Disability Doesn’t Hold Back St. Croix Woman from Building Boat

Hannah Gray working on her boat. (photo by John Rains)

Hannah Gray is a software designer, a website developer, a scuba diver and is building a boat. She is a marine biology major from the University of California Santa Cruz with a minor in journalism and a master’s degree in marine environmental science from the University of the Virgin Islands.

She is also living with cerebral palsy – a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture, according to the Mayo Clinic. It is a condition she was born with, due to a traumatic birth.

“It will get better and it will get worse,” she said.

But it doesn’t stop her from living a challenging and exciting life.

Raised in southern California, Gray grew up with a natural love of the ocean. In and on the water she fells free of her disability, she said.

When she was 17 years old, Gray saw a wheelchair sitting alone at the end of a dock in Cozumel. At first startled, she waited until a paraplegic diver finally surfaced. They introduced themselves and talked about diving with handicaps and using specialized dive gear. It was a challenge Gray wanted to take, and she signed up for classes right away with the dive master her new friend recommended.

“I said, I can do this. I want to do this all the time.”

After she graduated from college, Gray tried to find a job in the marine industry as a researcher and learned she would need a doctorate and that her disability would prevent her from carrying out some of the physical job duties.

Gray is a self-proclaimed computer geek, who picked up web design in college. She hung around with a group of students who taught and learned from each other. They eventually earned a good reputation and built websites for organizations such as Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Portuguese tourism department.

“I made more money as a freelance web developer than with an entry level job,” she said.

After graduation, Gray married and moved with her husband to St. Croix, where her parents had bought a house several years earlier. She was making good money developing websites and other IT work.

“Why not do remote work in the Caribbean? ” she wondered.

Not everyone is able to live on an island, and Gray and her husband decided to go separate ways after a year or so.

Hannah Gray dives under the Frederiksted Pier. (Photo by John Rains)

Gray spent more time in the water then and earned a master’s degree in marine environmental science at the University of the Virgin Islands. It was the only college she found that would allow her to dive and do research.

While working from home, Gray met a boat builder from Gold Coast Yachts and they spent hours together talking about boats. After he retired, Bob said he wanted to build a boat for her and they went about deciding the positive and negative aspects of the type, size and purpose of her vessel.

The pair decided a boat should be able to be towed to shelter if necessary or to water should she move to the continental U.S. That meant it should be less than 30 feet long.

Gray wants to be able to take it as far as the British Virgin Islands, so they decided on a 26-foot motorboat with a box keel to cross over reefs and float in shallow water. She traveled to the Annapolis Boat Show twice with Bob, the boat builder, to research the latest technology and safety measures.

The boat will sleep one person comfortably and the vessel will be equipped with a VHF radio, GPS, a chart plotter, a grill, an icebox, a head and an outdoor shower.

After ordering plans and blueprints for her boat, Bob built a transom and frames. Unfortunately, he became ill and died two years ago. Eventually, Gray recruited another master woodworker from Gold Coast who is agreeable with the part-time work schedule.

“He likes to work about as much as I like to pay him, so it works out,” Gray said.

The boat is about 75 percent ready to go into the water, where it will be tested for balance. Her father has designed and will install the electrical system and her uncle will rebuild the 30 horsepower engine.

Gray’s goal is to launch on her birthday in September. Once she has become familiar with her boat and has traveled to the BVI, Gray wants to follow another dream. She will ship Grace to the states and travel the Great Loop – up the Inter Coastal Waterway from Florida to the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. The journey should take between 50 and 90 days.

One benefit of having her own boat will be having a place to store her dive gear. While the boat is being built, she is not slowing down, however. Gray is diving with her partner John and they have completed more than 50 dives since last July. The deepest she has dived is 140 feet, which she has reached on a few occasions.

“I don’t like to go that deep. I just accidentally do. Usually, the computer starts bitching
at you if you’re too deep too long.”