By Kevin Robinson
Within hours of announcing your intention to purchase a boat, you are almost guaranteed to hear this old saw: “The day you buy your first boat is the best day of your life; the second best day is the day you sell it.” The devil’s in the details, of course, and details are generally expensive. I learned this many years ago, after buying a used Jaguar XKE for $4,000, and drastically cutting down both my wheelchair and my hand controls in order to drive it. Oh, what a bargain I thought I’d stumbled upon! Well, of course, it was no bargain at all, and I sold it six months later, delighted to be out from under it.
This time, however, I had no illusions. I fully expected the escalation of anticipated sailboat expenses to rival the gross inadequacy of government budget estimates. The required safety gear list is enough to scare off most sensible folk, and the construction alone is already 20 percent over my early projections, but I can justify (rationalize?) every add-on — most of them foisted upon my amiable builder. After all, if this is truly going to be an accessible craft, able to be “single-handed” by a quadriplegic with little or no hand function, there will surely be more than a few pipers demanding their pay.
So I paid dearly for a folding, pivoting prop with an overdrive feature. I spent that much again for a bow thruster — the first in a sailboat this small. I insisted on the fastest, slickest mainsail track on the market, and a halyard quick-release at my fingertips. If I get in over both my proverbial and literal head, I want that sail to come down fast! I asked for, and got, fore and aft electric anchor windlasses, an electric Halyard winch, and two electric jib sheet winches. The factory crew quickly nicknamed my little 26-foot sloop the “Bat Boat” — because it had more gadgets than the Batmobile.
I justify it all with one simple supposition: If a broken-down, 58-year-old quadriplegic can build an independently sailable prototype, the doors are opened wider, not only for people with severe disabilities, but for a host of aging sailors who must give up their passion, oh so reluctantly, when they can no longer gambol about the deck, grabbing sheets and trimming sails like they’ve always done.
Getting My Toes Wet
I sailed my family’s gaff-rigged dinghy all summer, every summer as a kid, and once rented a catamaran in Key West., Fla., a few years after my 1975 C6-7 spinal cord injury, but this notion of seriously getting back to that childhood passion occurred to me after reading about one of America’s many wonderful nonprofit disabled sailing programs. In nearby Miami, the Shake-a-Leg Foundation introduces thousands of disabled children to sailing every year. Scores of burly volunteers help these kids on and off small sailboats that have been specially modified so they can sail them. I visited the facility to ask about the next logical step: sailing without the burly volunteers.
Presumably some of these young people will grow up and become consumers who want to make sailing their hobby of choice, so during which part of the program are they introduced to the necessary technology? Turned out this was not part of the current program. No one had any answers. No burly volunteers, no sailing. It was an aha moment!
After finding nothing suitable on the market — since boarding a rocking sailboat is very different from entering a swimming pool — I first went home and, with some help from the local SureHands rep, designed a simple, semi-portable dock lift system. Then I started shopping for a sailboat to modify. Have you ever watched someone’s attention shift suddenly away when you broached a topic they didn’t want to discuss, nor even acknowledge? That was my experience with several sailboat builders. They were all ears when I said I was looking for a sailboat, and that I liked the look of theirs, but the second I mentioned my disability and began listing the modifications I wanted the factory to help me design into my boat, Elvis left the building. All of them, except Nick Hake.
I was exchanging e-mails with an old salt up in the northeastern U.S. about buying the 23-foot Menger catboat he had up for sale that was a 3X version of my childhood dinghy, when he confessed he was selling it because he’d had a slight stroke, and could no longer handle it alone. He enumerated some of the handling issues that type of boat would present and sent me a link to a company that had recently caught his eye: Hake Yachts, LLC. Hake’s Seaward retractable keel series represents a remarkable design innovation, and while the designer, Nick Hake, is as firmly rooted in sailing tradition as anyone I’ve ever met, he’s not boxed in by it. While most everyone else in the industry seemed to accept the notion that buying a sailboat is all about trade-offs, like choosing either a big-water, fixed-keel cruiser or a shallow-water daysailer, Hake became determined that a great sailing sloop could do both, and do both very well. I liked what I saw on his website and arranged a trip upstate to meet the man.
