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.
“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.
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)
“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.
In addition to Pilar, Schulz has incorporated the same accessibility elements in designs for two new boats, one powerboat, the Warrior 28 sportfish/cruiser, and one sailboat, the Defiance 35. A donated sailboat will undergo conversion first and will ideally be completed in June, if fundraising goals stay on target. The organization plans to seek additional donations of boats that are suitable for adaptive conversion. Both boats sleep four, with two bunks that are accessible. There are also two helms, a main helm and a safety helm, so an experienced crew member or even a caregiver with a few lessons can keep the boat safe. For the sailboat, Schulz says the lift mechanism, head design, galley and ramps are all the same as on a powerboat. The thing that’s different is the sail handling.
“Winches on a boat ergonomically have always been a disaster,” Schulz says. “Cranking on winches is not part of the thing I enjoy. It’s a pain in the neck. I designed a take-up reel [based on a similar component on fishing boats], a horizontal winch right below deck that goes in two directions and it’s electrically operated.”
A shortcoming of Pilar, Schulz says, is that it wasn’t designed to allow people with various disabilities to drive comfortably.
“Yeah, boat rides are nice, and we had vets out fishing, but it wasn’t as interactive as it should be or could be. Thus, I started to design a powerboat and a sailboat … to enable everybody to get an opportunity to drive,” Schulz says.
Conventional sailboat steering didn’t work, so Schulz added joystick controls, angled the wheel and made a scissor platform that adjusts for height. Schulz hasn’t stopped at designing boats for people with mobility limitations. One of the biggest obstacles to spending a day on the water for someone in a wheelchair is navigating the steep, uneven terrain in marina parking lots, docks and around boatyards. To address this issue, Schulz also designed a boating chair that has pneumatic wheels and can be manually driven or battery-assisted with a joystick control. Ultimately, the plan is for the SRMHF boats to be used to take veterans with disabilities on extended fishing or sailing excursions and promote awareness through multiple regional partnerships, including one with another nonprofit, Shake-A-Leg Miami.
Pilar will become the flagship of a program series at Shake-A-Leg Miami to take veterans, their families and others with disabilities out on fishing trips and cruises on Biscayne Bay and the surrounding area. Sean Polk, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, has been hired as Pilar’s captain. The boat will travel back up the East Coast to spend its summers around Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Goals for the program include training veterans to repair the boats and to help veterans, with or without disabilities, learn to sail. All of the sailing programs and classes will be free to veterans. Harry Horgan, who sustained a T5/6 spinal-cord injury in 1980 after falling out of a truck, founded Shake-A-Leg Miami 25 years ago with a goal of creating world-class boating center that serves people with disabilities and their families. He learned about Schulz’s endeavors when he was doing research to locate an accessible boat to display for the organization’s 25th anniversary celebration last October.
“He [Schulz] was explaining his frustration and difficulty in getting the industry to believe you can make boats accessible and get people out on the water, and you can do it safely,” Horgan says. “He experienced what we’ve experienced our whole lives, and that’s people are afraid handicapped people are going to get hurt. We have as much right to get hurt as anyone else. You just need to do it safe.”
Horgan says Pilar’s simplicity is what intrigued him the most.
“What Walt did was ingenious, and it’s basic. Just the lines on the boat, it’s a beautiful boat. It operates well in the water,” Horgan says. “It’s going to be an attractive, functional boat. It doesn’t look like a handicapped boat. It’s just a boat that happens to be accessible.”
Horgan believes this partnership involving Pilar underpins the theme of the power of the water in helping people live better lives.
“I think Walt’s vision and his commitment along with the partnership with us where we have this venue where we can make this happen … It’s going to take time, one boat at a time, one veteran at a time, and see where it takes us,” Horgan says. “Our goal is to get as many veterans on the water as possible.”
For Schulz, it’s not just about getting veterans out on the water. There’s a therapeutic element of off-boat engagement, as well.
“Learning about boating, learning about fishing, learning about sailing, being engaged, having something to think about, something you can go on the internet with, rather than be confined,” Schulz says. “It’s not just getting them out with a fishing pole or for an hour or two sailing, there’s a whole other thing that’s happening here. They can participate when they’re not even sitting on the boat.”
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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