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New London — For Master Chief Lloyd Pierce, it is difficult to part with the station keeper's hat and nautical telescope he was given as the Coast Guard's Silver Ancient Mariner.
But on Friday, Pierce will hand over the title and accessories to Master Chief Steven Cantrell.
"He is going to have to pull it out of my hands," Pierce said. "This has been probably the biggest honor I've had in the Coast Guard."
Pierce, the command master chief at the Coast Guard Academy, was given the ceremonial title for holding the qualification of cutterman longer than any other enlisted member of the service and for upholding the Coast Guard's values. He qualified as a permanent cutterman - someone qualified to serve on a Coast Guard cutter - in 1987.
For Pierce, it embodies his passion for life as a sailor and his love of the sea.
Pierce decided he wanted to be the Silver Ancient Mariner when he was serving on his second ship, the cutter Lipan in Key West, Fla. The ship's commanding officer, Pierce said, was a "cigar-chomping, hardcore sailor," who was always trying to outdo another legendary sailor, Cmdr. John R. Hearn Jr., as they both stopped boats carrying drugs off the coast of Florida and in the Caribbean.
In 1985, Hearn was the officer with the earliest qualification date as a cutterman, and he became the Coast Guard's fourth Gold Ancient Mariner.
As an usher at the ceremony, Pierce turned to the chief standing next to him and asked whether there was a similar title within the enlisted ranks.
"I wanted that persona. I wanted people to see me that way," said Pierce. "I saw him (Hearn) as an ultimate mariner. The person that, if you have three people in a room, there is a hurricane, and they want to know who is going, everybody looks at one person. I wanted to be that person and have that confidence."
Hearn's son became the Silver Ancient Mariner in 2010. When Pierce found out that he would take over from Master Chief Steven B. Hearn in 2011, he said he hugged Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the commandant of the Coast Guard.
Pierce said he and Papp now joke that he is one of the few people to have given the commandant "a man hug."
In his role, Pierce addresses the men and women who are studying at the Leadership Development Center on the academy grounds before they take command of ships. He tells them why it is important to know what is going on in their sailors' lives.
On the Lipan, a 50-year-old ship at the time, Pierce shared a room with 30 men. The plumbing, at times, backed up into the berthing areas. Some of the officers did not understand what it was like to live like that, Pierce said.
"How do you yell at someone who is late because they took the time to clean themselves up and be a little more human?" he said. "… You have to know what a person has gone through before they came to work that day, before you decide how to handle them and how to approach them. That is my personal mission and what I feel the Ancient Mariner should be doing - watching that, watching the condition of our ships and how we're treating our sailors, making sure we're doing the right things by our workforce to make them effective and valued."
Pierce will transfer his title in a joint ceremony on board the barque Eagle at City Pier with Papp, who has served as the Gold Ancient Mariner since 2007. Rear Adm. Fred Midgette will become the Gold Ancient Mariner. It will be the first time both titles are passed on at the same time.
Both Papp and Pierce will soon retire. Papp has served for 39 years, Pierce for 32.
As the academy's command master chief, Pierce advises the superintendent, Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, and mentors cadets. He helps evaluate and improve the cadet training program. Stosz said Pierce has raised the command master chief position "to an entirely new level of significance" in the past three years.
"Through his dedication and devotion to the cadets, faculty, staff and me, the academy has prospered and its people have thrived given Master Chief's support and encouragement to achieve their full potential," she said. "Master Chief Pierce and his wife, Joyce, who works in the cadet book store, will be sorely missed."
With his retirement nearing, Pierce, 57, said he is "trying to look ahead." He plans to move to Florida and possibly go back to school. He recently earned his bachelor's degree.
Pierce said he was a mischievous, fun-loving teenager. He briefly attended St. Petersburg Junior College. Instead of studying, he parked his car on campus, in case his parents drove by, and went waterskiing. He jokes that his car "was very well-educated."
In 1982, Pierce joined the Coast Guard to get the experience he was told he needed during a job interview at the sheriff's office in Pinellas County, Fla.
Pierce said he "hated life" for the first two years because he was away from his pregnant wife, and later, from his newborn son. With the help of a mentor on the ship, and Joyce's support, Pierce said he adjusted and soon began to love life at sea and his job as a quartermaster.
"Many of us sail," he said. "Only a few of us become true sailors."
Pierce went on to spend 15 years of his career on ships. He was the officer in charge of the cutter Mako in Cape May, N.J., when a commercial clamming boat, the Adriatic, sank in heavy seas off New Jersey on Jan. 18, 1999. There was no sign of the four crew members.
The cutter Point Batan first responded, then the Mako relieved that crew. Eventually the search was called off, but Pierce said his crew refused to stop looking.
"They wouldn't leave. That is the heart of a cutterman," he said, pausing as tears came to his eyes. "They still felt they could find somebody and they didn't want to give up. I knew we had to get past this as a crew so we sat and anchored. We said a prayer and we went home."
A sailor never forgets an experience like that, Pierce said.
"It makes you a little bit more determined the next time, a little bit quicker to get to the boat, a little bit more determined to train," he said.
Two bodies were later recovered in the vessel and two crew members were missing when the casualty report was published in March 1999.
For every one of those moments, Pierce said, there are also moments of joy.
"There are stories of handing an infant back to a panicked migrant Haitian mother who thought her infant dropped in the ocean, and of pulling someone off a burning boat," he said.