St. John's Coral Harbor holds an iconic collection of boats but none quite like the 110 foot Silver Cloud. Weighing in at 100 tons, she's certainly the biggest and, at 110 years young, she's the matriarch of the fleet.
One can only imagine the work involved in keeping such a historic steel vessel afloat. Elliott Hooper, the man who has owned and loved her for over 20 years, would tell you that it's taken a village and, at times, it has. Like when a hurricane blew her ashore, or the day an anchor failed and the boat dragged onto a rocky shore, it was the Coral Bay community that came to the rescue.
Hooper, I quickly learned, is a humble man who takes little credit for the shipload of energy he's poured into his vessel from the moment they met. That was 1987 in St. Augustine when, he notes, "I had a dream of having a boat." It was a leap of faith, considering that his first and only boat was a Hobie Cat. After two years of major work Silver Cloud was ready to go so when friend and artist David Wegman suggested a move to St. John, Hooper set off with his t-shirt printing business onboard and a 1941 panel wagon strapped on deck.
As Silver Cloud and crew neared Puerto Rico they noticed dozens of sport fishing boats flying toward the island. Arriving in Coral Bay they discovered why: Hurricane Hugo would hit the next day. "I'd never seen a hurricane," said Hooper. "Didn't think much about sailing in September." Silver Cloud was swiftly secured in Hurricane Hole where she washed ashore but miraculously floated off.
After months of helping with the devastating mess, Hooper got a business license for Tall Ship Trading Company and got busy printing shirts. For twenty years it's been steadily growing into the mini-museum, art gallery, t-shirt shop it is today. "A hurricane would come by and we'd rebuild. We started salvaging, collecting stuff, trying to make Tall Ships like a shipwreck."
The building is cobbled together with bits and pieces of vessels: broken masts, boom crutches, frames, hatches. Just a few months ago he found a wreck buried in the mangroves, treasure from the deep. Throughout the place Hooper's collection of vintage marine gear fills walls and shelves: clocks, compasses, taffrail logs, portholes and mysterious parts from long-lost vessels.
Half the building is a workshop where the designing and printing of shirts takes place. In an old fashion, high quality way, each is hand printed using several screens. Retail shelves hold a medley of winning, timber-shivering designs.
Despite the busy schedule required to clothe troops of tourists and pirates, Hooper takes time out for Silver Cloud. He lived aboard for 14 years and most summers he puts together his long standing crew for a cruise to Trinidad or Venezuela. One cruise, to replace the decks, lasted a year-and-a-half. "That saved the boat," said Hooper. "Once you get water going into a steel boat, it's the beginning of the end."
Homeward bound they load up with mahogany, purple heart and cabucali for the island's builders. Other cargo has included a Bequia dinghy, a 22 foot Calypso boat and numerous water tanks.
Countless voyages were to aid others. After Hurricane Luis hit St. Marten, a team of friends organized a St. John wide drive, collecting 15 tons of donations. They loaded it onto Silver Cloud, sailed all day to get there, unloaded that night and sailed to Coral Bay with Hurricane Marilyn hot on their heels. "We weren't ready," said Hooper. "She went up on the rocks. It looked like it sailed up there, facing the wind, anchors out tight." Seven months later she was off, thanks to a railway, skids, one bulldozer, a tug and that village of volunteers.
For the past 12 years Silver Cloud has been the venue for the Guy Benjamin Primary School flotilla. Last year 39 students spent a memorable day at sea. "For some of these kids, it might get them excited and they join KATS," said Hooper. The flotilla takes place as part of a benefit run by the Coral Bay Yacht Club. Money collected is poured into the school. Hooper also makes his ship available for a few weddings and funerals, sending all donations to Kids And The Sea.
Silver Cloud and Elliot Hooper are two large links in the chain of giving. Two years ago, when the ship dragged anchor and went ashore, it took only minutes before she was surrounded by dozens of dinghies full of able bodies that worked together to pull her off. "It's stuff like that that makes you want to live here," said Hooper. That and a tall ship with a big heart.
Jan Hein and her husband, artist Bruce Smith, divide their time between the Caribbean and the Pacific Northwest with a boat and a life at each end.