US Virgin Island’s Coral Bay, Home to Fishermen, Authors, Artists, Circumnavigators and Endangered Species, Faces Uncertain Future

Truthout contributor and historian Jeffrey R. McCord divides his time between Virginia and the US Virgin Island of St. John, once part of the Danish West Indies. Virgin Islands National Park is spread over two-thirds of the 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 have sprouted up to 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 US 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.

Elliott 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 side of Coral Harbor is the western shore-line now home to the Island Blues bar, Coccoloba shopping center and a few other small businesses including an outdoor fish market located under the branches and within the buttress-like roots of St. Johns’ largest banyan tree. Generations of local fishermen have left the harbor daily in small open boats – often shaded and protected from sun and rain 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 banyan 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 been 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 could also be seen on a sailboat in Coral Harbor. He’d sing and carouse with buddy David Wegman and other St. Johnians. Today, Buffet is refurbishing and expanding 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 Muielenburg 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 Muielenburg. 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, which is still moored in Coral Harbor. Cap Fatty recently moved-up to a bigger boat and is now in the South Pacific in the midst of another circumnavigation. He still refers to those who live on land as “dirt dwellers.”

It was in Coral Bay, that Cap Fatty wrote the first of several books. His global sailing adventures can be followed in his articles in several sailing magazines including his regular column in All at Sea.

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 in Mongoose Junction 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.

Another Coral Harbor live aboard entrepreneur, Stephen Hendren, is owner/founder of Sunny Rock Building & Design. Among other distinctions, he’s a winner of the “Best Builder in the Virgin Islands” award.

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. Though she lives on her sailboat, she charters a very fast 21-foot motor boat.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting all these seamen and women (except elusive celebrity Mr. Buffet) when my family purchased a Down East 32 cutter-rigged sailboat (Sonseeahray, meaning Morning Star in the Cherokee language) 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.

Like many, I own a dinghy powered by human-pulled oars and go to and from the old Danish stone pier, which was 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 immortalized by a 1900 photograph of a West Indian school teacher and children dressed in Sunday best awaiting the arrival of the Danish Crown Prince.

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 natural wonders one doesn’t often see unless traveling at the speed of oars and sails. Last winter a humpback whale followed a sailboat into Coral Bay.

Rowing out to our mooring, I pass Angel’s Rest, a yellow houseboat that looks nothing so much as a West Indian cottage placed on pontoons. Owned, operated and constructed in Coral Harbor by licensed captain Peter Hoschl, the 40-foot boat is more self-sufficient than many terrestrial homes. Water is provided by rain guttered off its tin roof into an on-board cistern and, like most modern sailboats, power is supplemented by solar panels. Angels Rest is both a charter boat for small groups of tourists and a licensed bar.

Like most Coral Harbor seamen, Captain Hoschl is most often seen going back and forth from the Danish pier with supplies and charter customers. His Angels Rest has also been viewed by millions in a television advertisement for St. John Brewers, a maker of fine Caribbean beer headquartered in Mongoose Junction, Cruz 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 – boaters are treated to the spectacle of an avian feast of plenty. Circling and plunging pelicans, watchful egrets and herons standing in shallows between mangrove roots and pterodactyl-looking frigate birds sailing 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 back to the stone pier for the evening.

Once tied up, most follow the path past the huts of Coral Bay Marine chandlery, nestled under Sea Grape trees, and through the bushes to the iconic Skinny Legs bar and grill – the official home of the Coral Bay Yacht Club and primary establishment serving the social needs of Coral Harbor’s boaters.

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 with stores and a mega-yacht marina accommodating motor yachts up to 240 feet. The development would allegedly uproot the ancient banyan 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 planned mega-yacht terminal and associated land development are likely to sink under the weight of predicted environmental destruction and opposition by Coral Bay’s year-round community. Indeed, 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 are united to ensure the Coral Harbor paradise is not lost.