ferry and boat company. When I was old enough, I started working for the same company and have maintained a relationship with them up to the present day.

My current position is the Chief Mate on the USNS FAST TEMPO and the USNS VADM. K. R. WHEELER. The two vessels make up the Offshore Petroleum Distribution System for the U.S. Military. Both vessels are operated for the U.S. Navy Military Sealift Command by TOTE Services and staffed in all licensed positions by American Maritime Officers. As part of my duties, I can and do occasionally operate as the Officer in Charge of the Fast Tempo.

Tell us more about why cargo transfers can’t occur when a diver is in the water. If it’s a standard industry safety measure, why was the ship so willing to set it aside? It sounded like you had to become pretty forceful with your communications on the issue.

In this particular case, the Fast Tempo had been tasked to assist the local Navy Squadron with moving items off of its Flag Ship (the USNS Button). The Button was sitting at anchor in the outer harbor. This particular operation involved having to back the Fast Tempo’s stern up to the side of the Button. While pressing the Tempo to the other ship, multiple pallets would be lowered down to the stern deck of the Fast Tempo.

As we approached the Button, I noticed it was flying an “ALPHA” flag, which indicates a diver in the water. I instructed the other Mate who was driving to contact the Button and ask them about the flag. The initial response was that there were no concerns and we should proceed alongside the Button to receive cargo.

I asked the Mate driving to make a circle (around) the Button to make sure that the area was clear and there would be nothing that could possibly cause damage to the Fast Tempo.

During this circle of the vessel, we noticed the dive boat alongside the Button.

At this point, I called the Button and asked again about the divers. The crew told me they had divers in the water, but it was safe to come on alongside as the divers were forward of the area we would be operating in. I informed the Button that I would not allow the Fast Tempo to go alongside while there were divers in the water, as this was unsafe for the divers in the water.

The diver could have very easily been sucked into the spinning propellers of the Fast Tempo from the current generated by them. As an industry standard, there are very stringent safety rules concerning divers in the water. These are for the safety of the diver, as an accident could very easily kill the diver. I, nor anyone else on the Fast Tempo or the Wheeler, were willing to sacrifice those safety standards.

We were asked to reconsider. I told them that, to proceed, the diver had to come out of the water and remain out of the water while the Tempo was conducting operations or that the Tempo would return to the Wheeler and we could reschedule our operations for another day.

Ultimately the diver came out of the water, which we verified visually, and we were able to complete the operations with no incidents or accidents.

The USNS Wheeler towers above a dock.
The USNS Wheeler.

Is there something in your life that helped you develop a safety mindset? 

In this particular case, this was a very easy situation for me as I am a diver and have seen the results of close calls between divers and boats. And the boat always wins…

Leahy stands in a line.
Patrick Leahy, second from right, was asked to represent the U.S. Navy during the 75th Anniversary celebration of the military landing on Ulithi Atoll during World War II.

What was your first impression of TOTE? Tell us your favorite story about your time with the company. 

I have enjoyed my time working for TOTE Services, and especially the crew on the Wheeler and Fast Tempo. We have been fortunate to go to some very great places. One of my most special memories will be when we were tasked to represent the U.S. Navy during the 75th Anniversary celebration of the military landing on Ulithi Atoll during World War II.

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? 

I think we all take calculated risks in our work and daily lives. I guess as we get older, we realize that the risks aren’t always worth the reward, and we figure out better and safer ways to do things.

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?

I’ve always felt that at the end of the day, I have to be true to myself and what I believe in. I don’t ever want to be that guy who has to go to bed knowing that someone got hurt or died because I didn’t speak up. I encourage everyone on here to speak up and say something. If you find yourself in a situation where there are repercussions for looking out for each other, then that’s not where you want to be working.

Catch up on the stories of our Safety Award nominees here!

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.