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Leaving the comfort zone

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at 49, Bob Preston is doing his best to not let it take away his lifestyle … or his boat

Damn the torpedoes. Press on, regardless. Rock on! These sayings bring thoughts about the courage of good people to make the best of bad times. In one sense or another, they tugged at my mind as I sat with Bob Preston in the saloon of his beautiful 48-foot Sabre, Family Ties 3, at Camachee Cove Yacht Harbor in St. Augustine, Fla., late last year.

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Bob and his wife, Becky, had run her down the coast from Rhode Island on their way to the islands. They’d stopped at this marina — one of their favorites — to leave the boat while they traveled back north for Christmas with family. Not an unusual scenario, you’d think. Plenty of folks do the same thing. But there’s much more to the story, and those thoughts of mine were hardly adequate.

July 24, 2007, turned out to be a bad enough day when a hit-and-run driver rear-ended Bob at a stoplight. Doctors at the hospital found injuries enough but also indicators of something else: A neurologist not only told Bob that he had Parkinson’s disease, but also that it probably had been ongoing for at least two years. Bob was 49 at the time. He asked where the doctor thought he’d be in five years. Maybe in a wheelchair or on crutches was the answer.

This wasn’t the place Bob had expected to be at this point in life, vigorous and in his prime as co-owner of a successful insurance agency. He and his brother had built a strong organization dedicated to insuring the best-run operations in risky businesses. They had about 6,000 clients. Bob was working incredibly hard at the time and probably was on track for a heart attack. Suddenly life was looking very different. But different isn’t always as bad as it may seem. “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” he told me.

Bob has always loved boats. His dad had taken him out in their vintage outboard boat when he was 6 months old. Since then he’d been boating all his life, even to the point of getting a Coast Guard master’s ticket. It’s been a family thing for Bob and Becky, his wife of 32 years. Their son and daughter are no strangers to boating, and their son-in-law is in the Coast Guard, serving aboard a 48-foot search-and-rescue vessel.

Preston calls long cruises aboard his 48-foot Sabre 'Optimism Tours.'

At the time of the Parkinson’s diagnosis, Bob owned a 33-foot Back Cove (Sabre’s sister brand). After that conversation with the neurologist, he sold it — but not to get out of boating. He got a 37-foot Back Cove and went to the Abacos. Later he cruised back up north to Maine and other areas.

Two years ago, he again asked the doctor about the next five years. The doctor apparently didn’t want to go there. Not a man to be put off, Bob ordered the 48-foot Sabre in October 2012 and took delivery July 1, 2013. Four themes emerge in his story: a guy who wants to take control of that which would otherwise control him, his desire to help others, his optimism when others would be wringing their hands and, intertwined with it all, a love of boats.

When you’re running a boat, you often have to recognize what’s coming your way, be able to deal with it and maybe take advantage of it. Bob soon experienced what he calls a “God shot.”

After the diagnosis, he went skiing with his brother. Bob began chatting, as one often does, with the stranger sitting next to him on the ski lift. This other skier turned out to be a major mergers-and-acquisitions player. Bob called the man when he returned home and said he had a company to sell. The M&A man said he’d be in the area the following summer and would take a look but, apparently after some checking, he decided to fly in the next day. The insurance agency was sold.

Bob and Becky Preston are using their time wisely, doing what they love and helping others.

Good news, one would think, but also tough news. “It was like putting your child up for adoption,” Bob says.

He started directing his energy and willpower to other areas. He found a local support organization in his native state, the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Parkinson Disease Association. He quickly became involved there and with its parent organization, subsequently raising $250,000 for patient care services.

Combining passions can make for some heady living, especially passions for boating, helping people and dealing with adversity. The heady living soon manifested in Bob’s embarkation on his first “Optimism Tour,” a 5,000-mile trip from Maine to the Florida Keys in the 37-footer.

When we talked, he was well into his second “Optimism Tour,” an 8-month voyage from the Ocean State to the Turks and Caicos, with side trips to such areas as the southwest coast of Florida. He says his goal for these trips, beyond the simple pleasure of them, is to promote awareness of Parkinson’s disease and its effect on 1.5 million Americans, to demonstrate the importance of a positive outlook in fighting any chronic illness and to fund a cure.

We all make changes to our boats. Bob also did, of course, but with more pressing reasons than some. He installed a power hydraulic hatch for the engine room, padeyes for a lifeline running from the bow to the aft end of the cabin, integrated handholds in the hardtop support — which extend beyond the hardtop to assist him in getting on and off the boat — a centerline handrail the entire length of the saloon, a joystick raised 3 inches for better ergonomics and less bending over at the helm and a powered helm seat that lowers to help him get in and out.

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He also eliminated the wine rack normally incorporated into the wet bar. This made room to move the helm seat back about 5-1/2 inches and the mate’s seat back about 7 inches, which allows better access to the wing door — important because of his mobility issues. He added many extra handholds, including under the engine hatch, above the wing door and down the companionway and galley stairs.

Like other couples, Bob and Becky have carved out “specialties” on board. For example, he usually docks the boat, and she runs it while they’re anchoring. They have pushbutton anchoring capability, but he’s often up on the bow while they put it down. Becky runs the boat about 60 percent of the time, and I noticed while I was aboard that Bob is quite conversant with the engine room.

When we talked by cell phone about a month after our first visit, he had continued on and already crossed Florida via the Okeechobee Waterway. He had just negotiated the “Miserable Mile” — an aptly named shallow passage of the Gulf ICW between Fort Myers and Sanibel — kicking up sand in his wake. He decided it would be better to get outside into the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The way led through Redfish Pass between North Captiva and Captiva islands, with its shallow, shifting shoals. This pass is notoriously tricky to those unfamiliar with it — and often to those who are quite familiar.

The running gear hanging below his hull didn’t daunt him. Like navigating the rest of his life, he simply found a way to do it well. In this case, he asked a professional captain on a much larger boat whether he knew the way. The skipper said he ran the inlet all the time, so Bob followed him out — zigzagging through the shoals, watching the bottom rise, ready to entrap him, fall away and rise again — until he was finally in better water.

The helm chair can be raised and lowered.

And, yes, Bob still skis: “Skiing with my granddaughter is an 11 out of 10 in life.” As he looked around the marina at Camachee Cove, he said, “I wouldn’t trade places with anyone else in the world.”

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April 2014 issue