Cruise In Accessible Comfort
A Rhode Island company is helping veterans with disabilities experience the freedom of the open seas on a custom-built, accessible sport fishing boat.
Building boats is in Walt Schulz’s blood. Since 1975, his company, Shannon Boat Company, based in Bristol, R.I., has designed and built more than $170 million worth of powerboats and sailboats for clients and celebrities and earned countless awards and design patents.
Now, Schulz has shifted his company’s focus to building custom accessible boats, with an eye toward helping veterans experience the thrills of recreational boating and fishing. In 2015, Schulz founded the Shannon River Marine Heritage Foundation (SRMHF), a nonprofit organization that gives veterans and others with disabilities an opportunity to work on or participate in sailing, fishing and boating in mid-sized, specially adapted powerboats and sailboats. Schulz, who was the only person in his family to make it through high school, worked his way through college at the boatyards in New York.
“I got a bunch of degrees in stuff and didn’t fit anywhere in advertising or commercial art and literally fell back into the only other thing I knew, a trade I’d picked up,” Schulz says. “I had no intention of going into the boat business, it was just a way I could make some real money. I was caught up in a very expensive education at the time.”
More than 40 years later, Shannon boats have logged more than 1 million ocean miles and have visited every major harbor in the world. But a single day on the water changed Schulz’s entire outlook, inspiring him to give back and chart a new course to help veterans.
It started in June 2015, when Schulz made a business deal involving a wooden harbor tour boat in Key West, Fla. Schulz owned the boat from 1990 to 1992, sold it and subsequently bought it back. Schulz’s employee, Bill Ramos, asked if they could take his brother, Richard Ramos, out on the boat before they had to transport it from Bristol back to Key West. Richard, a Vietnam veteran diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, had loved to sail since childhood and served as a dental officer on board the USS Piedmont, a destroyer tender based off the coast of Vietnam and in the Philippines, in the early 1970s. Schulz went about setting up a four-hour boat ride from Bristol to Newport, R.I., for Richard and several other veterans with disabilities, two who used crutches and two who used wheelchairs.
“We got everybody down to the boat ramp, and I told Bill what my plan was, and he said, ‘Well, geez, that’s gonna take too long. We have to keep the ride under one hour, we have a bathroom issue here,’ which never crossed my mind,” Schulz says. “That was the first revelation of the day that changed my life.”
The group, consisting of veterans ranging from the Vietnam to Iraq wars, took off for their hour-long ride.
Several Paralyzed Veterans of America Florida Chapter members were aboard Pilar for a fishing excursion with Shake-A-Leg Miami in January. (Courtesy of Harry Horgan)
“I still have difficulty talking about that day,” Schulz says. “It was laughter. It was tears. I haven’t been the same. My wife calls it an obsession. That one-hour boat ride changed the business at Shannon. It changed me … When it was over and we got everyone off the boat … everything up to that moment, I was pretty proud of myself and what I’d accomplished, and later that evening I realized that everything I’d done and everything I’d accomplished up to that day was trivial, unimportant. Just nothing. Seeing these people, and that evolved into taking veterans and non-veterans, other disabled folks out.”
Schulz canceled the deal he’d made in Key West, took the boat back to his shop in Bristol and went to work on it to make it completely accessible.
The finished product is a replica of author Ernest Hemingway’s 38-foot 1934 sport fishing boat Pilar. Schulz’s design concept comes with a focus on safety, stability and comfort, allowing anyone with a mobility limitation to feel the freedom of the open sea. Modifications include a stern power lift mechanism for easy, safe dockside boarding, a ramp for side boarding and a doorless companionway to the cabin and sleeping quarters below.
The ship’s wide deck and cockpit areas allow space for four to six passengers, plus crew, and the deck is equipped with benches that have seatbelts. On the floor, or sole, of the boat, a latch mechanism uses a nylon strap that runs through it and through the wheels of a passenger’s wheelchair to secure it. The cockpit floor has an industrial-grade rubberized material to keep people from slipping, even if the deck is wet. A hydraulic lift platform takes passengers below deck to the restroom (head) and galley. The bulkhead uses an accordion door with a handle attached to make it easier to slide the door closed.
“When you come off the platform, you can swing the wheelchair right into the head, and the hand can grab the handle to keep somebody from falling,” Schulz says.
Pilar also has a roll-in shower and lowered countertops with space under the sink.
In the galley, the sink and counters have knees-under space as well, and the countertop stove unit has brackets that hold pots so they don’t tip or slide. Schulz found that conventional galley refrigerators were either placed on the floor or were under-the-counter units, neither of which would work for someone in a wheelchair. Instead, his 12-volt refrigeration unit is raised, so when the door swings open, the bottom edge is at knee level and the shelves slide out. One veteran who’s had a chance to sail on Pilar is Peter Benevides of Bristol. A U.S. Marine Corps veteran with a service-connected spine injury, Benevides was invited on one of Schulz’s sailing excursions in September 2015. He boarded using crutches but typically uses a wheelchair or scooter to get around.
“It was very easy getting on the boat. The seating arrangements were very nice, all strapped in, in case of a wake. It’s like the Cadillac of boats,” Benevides says. “The ride was excellent, and we were in choppy water. I was very happy when I got off that boat, I’m usually in pain all day. I felt very, very safe.”
Benevides, who served during the Vietnam War, has lived on the water all his life and says he loves sailboats.
“A lot of people are afraid of me going out on boats because of my condition and don’t want me to go on their boats, but if you have a boat like Pilar you can take people out on, it’s a privilege,” Benevides says. “If I had the money, I’d love to get a boat. They’re worth it.”
Schulz says a conversion is about a three-month process, and from scratch, a new boat takes about six months. The cost is $150,000–$200,000.
For information about Shannon River Marine Heritage Foundation, visit shannon-river-foundation.org. For information on Shake-A-Leg Miami, visit shakealegmiami.org.
Cruise In Accessible Comfort
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