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Foss fleet engineering manager embraces shift from ‘kid’ to safety-conscious storyteller

Sailing as an engineer at the age of 21, Jerry Allen’s crewmates nicknamed him “kid.” Now, a young engineer he’d trained recently referred to him as a “dinosaur.”

“I didn’t see it coming,” he laughed. “It was a revelation.”Allen grew up on California’s famed Catalina Island and now works nearby out of the Port of Long Beach as a Fleet Engineering Manager for Foss Maritime and Honolulu-based Young Brothers. He’s also a 2019 Saltchuk Safety Award finalist, nominated for his willingness to learn best practices anew. “He has seen and done more for Foss in 42 years than I can ever hope to do,” his nominator wrote.

“Catalina was a great place to grow up – we had the ocean as a playground, with very few people in town during the winter and summers jam-packed with visitors,” he said. “My goal was to become a welder on the Alaska Pipeline when I graduated from high school.”

Instead, Allen took up sailing, joining the crew of an Alaska-bound research vessel as a messman in 1976.

“I never started my career wanting to be more than a guy who worked on boats because in my family and where I come from, that alone is a career to be proud of,” he said.

Allen worked in Alaska for several years, first on research boats, then on fishing boats as an engineer. He joined Pactow in Long Beach as a mechanic, then headed back north to Seattle to work as an engineer on draggers and tugs. He eventually worked his way back to Pactow (later Foss) and positions as engineer, captain, lead engineer, port engineer, and now, fleet engineer. Allen’s lived on the road for most of the past three years working on new-build projects.

“I’m used to working out in the field and on the road, and prefer it above an office environment any day,” he said.

Allen’s award nomination came as Foss neared completion of the first of Saltchuk Marine’s new ASD-90 tugs.

“Jerry made very good recommendations and worked with the California teams to help build the best vessel,” his nominator continued. “He recently instituted a ‘stop work’ with our vendor. He was eloquent in leading the discussion to show that what the vendor was planning to do wasn’t up to our Jerry does this daily behind the scenes, but in this case, he was very direct.” 

Practicing what we preach

Allen said the 2007 death of Foss deckhand Piper Cameron hit the tug community hard.

“It changed me and everyone involved,” he said. “It made towboaters realize we had to change for the better.”

To Allen, it was a matter of “when you know better, do better.”

“We looked after each other and thought we were safe, but eventually we found out we could have done better,” he explained. “We found out firsthand what it’s like to be on the wrong end of the (safety) pyramid. Thankfully, the guys coming up behind me have learned more about working safely than I ever did. They are teaching me to practice what we preach more than I ever expected, and this is where we need to be.”

That said, Allen is passionate about mentoring the next generation and sharing his brand of wisdom.

“I think we can do a better job teaching the skills we were taught by the ‘old school’ engineers and captains we worked with,” he said. “I think we’ve failed to do as good of a job at passing down the traditions, both at work and home, than the generations before us. They were just better storytellers.”

Allen said he hopes the next generations of tugboaters appreciate that it’s a career with benefits they won’t experience anywhere else.

“If you’re doing this for the schedule or the money, you may be missing the point,” he said. “I’ve been all over the world and got to see things many others will never experience.”

Self-correcting for seamless safety

Allen poses on a tugboat with PFD and hardhat.

Allen said he’s always considered himself “a Pactow guy.”

“Foss was the big company with big newer boats that we knew had something to do with us but we never really figured it out,” he laughed. “We knew a lot of Foss crews and there was always some rivalry. We had a completely different view of them at the time – we knew we were doing very similar work we just didn’t have the fancy tugs to do it with. Once the companies merged, we found some common ground, but there is still some fun to be had poking each other now and then.”

Allen said he believes during the next five years Foss’s safety protocols will be seamless.

“I think we’re headed toward less ‘hands-on’ work by the crews,” he said. “It’s getting to the point where it will require vendors to maintain most of our major equipment. The regulations and the tools and skills required will force us to have specifically trained and certified vendors doing work that was once common for the crews to do themselves.”

Allen concluded that he has a ways to go before safety becomes second-nature. But he’s trying every day.

I catch myself not always doing it the best or safest way and have to self-correct. Lucky for me we have a lot of great crews ready to step up and correct us old dinosaurs.”

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.