As the weather warms, many individuals who use hand controls to drive motorized vehicles seek out recreational opportunities on the water. Many features of standard boat controls are similar to hand controls used for driving on land; the operator’s station usually has no foot controls, unless it is a high-powered racing boat of some type, while the gear shift and throttle are often controlled with the operation of a single lever. Remotely operated accessories like trolling motors for fishing make it possible for people with all types of disabilities to get out on the water, sometimes independently.
Fishing is one of the most popular uses for power boats, as they provide an opportunity to reach the best fishing grounds without being restricted to fishing from a single location on shore or a pier. A variety of boats used for fishing have been adapted to allow boarding or operation by individuals who use wheelchairs or are otherwise unable to walk. Some are constructed in that manner, and at other times individuals make modifications to meet their particular needs.
When Donald Holland, a fisherman from Placerville, California, sustained a spinal cord injury in 2011, he made a point of getting back out on the water as soon as possible once released from rehabilitation. He purchased a smaller boat, but soon upgraded to one that was able to travel at higher speeds and had more room and capabilities.
Holland purchased his craft from Willie Boats of Central Point, Oregon, and made the modifications he needed to one of their sturdy aluminum boats. “I started by drawing up my new dream boat with a stepped swim deck and custom side console that I could roll up to, and a ramp up to the front casting deck,” he says. “I’ve had this boat for a couple of years now and it works great for me. Now I’m able to get out on the water on hot days and take a swim to cool off.” Willie Boats also manufactures a ramped accessible drift boat that appears roomy enough to accommodate two manual wheelchairs.
When it comes to fishing, Rory Calhoun required a boat with plenty of versatility for the different locations and types of fishing he and his family enjoy. Calhoun administers grants that improve access to outdoor recreation in Washington State, and on his days off he can frequently be found fishing on rivers, lakes or the ocean in the Pacific Northwest.
Some of Calhoun’s fishing trips require the ability to handle rough waves and bad weather up to 50 miles offshore in the Pacific Ocean while seeking tuna, salmon or halibut. At other times he is hauling in traps containing crab or shrimp on more protected waters. While it is possible to fish with an open-topped boat in those locations, something with an enclosed cabin makes the most sense, for both comfort and safety.
The boat he purchased from North River Boats of Roseburg, Oregon, has an enclosed cabin along with an open back deck for fishing. It has been modified with double doors into the cabin in order to accommodate Calhoun’s manual wheelchair. He has done a few other things to make it possible for him to operate it independently. “I had the power tilt and start/stop switch for the kicker, or trolling, motor added inside the boat where I could reach it, along with a Garmin remote control autopilot that is programmable by GPS to steer itself while trolling a pre-set course,” he explains,” or I drive with a pushbutton control.”
Since his boat has no ramped entry, Calhoun has devised a simpler means of gaining access: “I just transfer onto the side of the boat and then my chair is loaded in and I transfer back down into it and roll away. Getting out, I reverse the process, only I use the crab trap puller boom (swung out over the dock area) to allow me to pull up on the lift to transfer back into the chair on the dock.” He says the process works for any active para, and for quads with some help.
Many people can get their needs for a fishing boat met with fewer modifications. Dwight Bateman, a grant administrator for the California Department Of Rehabilitation, describes himself as a “waddling quad” — as he can stand for brief periods but uses a power chair. He requires only a Stratos Bass Boat, 75-hp Mercury outboard and a self-deploying MinnKota Ulterra80 Bow-Mount Trolling Motor with i-Pilot Link and Spot-Lock with foot paddle and hand-held remote. Bateman lives near the Sacramento River Delta, which offers prime fishing for bass and several other species. The only other accommodations needed to allow him to fish are a step stool to get into the boat and an ice chest with a flat lid to scoot across to reach the fishing seat in the bow.
While his favorite fishing companion is his dog, Bateman advises to always fish with a partner in case something goes wrong. One of his cardinal rules, which everyone involved in boating needs to follow, is to always wear a personal flotation device or life jacket while on the water.
Although he is not a boat owner, J.R. Harding, a quad from Tallahassee, Florida, has found that a 24-foot pontoon boat or larger works well for getting him out onto the water to fish or just enjoy a ride. Through personal experience, he has also found that the driver of the boat must be careful riding the waves, accelerating and so forth, because, as he says, “once, without warning, the driver ‘gunned’ the boat and my manual wheelchair flipped over — imagine how surprised I was.” Although he was not injured, the person operating the boat was probably just as surprised.
ADA Boats of Fort Myers, Florida, sells a purpose-built, wheelchair accessible catamaran that was in development for five years so that it would be extremely safe. Mike Mayes, president and founder of the company, insisted on high standards so it would be completely safe for its occupants. The largest model, 20 feet in length, has enough capacity to carry two power wheelchairs plus additional passengers, and can float in just 3 inches of water. The front of the boat is ramped, which makes loading and unloading wheelchairs very easy. The boat has been thoroughly tested, including a load test that far exceeded the weight of a full load of occupants, to assure that the boat would not sink under conditions of normal use.
Those interested in purchasing a boat for use in fishing, or for any purpose, should check out the resource list below, as well as the links that appear after an internet browser search for accessible boats.
A future Motorvation column will cover more of the wide variety of accessible power boats for fishing and cruising, including some luxury models capable of reaching highway speeds.