A Lifetime on the Water: Ken Cerny

This blog is based on an interview with Ken Cerny. Ken has been a volunteer with Inland Seas since 2002 and still actively supports ISEA to this day. If you would like to submit a Great Lakes experience to be featured email marketing@schoolship.org or call 231-271-3077.

A Love for the Lakes

From an early age, Ken Cerny was one with the Great Lakes. A boat builder, sailor, and general tinkerer, Ken found his way onto the water wherever he could. Growing up in Michigan he found his love for sailing while competing as a crew member on a Mackinac Racer in the Port Huron to Mackinac race. Ken served as an educator and county consultant in Detroit for 30 years and 17 years in the automotive industry as part of a technical training supplier.

He passed along his love of the water and his competitiveness in racing as he and his daughters raced together as a family. Campaigning a Wayfarer Day sailor, they never won a race together, but the time spent together on the water was more than enough reward. The joy he found on the water and time under sail are two passions Ken discovered that have never left him. 

Ken and Inland Seas

After retiring to the Grand Traverse area in 2000 with his wife Marilyn, Ken saw an ad for a new volunteer meeting with Inland Seas and decided to attend. Immediately he was impressed by the quality of people that Inland Seas attracts and the passion they offered for a common cause. As Ken puts it, “There was no question I had to be with these people”. 

Ken going through Coast Guard water emergency training.

From the Coast Guard water emergency training to the quality of the education being taught aboard the schooner, Ken was impressed by the professionalism of everyone involved with Inland Seas. All were signs of a well-run organization. The core group of people leading Inland Seas at that time consisted of Tom Kelly, Colleen Masterson, Kim Biocchi, and Remy Champt, among others. He recalls that though it was not a large group, each was wholly dedicated to their work. None more so than Kim, who as Ken puts it, “[she] was the soul of Inland Seas. She did all of the scheduling and finances. Everything that you needed to know about Inland Seas, independent of the boat, you went to her.” This core group of dedicated individuals was something that Ken decided to be a part of for the next 20 years and counting. 

When Inland Seas bought and renovated its current facility Ken was a part of the team that gutted the building and worked on the renovation. He recalls during the renovation, “finding planks, signed by carpenters from 1910.” The building needed a lot of work to convert it from Northern Lumber’s use but this devoted crew put in the time to make it what it is today. 

Ken made, what he considers to be, his best decision when volunteering aboard the schooner to teach Water Quality (formerly Water Chemistry). Spring Schoolship can often be cold and rainy and the Water Quality station was below deck meaning that during the early May sails, he got to stay a decent bit warmer. Ken was volunteering with ISEA when they celebrated their first 50,000 students aboard the ship. 

The boat-building program, Ken is the second person in the back row.

Over the years Inland Seas provided interesting opportunities to volunteer, Classic Boat Shows Nautical Flea Markets, and a donated boat program, all of which Ken participated in. As a member of a team led by Chuck Dickenson, Chuck and Ken led the boat-building program where middle school students built an Opti-Pram which they learned to sail on Boardman Lake with Traverse Area Community Sailing (TACS). The program, funded in part by the Tuktawa Foundation, covered material costs and the knowledge of boatbuilding donated by Ken, Chuck, and other volunteers. Completed boats were donated to the TACS program, which gave scholarships to the students who built them to learn to sail their boats

In addition to volunteering, Ken has supported ISEA as an active member of The Suttons Bay-Leelanau Rotary Club which he has served as president. At first, the club funded scholarships for four Leelanau schools to come aboard the Inland Seas. Ken worked to get Rotary funding for the other Leelanau County schools so that all students could come. Through Ken’s leadership, all Rotarians also signed a stewardship pledge to act as stewards and protect the Great Lakes. When ISEA built their dorm space, Ken and his fellow Rotarians came together to fund one of the dormitory rooms and dedicated it in honor of Kim Biocchi. 

Donating to Inland Seas

Early on, one of the things that Ken liked most about Inland Seas was the recognition of its donors and volunteers. Volunteers feel truly appreciated and an active part of the ISEA mission. Ken recalled that he attended a recent volunteer event where in a room full of people, he knew only six. To him, this was a remarkable display of the continuity of quality people Inland Seas maintains in their volunteer system throughout the years. As he puts it, “Inland Seas treats its volunteers like no other organization I know.”

When asked why he and his wife choose to support Inland Seas financially he said, “I see the funds I donate being put to good use. I see an annual report that I can review and see how much of the money actually goes into the program.” Being able to see the appreciable effect that donations have and the impact of ISEA’s work with students makes donating an easy decision. Ken recalls, “There are really two things up here that I enjoy more than anything, and that is Inland Seas and my church. It really made retirement everything that it should be.” The people and the relationships are what make it all worth it. The camaraderie here is unmatched by other organizations. Crew and instructor volunteers spend so much quality time together that fosters a tighter bond. Inland Seas is well-organized and well-run and has expanded in a way that he would like to be able to continue to support. “I think the greatest thing that Tom [Kelly] did was bring Fred [Sitkins] aboard. It’s just expanded. The mission is the same but the implication of the mission is just unbelievable.” 

Inland Seas thanks Ken for his years of dedicated service and his continued support of the ISEA mission. To learn more about becoming a volunteer or donor with ISEA you can visit our website at schoolship.org or call 231-271-3077.

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