US Virgin Island’s Coral Bay, Home to Fishermen, Authors, Artists, Circumnavigators and Endangered Species, Faces Uncertain Future
Virginia and the Virgin Islands’ close relationship began at the beginning — of Virginia, that is. A bronze plaque in the U.S. Virgin Islands’ capital Charlotte Amalie records that the Jamestown settlers’ first “New World” stop was in St. Thomas where the trade winds and prevailing currents took people sailing from the “Old World.” One hundred and fourteen Englishmen landed there in April, 1607 to recuperate for three days before following the Gulf Stream north to Virginia to found their settlement on the James River on May 14, 1607.
Today, many Virginians own homes and vacation in those islands, once known as the Danish West Indies. I divide my time between Virginia and the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John. Virgin Islands National Park is spread over two-thirds of that relatively undeveloped, mountainous island. In recent years, however, real estate development has posed a recurring threat to environmentally sensitive lands on St. John bordering the Park. Now, pristine Coral Bay and its unique sailing community are threatened by a proposed mega-yacht marina and associated luxury commercial and residential development on-shore.
In a Caribbean Sea increasingly dominated by cruise ships, mega-yachts and boats and facilities catering to them, the residents of one unspoiled US Virgin Island harbor stand tall as a main mast for traditional sea and conservation values generation after generation. Since the early 1970s, live aboard sailors in St. John’s Coral Harbor have helped preserve the unique character of the sleepy historic village surrounding the 18th century Moravian Mission founded during Danish colonial days. Although small restaurants and bars serve sailors and tourists alike, Coral Harbor businesses continue to share the land with wandering sheep and playful semi-wild donkeys loved by residents and visitors.
Right off-shore, a handful of live aboard sailboat families continue to help shape St. John’s economy, while raising and sending young professionals off to the U.S. mainland and beyond. Some, of course, come back, forming a new generation of St. Johnians making their lives on the sea.
Located in the southeastern corner of the vast Coral Bay, Coral Harbor is home to scores of locally owned sailboats and a handful of power boats snugly secured on private moorings. Like a silent ballet, boats swing in unison with all bows safely facing the prevailing winds and sea swells. Virtually all boats are less than 50 feet in length with the one exception of the tall ship Silver Cloud, the 114 year-old pride of the Coral Bay Yacht Club.
Elliot Hooper, captain of that 100 foot steel schooner arrived in Coral Harbor on September 16, 1989 – just one day before Hurricane Hugo hit the USVI hard. He and a small crew had sailed her down from the Florida Keys without benefit of radar. As they passed Puerto Rico, they noticed all the sport fishing boats and small craft heading back to ports.
When he arrived in Coral Harbor, Captain Hooper learned why. Although the Silver Cloud held firm to her anchors as Hugo passed over the next day, many boats weren’t so lucky. The day after Hugo, Cap Hooper began a continuing career salvaging wrecks and helping rescue boats washed aground in storms.
The most dangerous and developed side of Coral Harbor is the western shoreline. It is home to the Island Blues bar, Coccoloba market place and a few other small businesses including an outdoor fish market located at waters edge under the branches and within the buttress-like roots of a giant sea grape tree. Generations of local fishermen have left the harbor daily in small open boats – often shaded and protected from sun, rain and winds by beach umbrellas. Each day, they venture out beyond Coral Bay and empty Le Duc island (a bird sanctuary) to catch tuna, mahi mahi, red snapper and other fish using ancient long-line methods, rather than destructive nets. They return to their moorings near the Sea Grape tree.
When Captain Hooper arrived in 1989, Coral Harbor was already home to a handful of notable sailors. Some would become authors, musicians, artists and entrepreneurs. Artist, singer, songwriter and sailor David Wegman arrived in the early 1970s. His double-ended 32 foot wooden “cow horn” schooner was built on the shores of Coral Bay. With a design derived from 19th century Scandinavian life boats, cow horns are known for safety and durability. Wegman has sailed his African Queen cow horn around the world.
And, for most of the year it is moored in Coral Harbor near the taller ship Silver Cloud.
With his unique maritime art hanging in homes and galleries from Maine to the French island of St. Barts, Mr. Wegman still calls Coral Bay home. And, some Saturday nights Wegman can be heard singing his own sea chanteys like “Out Where the Busses Don’t Run” sitting on a barrel outside Tall Ship Trading Company – a gathering place for local seamen and visitors.
Also in the 1970s, the soon-to-become famous Jimmy Buffet is rumored to have frequented Coral Harbor. Today, Buffet is refurbishing an old St. Thomas resort near Smith Bay.
