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Seattle-native John Parrott’s maritime experience rooted in childhood at sea

By Hilary Reeves

When John Parrott was five years old, his parents decided to move the family from Seattle to Portugal. It was 1969.

Parrott, holding a Foss hard hat, stands in front of an old Foss tug smiling.“My dad was working (as a pilot) for Pan Am, but the real answer as to ‘why’ is because they were adventurers and wanted their kids to experience the world,” he explained.

And so Parrott developed a sense of adventure that continues to influence every aspect of the new Foss president’s life – including his career.

“My leadership style is very much to talk to people, to be out and accessible, to see and look and feel and touch, and to really hear people, and at the same time tell people what I believe is our collective story.”

Throughout his early childhood, Parrott’s parents took full advantage of the free travel that came with belonging to the Pan Am family. It allowed him and his siblings to flying home to Seattle often for holidays with their grandparents. The family moved back to Seattle when Parrott was 10, enrolling him in the local grade school. All was calm – until his parents sold their house and bought a sailboat.

“It’s funny because when we bought the boat, it was moored on Ewing Street next to the Foss Shipyard,” he said. I remember the guys showing me around the shipyard, showing me around Foss.”

Parrott’s family lived on the boat until the end of the school year. Then they took off.

“We didn’t quite make it around the world,” he laughed. “We lived on the boat for more than two years, sailing through the Pacific down to Central America and into the Caribbean. After almost a year in the Caribbean, we came up to Miami and wanted to go have a nice dinner, and my mom was horrified because my brother and I didn’t have any real shoes that would fit us. We had some old deck shoes, and flip-flops, but nothing we could wear into a nice restaurant. We had taken some with us, but they’d rotted in their storage bag on the boat.”

As Parrott approached his freshman year of high school, his parents decided he should probably be doing a little more than the correspondence courses he’d been working through on the boat. When his father was re-based in Europe, in Berlin this time, Parrott was sent to boarding school in England. While liking the freedom of the boarding school experience, he petitioned to return to Seattle before his senior year to graduate with his old friends, which he did in 1982.

“I’m a Seattle kid,” he said. “I always knew I’d be back.”

In Seattle, Parrott’s love of boats and maritime culture thrived.

“When I came back, there was an ex-America’s Cup 12-meter called Weatherly parked at the Naval Reserve Station on Lake Union,” he said. “She’d been donated to the Boy Scouts. I was asked to help form a troop and run Weatherly as a Sea Scout Crew Chief.”

Parrott agreed. He had began contemplating attending the Naval Academy, and was well into the nominating process to Annapolis. That same year, the Women’s National College Sailing Championship was scheduled to be held at the University of Washington, and the organizers asked if Weatherly would come out on Lake Washington and serve as a crew boat for competitors to have a place to rest and eat lunch between their heats.

“There I was, a high school kid, by myself, steering a 60-foot sailboat in front of every collegiate sailing coach in the country,” he laughed. “The sailing coach at (the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point) took a picture of me at the wheel and sent it back to the sailing master. A couple of weeks later, I found myself on the phone with an old, crusty, nautical maritime guy who wanted me at Kings Point.”

Parrott withdrew his application to Annapolis, graduating from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York in 1986. He moved back to Seattle and, in 1991, he married his wife, Lynne.

“She’s a collegiate sailor in her own right,” he said. “When our paths first crossed, I thought myself something of a professional, and she was not impressed. That was round one. Round two, I was back, living in Seattle. She was working in a store. I went in single, and came out with a girlfriend.”

Parrott was sailing almost exclusively with Inter Ocean Management, now TOTE Services.

“On my first trip back to sea after we started dating, I told Lynne that I was leaving for a four-month trip. While I was gone, the first Gulf War broke out, and it was 11 months before I returned. Thankfully, my mom and my mother-in-law-to-be were ex-Navy wives, and they told Lynne that this was what it meant to have a relationship with a mariner.”

In 1994, Parrott came ashore, and later became the General Manager for Sea Star Stevedore, which manages the loading, discharge, and terminal operations for TOTE Maritime.

“It takes an immense amount of time and energy. Regretfully, on a family front, that means you’re gone a lot. Without a doubt, the key to my success there is Lynne.”

Parrott earned an MBA from Seattle University in 2001, and the following year bought a house in Seattle, a “cool fixer-upper” within a block of Lynne’s sister in the Madrone neighborhood. On the day the sale was slated to close, Parrott was informed he was on TOTE’s short list for the position of Alaska General Manager. He went straight from his office to the bank, where Lynne was waiting to sign closing papers.

“I told her, and she said, ‘Is this what you want to do? Then that’s what we should do.’ We packed up our two kids, Thomas and James, and moved to Alaska. Here she was, in a new part of the world. She quickly made friends. Never once did anyone get a feeling that she was unhappy. There’s no doubt that my world would have been much less harmonious without Lynne. Our lasting Alaska memento is our daughter, Anna.”

Parrott was promoted to Vice President/GM, then VP of Commercial before being named the President of TOTE Maritime Alaska in 2009. In 2015, he turned over day-to-day operations of the company in order to assist a sister company in Alaska, Carlile, with a turnaround as Chairman of the Board.

“The year at Carlile was a year of trying to get my arms around a new organization,” he said. “It was a whole year I wasn’t home. Ever.”

Parrott joined Foss in January as COO and will transition to the position of president next month. Like in his previous endeavors, he is all-in.

“When I accepted the job at Foss, Lynne said “see you next year,” he laughed. “But it’s a family business. Everyone gets very involved. I was in Panama recently, and I got a text from Lynne in Tacoma. It was a picture of a TOTE ship sitting in Commencement Bay with the note ‘why is the ship sitting in front of the house this late, and where are the tugs?’ I think she feels very much a part of the Saltchuk family. She’s as invested as I am.”

Parrott beams at the camera holding his Foss hard hat on a wood dock outside MOHAI.The youngest of Parrott’s three children (a whole family of redheads, he joked) is in the sixth grade. He still has a long career ahead of him, and acknowledges that he doesn’t know where he will end up. That’s the way he likes it.

“My career within the Saltchuk family fits my love of adventure, in a way. From TOTE to Carlile, to Foss. These are incredibly dynamic organizations. Without being on the inside, it’s hard to understand how many irons there are in the fire, and how different the companies are. TOTE, for example, if very risk-adverse. It’s nuclear – variance is bad. Everything must be done very precisely. I’m convinced that at Foss, they’re not afraid of anything.”

Parrott currently serves as a licensed master in the U.S. Merchant Marine and holds a commission in the United States Naval Reserve. He and his sister are partners on an old wooden sailboat that was built in Seattle’s Lake Union in the ’50s. It’s an ocean-going vessel. The family has sailed to Vancouver Island and Hawaii. Parrott remembers the ’60s, when Portugal hadn’t yet entered the 20th Century, and the incredible impact living in “the last of old Europe” had on his family. In June, he and Lynne rented a house there where family could gather.

“My two sisters, younger brother, and their families are coming,” he said. “My parents are coming. Our kids – the oldest is 17 and a junior in high school, our 15-year-old freshman, and our 12-year-old – are coming. They’re excited. They’ve always kind of looked at me with one eye cocked…like, ‘Dad had a very strange upbringing.’ We’ve been in Tacoma for nine years now. That’s the longest I’ve ever lived in one place.”