Getting the Old Man Back to the Sea
Though his eyes betrayed just a hint of patronization during our preliminary conversation, Hake soon became convinced of my determination, and you could almost see his mental wheels begin turning faster. This man likes a challenge — unlike several of his competitors. Nick, along with two other of my own engineer/friends, said my dock lift drawings were sound, but he wanted to know how I felt about using the sailboat’s boom as a crane/hoist. That way, he noted, I could get on and off the boat anywhere. Week after week, the Hake team puzzled and tweaked, determined to get the Old Man back to the sea. Each time I visited their Stuart, Fla., factory, I was blown away by their enthusiasm and creativity. One day Nick asked me whether I’d brought my customized bosun’s seat along. I had, and the next thing I knew, I was being lifted on the factory’s ceiling hoist, up out of my wheelchair, and out, over, and into the open hull of my boat.
A fairly recent YouTube video features a great shot of my nearly completed sloop on its trailer. Sales manager Tim DeVries uses the boat’s remote-controlled boom hoist to lift himself out of my custom designed helm seat and out over an office chair he’d positioned on the ground below. It rides a track all the way around the cockpit — another Nick Hake conception. The grin on his face when he settles softly into the rolling desk chair is an accurate reflection of the whole team’s attitude toward my project. I’ve spent over 30 years learning to adapt, and thankfully there was always a soul or two around to help out when I couldn’t do the construction myself, but imagine more than a dozen sets of enthusiastic hands making your biggest adaptation dream come true!
As of this writing, the “Eleanor P,” named in honor of my wife Ellie’s mom, is 99 percent finished. It is due to “splash” — first time in the water — in about two weeks. Sea trials, learning the ropes, will follow shortly thereafter. It’s been more than six months of waiting (and paying), and I’ve dutifully hung in for the pound, but now I’m definitely ready to take what’s left of my pennies and set sail!
Sailboat Jargon for Landlubbers
Boom: The horizontal pole to which the “foot” or bottom edge of the main sail is attached.
Bosun’s seat or chair: A swing-like harness used to hoist a crew member up the mast to paint, do repairs, or install a piece of new gear.
Bow thruster: A small electrically powered propeller installed in the forward hull which enables the helmsman to “walk” the bow slowly left or right (to “port” or to “starboard”) when approaching or leaving the dock.
Catamaran: A dual-hull, single-masted sailboat with a mainsail, and with or without a fore sail.
Catboat: A single-masted sailboat without a fore sail, with its mast stepped in the boat’s bow.
Dinghy: An 8- to 14-foot single-masted catboat or a similarly sized craft that may be rowed or motored between shore and a moored or anchored yacht.
Folding, pivoting prop: A propeller which folds back while sailing to minimize drag, and with blades that flip over for better efficiency when the engine is reversed.
Gaff-rigged: A four-sided main sail, supported along its upper edge by a diagonal boom-like pole called a “gaff.”
Halyard: The rope line used to raise and lower a sail.
Jib: A type of fore sail.
Main: The main sail.
Mainsail track: A channel running up the mast to which the “luff,” or forward, vertical edge of the main sail is attached.
Mast: The vertical pole to which both the main and the fore sails are attached.
Sheet: A rope line used to control or “trim” any sail.
Single-handed sailing: Sailing without assistance.
Sloop: A mono-hull, single-masted sailboat with a main sail and a fore sail, with its mast stepped approximately one-third of the way back between bow and stern.
Trimming: Setting a sail (letting it in or out) for the most efficient or appropriate angle to the wind.
Winch: A mechanical advantage device that aids when pulling rope lines.
Windlass: An electric winch specifically for raising and lowering an anchor.