Adaptive Boating

By Cliff Steele With Rich Armstrong

This boater with Parkinson's inspires us all to live large. Here's what he did to keep the boating joy in his life.

Cliff Steele at the helmCliff Steele has spent a lifetime pursuing his passion for freshwater boating. Facing a tough medical prognosis, he's keeping his hand firmly on the throttle.

I've loved boating since I was a kid building model boats out of balsa wood and a tube of glue. As I grew older, I wanted a "real boat," one that I could actually be aboard and cruise about on a lake. That dream became reality when I married Sandy, who has been my partner and best friend over the last half-century. First, it was a 12-1/2-foot flat-bottomed kit powerboat made out of wood that Sandy and I built together and named Tuffy — the start of a long, loving relationship with both Sandy, and boating.

Together we enjoyed many boating adventures on Tuffy and other boats we've owned through the decades — a 16-foot Winner V-hull with a Chrysler 105 outboard; a 21-foot Chrysler cuddy-cabin with room for sleeping; and a 25-foot Bayliner aft-cabin, small enough to trailer. In time, we shared boating with our children, Scott and Tina.

From our Illinois home, a three-bedroom ranch Sandy and I designed and built with our own hands, we boated extensively on area lakes, crossing Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, the Canadian waters of Lake Huron, the Mississippi River, and countless smaller lakes. Each and every one of those adventures remains vivid in our memories.

Tidal Change

As time and our ages progressed, Sandy and I noticed a growing issue with my physical abilities. I started stumbling, sometimes falling, and my walking and standing were both increasingly affected. An appointment with my doctor confirmed the bad news: I had Parkinson's disease, a progressive nervous-system disorder that affects movement. On the drive back to our home in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, where we retired, we were quiet. But I still recall an observation I made to Sandy, "How are we going to be able to continue boating?" She replied, "We'll find a way."

I've always led an active life, and I'm blessed with a mechanical type of mind, so I decided to put off the end of our boating days for as long as I could, and set about customizing our 21-foot Bennington tri-toon pontoon boat and trailer to meet my changing needs. As my ability to walk slowly deteriorated, I finally had to accept that I must rely on getting about on an electric scooter. Accomplishing my plan of driving that scooter onto our pontoon boat was priority one among many I had to tackle to get us back aboard. I created a system that works for us with a mix of customization done by me, and we collaborated with multiple manufacturers and suppliers, some who did custom work, some who just helped me turn my ideas into reality.

Modified side gate entrance on pontoon boatA modification to the side gate on his Bennington tri-toon allows Cliff to simply roll aboard.

The short gap (maybe 5 inches) from the dock to our pontoon deck, which I'm now unable to simply step across, was bridged with a bit of customization. I removed the swinging side gate on the pontoon, traced the frame outline on a sturdy piece of plywood, and cut it to shape. With creative use of spray paint (the exact manufacturer's colors used by Bennington) and a heavy-duty stainless-steel hinge from a hardware store cut to size, my side gate now became a drop-down ramp, ready for instant access.

For onboard safety, I installed additional safety grab handles at critical spots to help me maneuver on my feet.

We're trailer boaters, so you may wonder how the two of us get the boat, trailer, and my scooter to the docks. Many older pickup trucks, like our 1996 Dodge, come ready to mount a front hitch receiver. This is most commonly used to attach a snowplow, but I saw another possibility.

Installing wheelchair lift on pickup truckCliff installed a lift on his pickup truck, where he mounts his mobility scooter.

I installed a Class III 2-inch receiver hitch from Draw-Tite (about $200) with bolts through factory-drilled holes (no drilling required). Then, instead of a plow, I purchased a Freedom Mobility Scooter Lift and hitch for $1,300, and installed that into the hitch receiver. The only modification I made when I installed it was to replace the supplied hardware with hardened-steel (Class 6 or 8 hardness) nuts and bolts, as I didn't want the hardware shearing off while running down the highway at 65 mph with an electric scooter mounted on the grill.

At the back end of our pickup truck is a heavy tailgate that takes a lot of strength to lower and lift — really too much for Sandy and me now. The solution was a $25 GoGear EASYLIFT torsion bar from Hopkins Manufacturing. There are variations on the market, some hydraulic, but ours only required I removed the tailgate and drilled two ¼-inch holes on each side of the truck bed to insert each end of the C-shaped bar. The bar sits between the gate and the truck bed, serving as a steel spring that removes about 80 percent of the gate weight. The tailgate now feels as if it weighs less than 5 pounds, and I'm able to lower and close it while sitting on my scooter.

Hitching the boat trailer to the truck was another challenge that needed rethinking. I tackled that by first installing an Atwood Power Jack with Robofoot (about $350), load-tested for 3,000 pounds and bolted onto the trailer tongue. It's 12-volt DC powered, plugs into a separate battery box with a 12-volt battery mounted directly to the trailer tongue. It makes lifting the trailer tongue effortless with the push of a rocker switch.

A few years ago, I came across a neat gadget that helps me accurately back up the hitch ball under the trailer hitch. The iBall wireless trailer hitch camera cost about $200. The 12-volt monitor plugs into the truck's cigarette lighter socket, while the magnetic-mount submersible camera overlooks the hitch ball and runs on a lithium-ion rechargeable battery.

Creature Comforts

Out on Lake Cumberland, the sun can get pretty hot, and our retractable bimini top was becoming a handful for us to extend. I addressed that by purchasing and installing the PWR-ARM automatic electric-powered pontoon bimini top system from Schwintek for about $800. Twin rotary actuators (port and starboard) wired to the boat battery raise and lower the top in seconds. With a remote key fob (or a switch on the helm), I can simply sit in the captain's seat and open or retract the bimini.

The fold-down swim ladder that came with the boat was no longer of any use to me. But taking a refreshing dip was still possible with a product from Aqua-Stairs, which manufactures foldable aluminum staircases with 16-inch-wide steps that rear mount to the deck and extend outward and deep into the water, allowing a swimmer to literally walk back onto the boat. Its universal design makes it a direct replacement for the old vertical ladder shipped with pontoon boats, with no modification needed. The cost for the stairs was about $500, but it was well worth it to us.

So How Do We Go Boating Today?

Here's our routine, which isn't that much different from anyone else's, or as before my Parkinson's diagnosis: I handle the truck as before, drive to our local boat-launch ramp, Sandy climbs aboard Loony Toons and prepares for launch. I back down the ramp with Sandy already aboard and at the helm. Once splashed, she lowers the outboard, glides off the trailer then secures the boat to a nearby dock. Meanwhile, I park the truck, walk (more like hobble) to the front of the truck, lower my electric scooter lift, climb onto the scooter, and drive onto the floating docks, where Sandy lowers the side door/boarding ramp, and I slowly drive on.

Storage garage for trailering pontoon boatThe Steeles keep their pontoon boat in a storage garage for efficient trailering.

Boating is not as simple as it once was, but it's still a part of our lives and is still giving us both such joy. We recently had a wonderful full day on Lake Cumberland, cruising to a local eatery set on Conley Bottom Resort's massive floating docks. We docked and secured our boat, then I scootered off Loony Toons for another great dockside lunch with my wife. 

Cliff Steele has been working since he was 15, served in the military, and had a 30-year career with Eastman Kodak.

— Published: December 2018


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