After being rescued from the freezing waters of Shelikof Strait, a sinking boat’s skipper told Coast Guard Capt. Michael Cerne, “When I saw you coming, it was like a white knight on the horizon, I knew I would be safe.”
Cerne was honored Thursday in a retirement ceremony at the University of Alaska Southeast. His career path in marine science and fisheries was first nurtured by Jacques Cousteau specials on television and camping trips.
“He always loved the water,” Cerne’s mother Elaine said. “In fourth grade he wrote a paper on what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wrote, ‘a marine biologist.’ We kept that paper and framed it when he graduated from the (Coast Guard) Academy with a degree in marine biology. He has fulfilled his dreams of life, in his job, his family, his wife and two beautiful daughters. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Cerne recalled his education at the New London, Conn., academy as challenging.
Summer programs farmed the cadets out to Coast Guard operational units.
“You got to see what the real Coast Guard was like,” Cerne said of being at a Long Island station, another in Alabama, on a ship in Florida and another they sailed back from Europe.
After the academy, Cerne served on the cutter Confidence. Missions included counter drug patrols off of Mexico and South America, and his first fisheries patrols.
Cerne then took to the bridge of the cutter Point Bridge. The 82-foot patrol boat and crew of 10 did search and rescue missions, law enforcement, and boating safety. Like their 110-foot counter parts in Alaska, these boats are on two-hour recall.
“You’re on a short leash,” Cerne said. “You have to be ready 24 hours a day.”
Cerne was about to finish a duty rotation when the call came of a sailboat over a hundred miles offshore being destroyed in a storm. It was the first time of many he would earn the “white knight” moniker.
Cerne next oversaw the Pacific Area headquarters’ Training Team in Alameda, Calif., a unit responsible for providing training for every operational unit in the Pacific Theater, roughly 74 million square miles in all. Six training teams, three teaching law enforcement and three operations serviced 95 Coast Guard afloat units in the theater.
It was during this posting that Cerne met his wife Holly Hagerty, then a student at Humboldt State University. He said he fell in love right away as she was smart, attractive, funny, and a political liberal, a balance to his conservative upbringing.
“Opposites attract, I guess,” Cerne said. “I don’t think she knew what she was getting into, especially when we got sent to Alaska. I told her it would only be two years, think of it as an adventure. Fifteen years later we are still here.”
Michael and Holly next went to Kodiak for his posting to the cutter Yocona.
Holly said the proudest moment she felt was standing on the dock in Kodiak waiting for Cerne’s vessel to return after a 60-day mission. As the cutter came around Women’s Bend all the families were waiting, then it turned and went back out as a ship was sinking south of Kodiak.
“A lot of young wives were complaining,” Holly said. “I said ‘this is the proudest moment. This is what they do, they save people.’ You have to be proud, after 60 days of getting beat around in the Bering Sea, here they are turning around to go save someone.”
Daughters Kathryn, 17, and Sarah, 15, both spoke at his retirement, thanking him for the many travels and friends across the country they have made, were proud of the things he accomplished, not just in the Coast Guard, but with them. They said they can’t wait to see what wonderful things he did next.
Michael said Kodiak was a magical time. He loved doing patrols in Bristol Bay, the Aleutian Islands, Nome, Dutch Harbor, Kodiak and Southeast Alaska.
“If there was a port in Alaska you could pull into I probably pulled into it during the first three years on Yocona,” Cerne said. “Alaska still amazes me, I still appreciate the grandeur, but seeing it for the first time is really amazing.”
It was also one of Cerne’s most rewarding assignments. The Coast Guard performed a fisheries study in 1992 that showed fisheries enforcement needed to improve. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 caused upheaval in the industry was in a transition phase as fishery councils passed complex programs.
Kodiak was one of five fisheries training sites across the country in 1995 and Cerne was the commanding officer.
“We literally started from scratch,” Cerne said. “A vacant building.”
Soon Cerne built a team of more than 14 trained instructors on subject matters foreign to many individuals and established what would become recognized as a world-class facility.
“A big part of what attracted me to this career path is the people involved in the fisheries process and industry in Alaska,” Cerne said.
Cerne then attended the University of Rhode Island and earned his master’s in marine affairs.
“I think I gave the instructors a run for their money,” Cerne said. “I would fundamentally disagree with some of their positions on resource management. It was nice to go study something you were passionate about. That you had life experience in.”
Classes like international ocean law and fisheries law and policy and fish stock assessment made Cerne more credible representing Coast Guard entities and service boards and he was asked to be the liaison to the State Department at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“I argued that pretty hard,” Cerne said. “I convinced them to let me back to sea. I promised I would do a tour in D.C. but I really needed to be back at sea first.”
Cerne’s next stop on his “Dream Sheet” of postings put him as executive officer on the bridge of the cutter Acushnet, home ported in Eureka, Calif. at the time. Two months later he was taking the ship to its new post in Ketchikan.
Cerne then fulfilled his promise and became chief of fisheries law enforcement in Washington.
“I did have a view of the water,” Cerne said. He also had a view of the Pentagon during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and, although he didn’t see the plane strike, he saw the aftermath.
“It was a significant emotional event,” Cerne said. “Rumors were going around like wildfire. We saw the (World) Trade Towers on TV.”
Cerne volunteered to staff one of the centers with the FBI and Department of Defense. The Coast Guard, already a leader in port security, ratcheted it up a notch, and Cerne was standing watch in the national command center.
Cerne missed the water too much and was awarded command of the cutter Storis in Kodiak.
“No. 1 on my list,” Cerne said. “The one thing that sticks out in my mind is that the Storis was a legend.”
Cerne then became part of District 17’s senior staff here. He served as chief of law enforcement and coordinated from land the missions he used to be underway in.
“I had been there, done that,” Cerne said. “I missed it and lived vicariously through them. They gave me a hard time when they came in, then I reminded them that I had control over their patrol schedules.”
From 30-footers to ships 300-plus-feet in length, Cerne has boarded a variety of vessels. He has weathered storms on sea and from commands on shore. The list of medals, ribbons and awards, though ne in particular stands above the others.
“This ring on my finger,” Cerne said of his wedding band. “I can’t say thank you enough to my wife. There are not enough words to show my gratitude and appreciation for her and my daughters tagging along on this adventure.”
The Cernes plan to remain in Juneau.
• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.