ALAMEDA -- A new commander took over U.S. Coast Guard operations for the Pacific on Tuesday beneath a cloudless sky amid speeches, music and a gun salute.

During the change-of-command ceremony, the flag of Rear Adm. Charles Ray was also raised on the cutter Waesche just after the flag of outgoing commander Vice Adm. Paul Zukunft was lowered.

But Zukunft, who is heading to Washington, D.C., to assume leadership for the entire U.S. Coast Guard, downplayed the significance of his leaving for the rank-and-file.

"It's just a newer, younger face that will step in to take my place," Zukunft said.

As the new Pacific commander, Ray's responsibilities will cover more than 74 million square miles of ocean that stretches from the Western United States to Asia and from the Arctic to Antarctica. It involves 13,000 Coast Guard personnel.

"The best job in the Coast Guard," Ray said as he looked out on dozens of men and women in full dress uniform for the ceremony, which aimed to underscore that a continuity of command will be maintained.

An Arkansas native, Ray is a 1981 graduate of the Coast Guard Academy and has more than 5,000 hours of flight time as a helicopter pilot. He has served in a host of leadership roles, including as a military advisor to the Iraqi government, and was named the Coast Guard's deputy commander for the Pacific just last year.


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Ray will be promoted to vice admiral under his new duties.

"This is the first time that I have had the privilege, literally, of picking my relief," said Zukunft, who still must receive U.S. Senate confirmation before he can become Coast Guard commandant.

Zukunft took over the Pacific leadership in April 2012 and oversaw security on San Francisco Bay during last year's America's Cup, a task which included making sure that cargo ships and commercial vessels had easy access to local ports.

The change-of-command ceremony on Coast Guard Island in the Oakland-Alameda Estuary came just days after the Coast Guard cutter Stratton returned to the base following its first ever operational deployment. During the 97-day mission off Central America, the crew of the Legend-class cutter seized about 500 kilograms of cocaine and disrupted the transportation of an additional 1,650 kilograms valued at more than $70 million.

The ceremony also follows the Coast Guard releasing a report earlier this month into the death of Petty Officer Third Class Travis Obendorf, a crew member of the Alameda-based cutter Waesche who died in December as a result of injuries that he received the previous month during a search-and rescue-operation near Amak Island, Alaska.

The report found several factors contributed to Obendorf's death, including equipment failure.

In a public letter thanking Bay Area residents for their support, Zukunft noted that Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne was also killed during his time as commander here.

Horne was fatally injured in 2012 when his boat was struck by a panga suspected of smuggling off the Santa Barbara coast. A Mexican national was later found guilty of second-degree murder and other federal charges in connection with Horne's death.

"Though the circumstances behind both deaths were very different, it reminds us that our jobs are inherently dangerous and we depend on the support of our community agencies to get this mission done, both while deployed and at home," Zukunft said.

Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.