It was in 1979 that Captain Gary “Fatty” Goodlander, now author of several books and well-known columnist for sailing magazines, arrived in Coral Harbor. At that time, out in the East End of Coral Bay near the home/studio of artist Sloop Jones, Peter Muilenburg was building his sailboat Breath – a gaff rigged, 42-foot “small tall ship” weighing in at 24-tons. The largest boat known to have been built on St. John, the Breath became both a home and charter business for Peter and Dorothy Muilenburg. Their sons would attend Ivy League universities and today one is a doctor, the other an attorney.
Dorothy Muilenburg helped found and was a teacher at the Pine Peace School (now Gifft Hill School), where her sons and Captain Fatty’s daughter Roma Orion Goodlander went to elementary school. Today, Roma has earned an MBA.
Captain Fatty and his wife circumnavigated the globe twice in their 38 foot sloop Wild Card, still moored in Coral Harbor. Cap Fatty is now in the South Pacific in the midst of another circumnavigation. He still refers to those who live on land as “dirt dwellers.”
The Coral Bay live aboard tradition continues. Hailing from Boston, Paul Tsakeres has lived aboard his sailboat, secured to a legal mooring, for eight years. He owns Island Cork, located on the island’s West End in Cruz Bay. The only store on St. John focusing exclusively on wine, Paul is gaining a measure of fame for his hand-selected international fruits of the vine.
And, then there are the four charter businesses operated out of Coral Harbor by licensed captains. The newest is “Pirate Girl,” run by live-aboard sailor Roberta Marquis who arrived in the Harbor a few years ago.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting all these seamen and women (except elusive celebrity Mr. Buffet) when my family purchased a thirty-year old Down East 32 cutter-rigged sailboat and a mooring in Coral Harbor. Although we don’t live aboard, we’ve been privileged to witness the unique way of life of those who do. Coral Bay characters and our beautiful sailing waters inspired my own novel, “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea.”
Like many, I own a dinghy powered by human-pulled oars and go to and from the old Danish stone pier, recently improved with a floating dock extension and solar powered lights courtesy of the Coral Bay Yacht Club. The dock and the view from it have changed little from the scene in a 1900 photograph of a West Indian school teacher and children dressed in Sunday best awaiting the arrival of the Danish Crown Prince. To the left a few hundred yards off the pier on a ridge above the mangroves, the now rusting tin roof of the old stone Danish custom house rises above the sea grape trees.
A few yards off the pier, from my dinghy I’ve seen dolphins playing, a variety of fish and rays, endangered sea turtles coming up for air after dining on bottom growing sea grass and many other wonders one doesn’t often see unless traveling at the speed of oars and sails. Last winter a pod of humpback whales followed a sailboat into Coral Bay.
When the sun goes down below the ridges of the still mostly virgin, forested Bordeaux Mountain overlooking the Harbor and Moravian Mission – still the largest building on Coral Bay – sailors are treated to the spectacle of an avian feast of plenty. Circling and plunging pelicans, watchful egrets and herons standing in shallows between mangrove tree roots and pterodactyl-looking frigate birds floating a few hundred feet above the water all feed on several species of fish. The curious flopping splashes of pelicans dive-bombing prey and the sudden stabbing of otherwise statuesque egrets and herons provide delightful sound effects for those rowing to the stone pier for the evening.
Over the years, schemers and dreamers have tried to improve upon the natural balance that is Coral Harbor. Currently, one plan calls for construction of an ultra-luxury gated community and a mega-yacht marina accommodating motor yachts up to 210 feet. The now public waters of the Harbor would be turned over to a private, for-profit company, which would allegedly uproot the ancient Sea Grape tree fish market, displace Coral Harbor’s moored sailing fleet and pose a “significant threat to National Park Service protected lands and waters,” to quote a warning issued by Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park.
Fortunately, the proposed 145 slip mega-yacht marina and associated land development are likely to sink under the weight of predicted environmental destruction and opposition by Coral Bay’s year-round community. It is hoped active federal intervention will halt the project before irreversible damage is done to the unique eco-system.
It’s not surprising that the campaign to “Save Coral Bay” has gained support from the national ocean conservation group Mission Blue, the Virgin Islands Conservation Society, Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park and many members of the Coral Bay Community Council. Many have united to ensure the Coral Harbor paradise is not lost. Concerned Virginians and Washingtonians may wish to join them by visiting SaveCoralBay.Com.
Written by: Jeffrey R. McCord
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist and media relations consultant who has called northern Virginia his home for more than 20 years. The author of “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea”
http://www.amazon.com/Undocumented-Visitors-Pirate-Sea-Investigation/dp/0989950816 , a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest, Mr. McCord’s articles on international economics and consumer protection have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications.
Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission. Original story may be found at: http://truth-out.org/speakout/item/27905-us-virgin-island-s-coral-bay-home-to-fishermen-authors-artists-circumnavigators-and-endangered-species-faces-uncertain-future