A Wheelchair-Accessible Boat Is Born

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Dee, with hubby Verne, was the first wheel-chaired tourist aboard the Sound Access. Jesse Owens and Challenge Alaska volunteer Julie re-board the Sound Access after a short demo trip after the boat was first launched.

By the end of my forth summer doing the water taxi thing in 1990, it was clear that the 21-foot Lavro Sea Dory I was using was not making a go of it business-wise. My Coast Guard “Motorboat Operator” license allowed carrying up to six passengers, but the boat’s carrying capacity usually limited the payload to four people and their gear. It was clear that a bigger boat was needed, but its details were quite unclear. Fortuitously, other things began happening that would influence the details of any boat that I might consider as a replacement.

I had been asked that summer by Challenge Alaska — an outdoor recreation organization for the handicapped in Girdwood — if one of their board members could ride along on my next trip to one of the two Chugach National Forest accessible public-use cabins in the Sound. Challenge was exploring adding sea kayaking to their offerings, and they wanted to visit an accessible cabin to see if it could fit their plans. I saw the chance for some positive publicity for my still-budding business, so I jumped at the chance. Plus, I remembered well my own mother’s trials of being in and out of a wheelchair the last ten years of her life, so I was glad to do this small thing for Challenge.

Soon after that, a Challenge board member rode along on a dropoff run to the Harrison Lagoon cabin, about 25 miles out from Whittier. Learning more from her about Challenge’s plans and remembering my mom’s wheelchair experience is what planted the seed: Why not make my new boat wheelchair-accessible? The board member suggested that I talk to Challenge Alaska’s Director to learn more. Upon talking with Director Patrick Reinhart, I learned that a benefactor had offered to help finance an accessible boat for Challenge Alaska. Reinhart liked the idea that someone already in business like me was considering making a new boat accessible, and he suggested that the benefactor‘s offer might possibly apply.

However, the Challenge Board shot down that plan. But by then, the idea of a boat with a landing-craft bow and boarding ramp had made it a no-brainer. During my first four years with the 21-foot Lavro, my clients often needed help stepping over the boat’s rail onto a portable step to get to the beach. A landing-craft bow and boarding ramp on any new boat would make it way easier for anyone to exit and board the boat at remote beaches. Folks in wheelchairs would be able to board the boat with minimal help, including while in port, by rolling down the boat-launch ramp and onto the boat that was “beached” on the launch ramp.

Disability folks’ and my own interest in an accessible boat was high then, but it would be three more years before construction of the new boat would begin. I had been discussing plans for a new boat with Thomas (not his real name), an independent Alaska boat builder, and I had begun writing a business-expansion plan whose main goal was to seek financing to build a unique new boat. It was to essentially be an accessible 15-passenger, floating, beachable, tour bus. While working on that plan, I was fortunate to land a series of temporary biologist jobs working on Exxon Valdez Oil Spill projects in Prince William Sound that kept me employed again for nearly three years (until September 1994). Besides learning more about the Sound that I could share with future clients, the jobs paid enough to allow me to begin building a nest egg toward the bigger boat.

That good fortune was followed by even more. I was surprised by a totally-unexpected, modest inheritance from an aunt who died. Finally, there was enough of a nest egg to encourage a bank to finance the balance. Construction started the day after Labor Day weekend 1995 on what was to be a scaled down, six-passenger version of the original concept. A month later, Thomas had built the basic hull of the boat, but needed advice about how to modify his boat’s normal cabin design to make it as accessible as possible. Who could be better for this advice than Dr. Jesse Owens, a professor from the University of Alaska. Jesse was a paraplegic who had built and marketed an off-road wheelchair, and was an enthusiastic supporter of Challenge’s sea kayaking plans. His inspection of the boat’s basic hull in Thomas’ shop resulted in a cabin with wider doors and lower coamings (door sills) than normal, and an improved design of the landing-craft bow.

After the new boat was launched, a few parties with someone in a wheelchair signed on for sightseeing tours, but an uptick of folks in wheelchairs never happened. Jesse himself eventually rolled aboard the Sound Access in 2009 to join friends on a kayak camping trip in Harriman Fjord. Overall however, apart from staying in touch with Challenge Alaska, marketing efforts to the disability community got little response.

On the other hand, the accessible bow and ramp proved to be such an asset for adventurers in the Sound that other Whittier water taxis began adding landing craft bows to their new boats.  There may be more to say about how a business needs to stay flexible and adapt to changing circumstances, but I’ll leave it at that for now.


v.1.0, 04/28/2019; v.1.1, 05/07/2019

3 thoughts on “A Wheelchair-Accessible Boat Is Born

  1. Terry and Sonia Greiner

    Hi Gerry
    The Greiner’s from Houston Texas! Can’t tell you how often we relay our story about our trip with you on Prince William Sound in 2005! You took us out to a remote B&B and stayed overnight. We will never forget the wonders of the area. By far our favorite trip still!
    Glad you’re enjoying retirement.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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