All On Board!

Reprinted from PN January 2012

People with disabilities need more than access to waterways and docks. They need a way to actually board the watercraft. A pilot project is underway for developing portable boat-transfer technology.

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Boating is a popular recreational activity. Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) went into effect and the Access Board developed accessibility guidelines, public boating facilities, docks, and fishing areas are gradually being made more accessible. Still, people with mobility impairments need more than access to waterways and docks. They need to get on board.

Getting into or out of watercraft can be difficult, if not impossible, for someone with a mobility impairment. Not only is it hazardous for that person but it can also be awkward and potentially harmful for those assisting in the transfer. Let’s face it—transferring on solid ground can be difficult. Throw in the instability of a floating boat and the need to go from one level to another, and you’ve got a much harder job. Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and BlueSky Designs are teaming up to make things easier.

Limiting Technology

Today’s boat-boarding technology is not portable. The most common options are hoists, which must be permanently installed on a larger boat or dock, or pontoons where a person can wheel onto them with a ramp. Portable transfer assist options such as RedBarn’s “Love Handles” or Broadened Horizon’s “Comfort Carrier” require two people to lift and carry a person.

The people carrying out the transfer may need to get into the water or lift a person up or down a significant rise. Families and inclusive boating programs have developed approaches to getting people on board. Some people transfer first to a dock, and then into their boat; others transfer in on land, but this can be
difficult, too. 

BlueSky engineer Nick Lee "lifts" intern Daniel Kanitz using a powered drill to raise the platform.

Teaming Up

PVA sponsored a pilot project for the development of portable boat transfer technology proposed by BlueSky Designs. The Minnesota-based company is focused on developing products that make it possible for people with disabilities to do what they want to do. Their DaVinci Award-winning Freedom Tent design, manufactured by Eureka, was the first camping tent designed with access in mind. Their wheelchair mounting system, the Mount’n Mover, is used by many people to more easily use their cameras, laptops, iPads, and speech devices.

Dianne Goodwin, BlueSky’s founder, is a rehab engineer with a background as a naturalist and recreation leader in accessible camping and canoeing programs. One of her goals is to make it easier for everyone to have fun in the great outdoors. BlueSky Designs has had other seed grants to tackle this issue of getting on board boats.

Design in Progress

BlueSky Designs focused on key aspects of the design in this pilot project. The goals were to create a system that could safely transport a person, weighing up to 300 pounds, from one point to another; across a span of up to six feet; up or down a wide range of angles. Design specifications included that the transfer platform hold its position, regardless of whether someone has hold of the controls, and the movement of the platform must be a controlled ascent or descent.  

The design concept is essentially a “bridge,” with rails spanning from the boat to a dock or the shore. On one end, a person transfers to a horizontal platform. The rail assembly is hinged at this end. An angle-adjustable trolley rolls across the span, carrying a person from one end to the other. At the uphill end, the trolley platform is level with the transfer platform. In future prototypes, sitting supports will be added. 

A hoist mechanism at the “uphill” end pulls the trolley up or lowers it. The mechanism significantly reduces the strength required to move a person across it. It can also be operated by a powered drill. The design includes a safety feature where, if the crank is released, the trolley stays put. In prototype testing, it hoisted a 160-pound person with ease at a nearly vertical incline. 


One of the key benefits of this design is it eliminates the precarious situation where a person is carried across the void at the same time he or she is lifted up or down a potentially significant height difference in an unstable condition. This improves the safety of the process for the individual being transferred and those assisting in the transfer.

Future design efforts will involve people with mobility impairments who want something to make it easier to go boating, swimming, fishing and water- skiing. BlueSky welcomes ideas to consider in future developments.

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