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For TOTE Services Chief Mate Bart Clendenin, maintaining safety on board is just one piece of a multi-million dollar puzzle.

TOTE Services Chief Mate and 2019 Saltchuk Safety Award finalist Bart Clendenin was born and raised in Maine, moving with his family to northeast Florida as a teenager.

“Spending my early childhood in rural Maine taught me to enjoy the outdoors,” he said. “Then living in a suburban area during my young adult years provided more opportunities to experience different activities and challenges. Having the opportunity as a teenager to work on the water is what ultimately directed me to pursue a career at sea.”

Clendenin’s high school job at a marina on Florida’s Intercoastal Waterway shaped his career aspirations in a way he never could have predicted.

“I always wanted a job that was outside and challenging, and I knew I wanted to learn a trade,” he said. “Being from Maine I knew of Maine Maritime Academy and had people I knew that had attended there, though I didn’t fully understand what it was they trained you to do. I just knew it had something to do with boats. I originally thought I wanted to go to school to be a yacht captain, but after my first trip to sea as a cadet on a deep-sea commercial vessel, I was hooked and never looked back.”

After graduation, Clendenin moved back to Florida, settling in St. Augustine where he met and married his wife, Jennifer. Like a lot of maritime academy graduates, he accepted a commission into the U.S. Navy Reserve’s Strategic Sealift Officer Program and has continued to maintain his commission while reaching the rank of Commander.

Where safety meets the bottom line

Clendenin is Chief Mate on the SS Pacific Tracker when the vessel is activated for missions for the Missile Defense Agency. He began his career with TOTE Services in 2005 aboard the SS Chesapeake. His greatest challenge now, he said, is resisting complacency to maintain a safe working environment for the crew and sponsors.

Bart wears fire gear and helmet aboard a ship.
Clendenin preparing for a safety fire drill.

“It can be difficult because we’re sitting in the middle of the Pacific for weeks at a time all by ourselves,” he said. “We’re a piece of a much larger puzzle all put in place to successfully test our nation’s missile defense systems. These tests take years to plan – countless man-hours of preparation. Millions of dollars in assets have to be in the right place at the right time to execute a successful mission. Having one piece of the puzzle go offline during a mission because of injury or medical emergency could lead to failure of the entire test. This is one of the main reasons we strive to maintain our safety culture onboard the vessel.”

Clendenin said one of the unique things about the Pacific Tracker and her sister, the Pacific Collector, is the presence of customer representatives while at sea.

“It offers a unique opportunity for the officers and crew to demonstrate our professionalism as merchant mariners and as employees of TOTE Services,” he said. “We live and work with them the entire time we’re on a mission. We eat together, we work out together in the gym, we watch movies together, and we root for our favorite sports teams together.”

Organized interdepartmental activities, like foosball, cornhole, ping pong, and dart tournaments, go a long way toward keeping morale high during long periods at sea, Clendenin said.

“It may seem minor, but it goes a long way to maintain morale and foster healthy working relationships between all the departments,” he said. “Conflict onboard between the departments does nothing to promote a safe working environment and makes working aboard miserable. At the end of the workday, you can’t leave the office and go home to your life separate from work.”

Clendenin said he’s always thinking about successfully balancing productivity and safety, “so my shipmates have an environment where they not only feel safe, but they also feel that their contribution directly reflects on the mission and the product we are providing to the customer, the Missile Defense Agency. Due to the unique mission of the vessel, we have built a safety culture that is productive while keeping up morale, which reflects favorably upon the company.”

‘You never learn anything when things are going right’

Clendenin said he’s most proud of his family – including his two sons, Blake and Noah. When he’s not at sea, he’s at home with his family in Tennessee.

“I am so thankful for all my wife does to support me and keeps our family on an even keel. Being involved with my kids’ schooling and watching them grow and learn is such a blessing. When I do have some free time, I stay pretty busy working outdoors on our land in East Tennessee, doing things with my boys like farming, hunting, woodworking, and running heavy equipment. Though I think I might like running the heavy equipment more than the kids do,” he laughed. “This is the true root of the reason that I take such interest in the safety of my shipmates so that the end of the voyage we can all depart the vessel and return home to our loved ones.”
Clendenin said he and his shipmates are like family as well.

Bart poses with his two kids and wife.
Clendenin at home in Tennessee with his wife Jennifer and their two boys, Blake and Noah.

“TOTE Services felt like a family to me from the very beginning,” he said. “You respected the senior office personnel, but at the same time they felt like they could be part of your family, they knew who you were and took a personal interest in you. I’ve tried to manage in the same way. Implementing safety procedures makes a lot more sense when you have both a professional and personal relationship with those you are working with.”

Throughout his career, Clendenin said he’s of course made mistakes and done things he’s not proud of, but that he considers them life lessons.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to pass on this wisdom to those coming up through the ranks and to my children at home,” he said. “I tell the junior guys starting out that you never learn anything when things are going right.”

Most surprising about his career, he said, was discovering how challenging situations early on gave him perseverance that comes in handy “almost every single day” as a senior officer.

“I was lucky enough to have good mentors coming up through the ranks who pushed me even when I resisted because I thought something was too hard or unnecessary at the time,” he concluded. “It has amazed me how things have come full circle. I remember being young and immature, doing things kicking and screaming  – not literally, but mentally – wondering why I needed to learn this only to find out some decades later, ‘Oh…that’s why I needed to learn that!”