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Sean McGlamery, Journeyman machinist lead: “There are times I feel we are unstoppable.”

By Hilary Reeves

McGlamery poses in front of a warehouse wearing a yellow reflective vest.
A “hands-on type,” McGlamery has been working on marine engines since he was 19 years old

Sean McGlamery clocked some serious hours last winter. The vessel maintenance crew at TOTE Maritime Alaska had just four weeks to rebuild two of the main engines on the ORCA-class M/V Midnight Sun.

“It was a complete overhaul, meaning cylinder heads off, pistons out, connecting rod bearing replaced, crankshaft main bearings replaced, cylinder liners honed and resealed…one cylinder head weighs in at 5,200 pounds – there are nine per engine,” McGlamery explained.

“Normally we do this job at sea in the summer months and take four weeks to do just one engine. We decided to go 24 hours per day, and the ship sailed on time. Four weeks, two engines!”

McGlamery, a Journeyman machinist lead at TOTE Maritime Alaska’s terminal in Tacoma, radiates infectious enthusiasm. A self-described “hand-on type” who’s had his hands buried in the innards of many a sea-worthy vessel since he was 19 years old, it’s hard to imagine a problem he can’t figure out how to fix.

“I support the port engineers and vessel crews,” he said. I handle all the ship spare parts, overhauling and maintaining the main engines for the ORCA class and supporting turbine work for the Ponce class. I also do major repair work on the main engine cylinder heads in our Tacoma facility.”

Lending a hand

McGlamery grew up in Seattle’s south-spread suburbs. His father was a traveling salesman for several diesel engine manufacturers; his uncle worked in ship maintenance. McGlamery was 19 years old and attending a local community college, looking for a job that would keep his gas tank full, when his uncle called. He needed a hand.

“I knew he worked on ships, fixing them. Navy ships, but also commercial and cruise ships. I said I would give it a go as long as I could do my school work. But I had the mechanical abilities, so ‘just lending a hand’ became ‘will you fix this and that,’ and then ‘you’re really good at what you do, would you consider joining the team at Propulsion Controls Engineering?’”

McGlamery resisted the idea at first, wanting to stay in school, but a full-time shift plus overtime pay was too attractive to let pass. He moved to Portland, Ore. where he worked on projects for the Navy, setting up steam plants and getting the Ready Reserve fleets ready for Desert Storm.

Later, he began work on the Rotterdam, a Holland America ship, and was able to set sail on a 35-day trip circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean, visiting 13 different countries and “getting a taste for what the job could be.”

TOTE, and the S.S. Great Land

After disembarking back in the States, the company received a call from TOTE. The S.S. Great Land needed significant repair after a dock-side incident.

“We were asked to come and survey the issues of the boiler plants and related engine room equipment to see what we could do to help salvage and fix the problems,” McGlamery explained. “That was my first encounter with TOTE, and I was just so impressed. With such a huge issue at their feet, I was amazed at how cool and collected they were, and at the positive attitudes they kept. Bob Magee was one of the first TOTE personnel that walked me through the ship, showing me what he wanted done and how fast it needed to be done. His attitude stood out, and is one of the main reasons I told myself that TOTE would be a great place to work someday.”

After the Great Land job, TOTE called again, and McGlamery was sent to Jacksonville.

“The work in Jacksonville was in very high humidity and temperatures in the low-90s. My go-to saying was, ‘it’s just going to build character.’”

McGlamery eventually joined TOTE, and was quickly introduced to a new weather extreme: winters in Alaska.

McGlamery poses in front of a warehouse wearing a yellow reflective vest.
McGlamery stands in front of an array of hardware, much, including the case itself came from the SS Great Land, one of two Ponce class vessels that helped launch TOTE Maritime Alaska.

“Maintaining the vessels in Alaska is mostly done during the summer months, but sometimes we do major repairs in the winter. The jobs that come up are normally crucial. We had a camshaft fail on us one January, and that was a rigging feat. Part of the engine had to be dismantled in the winter seas of the Gulf of Alaska. When you have heavy pieces of very expensive machinery in the air that cannot get damaged, and the ship is rolling and pitching, you get very creative and rely on the right equipment and talent behind the job.”

May through September, McGlamery and the crew are on the ships, sailing for several weeks at a time, repairing things that were damaged the previous winter, or in the engine room overhauling the engines. Altogether, he said he can count on 10 weeks at sea every year. But maintaining a vessel the size of ORCA proportions is anything but sedentary.

“We had the M/V North Star in dry dock down in Portland, (Ore.), and just for fun I borrowed a Fitbit to see just how far I was walking per day. I guessed I would take 10,000 steps – wrong. We have jobs all over the ship, and they’re not completed consecutively. You start a job, and then you might have to stop and go to another job, which is at the other end of the ship, then you’re called back to the first job, and so forth. By the end of that (work) day, I had 28,000 steps –more than 13 miles!”

Maintaining success

In his late-30s, McGlamery got bit by the pilot bug.

“My grandfather was a pilot – he flew 707s for Middle East Airlines in the ‘60s,” he said. “I took flying lessons and built up about 35 hours in a Cessna 150 and C172 to see if I could actually fly a plane. My lessons took place at Boeing Field (near Seattle), which is a difficult place to learn, with all the air traffic. Like most would-be pilots, other things got the best of me and I didn’t have time to do any more.”

McGlamery poses in front of a banner toting Saltchuk's safest shipyard.
TOTE Maritime Alaska’s maintenance team’s safety record is impressive. McGlamery was proud to point out the team has had zero lost time incidents since 2006 and zero recordable incidents since 2009

McGlamery’s future plans now include hopefully transitioning into a port engineer position. He and his wife have a cabin on Washington’s Cowlitz River; being outdoors, hunting and fishing, and continuing to travel throughout coastal Mexico and Central America top the couple’s Bucket List. But never far from McGlamery’s mind are the issues of the day.

“I want to continue to help the ships stay healthy for the remainder of my career,” McGlamery said. “What we do is just so outstanding; we bring the Lower 48 to Alaska in three days. I think that’s overlooked by the public.

“I like being a part of a group of people with like-minded goals, watching the success of brainstorming, and working with talented individuals. There are times I feel we are unstoppable, pulling off engineering feats. I like knowing that our crew did its job, and I know the crew aboard is confident in what we did to fix whatever the issue was. I like watching the ship leave the dock.”