Larger-Than-Life Marine Facility Keeps a St. Thomas Tradition Afloat

Subbase Drydock's smaller dry dock, close to the Crown Bay terminal.  (Gerard Sperry photo)
Subbase Drydock’s smaller dry dock, close to the Crown Bay terminal. (Gerard Sperry photo)

Everything about Subbase Drydock seems out of scale. Cranes that seem to touch the clouds, room-size machines and ropes as big as a weightlifter’s arm. In this super-sized world, 30 team members are grinding out parts, welding steel plate and refloating the nautical victims of the recent storms.

They are still led by founders Gene and Mary Kral and their offspring, Gino and Maria. Others who survived the storms stay on and feel like part of the extended family. They continue to enrich a long St. Thomas’ marine tradition.

That marine legacy continues today. Subbase Drydock, Inc. began with the arrival of Mary and Gene in 1981.

“We sailed from New York City on our 45-foot, gaff-rigged schooner and dropped the hook where the Wit Tugboat Company once berthed their fleet,” said Gene, a friendly man looking like an actor in a beer commercial.

The land-based portion of Subbase Drydock. Inc. was chiseled out of a hillside adjacent to the Crown Bay cruise ship terminal.

Brother and sister Gino and Marie Kral are the next generation of the family ready to maintain Subbase Drydock's reputation in the marine industry.  (Gerard Sperry photo)
Brother and sister Gino and Marie Kral are the next generation of the family ready to maintain Subbase Drydock’s reputation in the marine industry. (Gerard Sperry photo)

“We went right to work, clearing the land and opening the business out of a 30-foot-by-30-foot wooden office/workshop,” Gene recalled. “Our only crane began hauling boats as large as 35 feet so that I and the five-man crew could fabricate parts and make repairs at a New York pace. Our very first employee, Kenny Layne is still with us.”

Just five years later, Mary remarked, the business moved into the newly built, two-story steel structure with a roomy 40-foot-by-100-foot footprint.

As their reputation spread, larger cranes were purchased and in 1993 the company took an SBA loan to invest in its first dry dock. It was just the second one ever in St. Thomas, after an 1844 attempt on Hassel Island.

Kenny Layne, shown here underneath a boat, was hired by the shipyard in 1981 and now supervises the welding operation.  (Gerard Sperry photo)
Kenny Layne, shown here underneath a boat, was hired by the shipyard in 1981 and now supervises the welding operation. (Gerard Sperry photo)

With the addition of the dry dock, their capabilities soared. After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, a new, bigger crane was delivered to Subbase. Its first use would be to clear Veterans’ Drive of the scores of boats brought up by the surge. The massive hoist began work as a good community citizen. No upfront fees were required. The crew of Subbase Drydock floated the crane to the waterfront bulkhead and went at the task, unsnarling the downtown traffic and repairing and returning the salvageable boats to the water.

A second dry dock was commissioned out of Staten Island, N.Y. The Mayship Company built and delivered a 1,500-ton floating workstation in 2009. This huge steel island can carry a 200-foot ship, accommodating a 16-foot draft. The goal was to have the millions invested in Subbase equipment offer the most versatile marine facilities in the Caribbean. This, coupled with the community-minded attitude of the management, made Subbase Drydock the favorite of local ship owners.

Every ferry company in the territory depends on Subbase to keep them running.

The big dry dock can take deep draft ships up to 16 feet.  (Gerard Sperry photo)
The big dry dock can take deep draft ships up to 16 feet. (Gerard Sperry photo)

“Subbase Drydock is a life line to the ferry boating community in the virgin islands.” said Kenrick Augustus Sr. “As manager of Transportation Services of St. John Inc., I am charged to see that the appropriate repairs are done to our vessels in a timely manner as well as meeting the requirements of the USCG. Without this company being here in St.Thomas, our boating community will suffer tremendously.”

In addition to the ferries, Subbase has a long history of being the “go to” yard for the exotic race boats, seasonal yachts and unusual vessels that ply our waters. The “HMS” Bounty once sat in the dock for repairs, as did the Americas’ Cup victor Stars & Stripes. The ultra sophisticated and elegant Perini Navi yachts consider St. Thomas their port beyond the Mediterranean, thanks to the dry dock that has made multiple hauls and challenging repairs on their fleet. Sirocco, the classic yacht owned by actor Errol Flynn, was entrusted to the yard, as are scores more power and sail pleasure palaces from around the world.

The dry docks have been non-stop busy since the September hurricanes. One of the giant floating buildings got a late start. It was ripped from its moorings during Irma, went to the bottom and spent two months under the surface. With no time to waste, given the destruction of the island’s marine infrastructure, management organized, strategized and had it floating again by Nov. 4, at a cost of $1.5 million.

They have since hired a naval architecture firm to design advanced systems that will keep their two dry docks in place. Neither dock has had an idle day since.

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