You might not immediately realize that this is a place with a past. After all, last summer's addition of a brand new 1000-ton drydock put St. Thomas on the map for having the largest and most modern drydock facility of its kind in the northern Caribbean, and quite possibly the entire Caribbean. Yet, when you're visiting the office, take a look at the black-and-white photos hanging on the wall by the door. It's a copy of an advertisement from 1908 for The Floating Dock Company of St. Thomas, Danish West Indies, which offered drydock services for yachts up to 250 in length as well as scraping, painting and engine repairs.
The U.S. purchase of the islands in 1917 and a change in the maritime industry left a drought of several decades when there was no drydock to service yachts on the island. This lasted up until the early 1980s when a cruising couple from New York, Gene and Mary Kral, decided not only to start a business, but also to make the island their home.
Seated in the office, with a breathtaking view of Crown Bay and the Charlotte Amalie harbor beyond to the east, Mary shared a family album full of fascinating photos that document Subbase Drydock's inception and development.
"Gene found this waterfront location and it was zoned marine industrial, which was perfect for a boatyard," said Mary, pointing to a yellowing photo of a strip of shoreline where the company is located today.
The Krals first arrived in St. Thomas on their 45-foot schooner, Proud Mary, in 1978. They built the yacht in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and Gene's father, a carpenter who operated Schneider Boatworks in New York from the 1930s to the 1960s, built the beautiful interior. The Kral's goal when they cast off from Jamaica, New York, was to take an extended cruise.
"We sailed to Bermuda first," said Mary. "Then, everyone told us that St. Thomas was the crossroads for sailing, so we came, and it certainly was. There were lots of mom and pop charter operators at the time. It was pretty carefree back then. We decided to stay and we chartered for about a year and a half."
In between charters, Gene set up a storefront for a carpentry shop at the old Yacht Haven Marina and his brisk business grew to five employees. The need for a permanent location and the necessity of feeding and educating daughter Marie, born in 1980, and son Geno, born a year later (who now works in the business), led the Krals to Subbase in order to launch their new business.
"There was a restaurant called Saints and Sinners that was here when we came," said Mary, "and beyond that there was nothing but junk – old car chassis, tires. It took 57 loads to clear all the junk from the shoreline."
The Krals first built two plywood shacks. One was Mary's office and the second was the main building where work such as carpentry, and then later welding, fiberglassing, painting and a machine shop were set up. Gene's first job in his new location was to fabricate a wooden mast for a lady who lived in St. John and owned a classic wooden yacht.
In 1984, a 30-ton crane was added, an asset that was essential to haul a small armada of beached boats in the wake of Hurricane Hugo five years later.
Business was booming and evolving as well. In 1987 the Krals tore down the shacks and built the 40- by 100-foot building that is Subbase Drydock's home and also houses several other marine businesses such as a rigging shop, sail loft and outboard sales and repair shop. The first drydock, which could haul vessels under 350 tons, came in 1993.
"The land here was limited so we had to think in terms of a floating drydock instead of a marine railway or travelift," Mary said. Subbase Drydock could now add services such as pressure washing, painting and changing props and shafts to its list of marine repairs.
Sixteen years later, the Krals added their 1000 ton drydock, which has enabled them to repair even larger vessels. Today, Mary reports, "about 80 percent of our work is commercial. We started with privately owned charter boats and now we do all of the ferries, several tugs and other large vessels."
More megayachts are coming to the Virgin Islands and staying longer in the year. Subbase Drydock, open year-round, is starting to see some of this business.
"Megayachts have usually drydocked elsewhere and come here to charter," said Mary. "But, we're getting some who need emergency drydocking. I think we'll see more as the word gets out about what we can offer."
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based
marine writer and registered dietitian.