In my June Motorvation, I covered accessible powerboats for fishing, an activity that appeals to a passionate, but relatively modest population. Recreational boating is even more popular, and boat manufacturers have stepped up to fill the growing need by introducing accessibility to many of their models.
Accessibility can be achieved by adding access ramps or lifts along with controls that are operable while seated in a wheelchair. Stability Yachts even offers some larger catamarans with a unique elevator that extends the width of the stern of the boat and can be used for everything from loading wheelchairs to lowering swimmers in and out of the water.
Pontoon boats and catamarans often provide the most stable platforms, especially when loading and boating while seated in a powered mobility device. Tom Dennett, a C6-7 quad from Stuart, Florida, says it’s not necessary to lay out a huge wad of money for an accessible pontoon boat. Dennett originally purchased an older pontoon boat that was no longer usable, stripped it down, reinforced it and has now readied it to hit the waterways. The modifications of the craft, now named The Islander, were performed by Tim Clark of Accessible Boatworks in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The company is currently completing a modular lift that will be mounted on the front of the deck to make it possible for wheelchair users to be lifted out of their chairs with a mesh Hoyer lift sling and lowered into the water for swimming or scuba diving.
John Bevins, a para from Berthoud, Colorado, knows quite a bit about vehicles that float thanks to his experience of owning and restoring numerous Amphicars. Bevins has restored dozens of them; several of the Amphicars he once owned are available at Walt Disney World in Orlando, where park goers can ride in them on the Disney World waterways. The only modifications required to allow Bevins to drive the Amphicar were hand controls that he constructed.
The size of the Amphicar means that he can only haul three passengers, so Bevins recently elected to purchase a used pontoon boat, a 26-foot Ercoa with a 90hp Yamaha outboard that would host even more friends and family members. “Since it’s a former rental, it is pretty rough for now. It’s going to be a man cave when we’re done.”
Modifications are pretty minimal thus far. Initially Bevins didn’t need to do anything but lift the captain’s seat off its pedestal so he could sit at the controls in his wheelchair. The front gate was 32 inches wide, so he was able to roll right onto the bow of the boat. The side gates are currently 26 inches, so he plans on making them wider for side entry; he pointed out that many newer pontoon boats have wider side gates as a standard feature.
While he will be adding a ramp or gang plank, he explained that “getting aboard is easy, as I pop a wheelie, place my front wheels on the deck and pull myself on board.” Bevins also has an opinion about the ideal type of watercraft for someone who uses a wheelchair and needs stability. “By far the one type of watercraft that is almost always accessible is a pontoon boat,” he says. “I’ve been on several and they all were easy for me.”
Most pontoon boats have the capacity to safely accommodate several wheelchairs at once; Mark Johnson, director of advocacy at Shepherd Center in Atlanta, is a C5-6 quad who owns a 20-foot Sun Chaser pontoon boat. The only modification needed for him to access and operate it is to remove the pedestal seat behind the steering wheel so he can remain seated in his power wheelchair while driving the boat. A small ramp allows him to quickly roll aboard, at dock level.
Bob Swiney, a sales representative for Sunrise Medical, lives in Dallas. His “man cave” is his lake home on Table Rock Lake in Missouri. The home, accessible dock, 26-foot Sea Ray powerboat with an open bow and 25-foot pontoon boat and jet ski that he has available there make the seven-hour drives from his home to the lake well worth the trip. Swiney is paraplegic, so he has installed a powered lift on the dock that can hoist him into boats, onto the jet ski, or into the lake for a swim; the pontoon boat can be accessed directly across a ramp from the dock.
Boats of All Kinds
When it comes to versatility and the ability to operate different types of boats, it is unlikely that anyone surpasses Captain David Gaston, adaptive sports coordinator of the Community Sailing Center in Galveston, Texas, now called Sea Star Base Galveston. Prior to his 1979 injury that resulted in paraplegia, Gaston was a commercial diver on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. Shortly after being discharged from rehab, he was back on the water operating power boats.
In his current position, Captain Gaston introduces people to water sports using all types of boats. He has earned instructor certifications in everything from kayaks and sailing vessels to power boats and recently completed the course for his Coast Guard license as a Master for 100-ton boats.
It helps to have access to plenty of powerboats, along with a quality facility for training. Gaston says, “Through my nonprofit I have a 50-foot Gulfstar motorsailer, a 39-foot Aquaventure catamaran sailboat with twin diesels, a 25-foot Proline Sportfisher, a 20-foot Sea Ray sportboat, a 20-foot pontoon boat, and a 14-foot Jon boat with a 25hp motor.” Many of his students are also disabled, so Gaston’s experience and skills serve as examples of what is possible once they are aboard a boat of virtually any type.
It is not surprising that those who prefer to drive vehicles fast on land would seek out similar opportunities on the water. Ricky James was a motocrosser before becoming paraplegic, then became an Ironman world champion, NASCAR driver, off road truck racer, and X games silver medalist. On the water he prefers to drive the family’s 20.5-foot Bahner open bow boat with a 454-cubic inch Mercruiser engine and out drive. That boat reaches speeds of about 65 mph, and didn’t require any modifications to make it accessible for him to drive.
Midnight Express Boats, located in Miami, has recently introduced a 39-foot high speed cruiser that is capable of reaching 65 nautical miles per hour. One of the owners of the company is paraplegic and designed the boat with an access ramp and seats that are hydraulically operated to raise occupants to the proper level for maximum visibility and ease of operation.
Gemini Catamarans offers a boat of similar size that is capable of operating at high speed under power or by sail. The Gemini Freestyle 37’s cabin and deck are on the same level, which allows wheelchair users the ability to access all of the boat’s features. Harry Horgan, president of Shake-A-Leg Miami, has driven this boat and says it is easy to access and operate from his wheelchair.
There are many options for wheelchair users and others who want to get out on the water but do not want to go to the trouble or expense of owning a boat. The larger boats used for harbor tours and similar local sightseeing have become more accommodating since passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Most cruise lines or ferryboats are also accessible. Fishing charters operating out of major seaports may have a few boats that can accommodate mobility devices, but it is smart to call ahead to check availability.
In order to find a facility that is practiced when it comes to loading wheelchairs onto watercraft, it is helpful to seek out charter or rental opportunities through disability-specific organizations like Sea Star Base Galveston or Shake-A-Leg Miami. As an example, the latter organization charters a powerboat called the Pilar, the same name as the late writer Ernest Hemingway’s boat, which accommodates four passengers using wheelchairs plus their friends. Similar organizations can be found in many major metropolitan areas with nearby navigable waterways; a recent internet search for “disability boating” resulted in almost three million entries.
As should be obvious after reading the above, the world of boating — of all types — is open to people with disabilities as it has never been.
Happy — and safe — boating!
• Accessible Boatworks: accessibleboatworks.com
• Gemini Catamarans: www.geminicatamarans.com
• Midnight Express Boats: midnightboats.com/news
• Sea Star Base Galveston: www.ssbgalveston.org
• Shake-a-Leg Miami: www.shakealegmiami.org
• Shepherd Center: www.shepherd.org
• Stability Yachts: www.stabilityyachts.com
• Sun Chaser Boats: www.sunchaserboats.com
• Sunrise Medical: sunrisemedical.com