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New London — Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. had a confession to make Friday aboard the Coast Guard barque Eagle: The hat he wears as the Coast Guard’s 13th Gold Ancient Mariner is not the century-old, beaver skin hat the first Ancient Mariner wore.
Papp, the Coast Guard commandant, replaced the hat from the Revenue Cutter Service, the predecessor to the Coast Guard, with a replica purchased at a costume shop after he was given the ceremonial title seven years ago. He said he’s been criticized for that, but adds that he felt the real hat should not be worn.
As he held up the original hat Friday, Papp explained that it’s an artifact that belongs in the future National Coast Guard Museum that will be built in New London.
And being concerned about the hat, Papp said, “really misses the point” because being the Ancient Mariner means so much more than wearing a costume.
The Gold Ancient Mariner is the officer, and the Silver Ancient Mariner is the enlisted person, each of whom has held the qualification of a cutterman longer than any other officer or enlisted member while upholding the Coast Guard’s values. A cutterman is someone qualified to serve on a Coast Guard cutter.
On Friday, Papp transferred his title on board the Eagle at City Pier to Rear Adm. Fred Midgette. Master Chief Lloyd Pierce, the Silver Ancient Mariner and command master chief at the Coast Guard Academy, transferred his title to Master Chief Steven Cantrell.
It was the first time both titles were passed on at the same time. Both Papp and Pierce will soon retire. Papp has served for 39 years, Pierce for 32.
Papp told the audience, which included many cuttermen, about the Cutter Blackthorn that sank in Tampa Bay, Fla., in 1980. Twenty-three Coast Guardsmen were lost, just days after the first Gold Ancient Mariner was installed.
At the time, the training for cuttermen was inconsistent and in many places completely lacking, and cutters were not up to standards, Papp said. The Coast Guard renewed its focus on professionalism and proficiency and made a host of changes to the way people were trained and vessels were cared for, he added.
Out of the 38,000 people on active duty in 1980, only 46 serve today, including Papp and Midgette.
“The Ancient Mariner and Blackthorn, specifically the lessons from Blackthorn and our commitment to professionalism, have been inextricably linked in my mind,” Papp said. “And that’s the continuing legacy and the responsibility of the Ancient Mariner — to serve as a reminder of that commitment to craft that all cuttermen must have.”
Papp said he has worked hard as the Gold Ancient Mariner to recapitalize the fleet, and many new ships are either being built or are funded in the Coast Guard budget. He exchanged a salute and handshake with Midgette and presented him with the symbols of the Ancient Mariner: the hat and nautical telescope.
While serving at sea has always been, and continues to be, “demanding and dangerous,” Midgette said, it is also “one of the most rewarding experiences the Coast Guard has to offer.” His cutterman’s pin, he said, reminds him of the family he has gone to sea with and of his connection to those who served before him, which is why he called it “priceless.”
During the Silver Ancient Mariner ceremony, Cantrell said he could not think of a better place for the event because the decks of Eagle are where so many seagoing careers began. He said he hoped he could “stand the watch” as the 12th Silver Ancient Mariner with the same grace and pride as his good friend Pierce. “I will do my level best to continue the legacy you’ve left me, and I will always keep a weather eye out for those that go to sea in ships,” he said.
Pierce briefly paused a few times during his speech as he became emotional.
“My personal clock will be forever synchronized to some Coast Guard cutter’s time,” Pierce said. “Every morning when I awake or at some time during my day, I will stop and check the time, only to wonder what my shipmates are doing over the horizon.”
As a final act before he parted with his station keeper’s hat and nautical telescope, Pierce asked everyone to think of these men and women. The unsaid part of the service song, “Semper Paratus,” which is Latin for “always ready,” Pierce said, is that “they are always ready to fight, to die for you, or to fight and save you.”
Later, as the ceremony came to a close, Pierce and all of the other Coast Guard members, past and present, sang “Semper Paratus” as the Coast Guard Band played.