Blake Jamieson grew up on boats. As a child and into his teens, he was lulled to sleep by lapping waves against the hull of his parents’ sportfisherman. They’d cruise along the remarkable coastline near their home in Vancouver and into the waters just south of Alaska, digging clams one day, diving the next. When Blake was older, as a student at the University of British Columbia, he spent summers working with the Coast Guard doing search and rescue. When he had a few days off, he’d meet his parents on their boat in the rugged wilderness of Desolation Sound, where they’d swim in some of the warmest waters in the region, kayak, fish and kick back. Blake’s parents would say of their son that the ocean was ingrained in him. As for Blake, he’d contend that when you live in this part of the world, “you get the mountains and the water in your bones.”
And then in 2009, Blake’s connection to the sea was severed.
At the age of 25 and on the day before he was to start his third year of medical school, Blake was paralyzed from the waist down in a mountain biking accident at Whistler Mountain. Confined to a wheelchair, he would never walk again or step onto the deck of a boat. “The bike accident was one of those things, a ride that went sideways and that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” says Blake in his matter-of-fact kind of way. “So, I took a little time off to put my life back together.”
Not long after, a resilient Blake was back at medical school. The work consumed his time and energy for a couple of years, yet with all the pressure and long hours, there were moments when he deeply missed the ocean. “Anyone who boats understands the allure is not just about time spent on the water. There’s also a lot to be said for simply being able to think and dream about getting out there. When you don’t have that, you notice it. I noticed it most when I needed something to get me through the crummy days.”
Not one to complain, Blake is a creative problem-solver. So, when he determined that he wanted to bring a boat back into his life, he examined the options. Hiring a custom yard to build a new cruiser with accessible features would be too cost prohibitive for this medical student. He could, however, buy a used boat and refit it for his needs. The challenge would be figuring out just how to do that. Blake had been researching accessible boat design, but he was unable to find much information. He’d have to work without a blueprint.
Blake also knew he’d need help. “I was in the middle of residency and wouldn’t have time to quarterback the project. So, I asked my dad if he was interested.”
Dr. Bob Jamieson was not a hard sell. Blake’s dad, a dentist, was eager to help. “I’d never restored a boat, and it’s not something I ever dreamed of doing, but Blake missed the water so much,” he says. “The two of us were ready to make the commitment.”
The search for a boat began in early 2014, with Blake and Bob paging through identical copies of The Powerboat Guide, which contained specifications and details for more than 1,000 used boats. They had criteria for the search. Size was most important. “It had to be something I could operate on my own,” says Blake. “Otherwise I’d be a passenger and that’s not what I envisioned.” He also wanted a stateroom, head and galley, so he could be self-sufficient for a week or two. And beam was key, as a wide boat would make it easier for Blake to maneuver the chair in close quarters. Then there were the critical details, such as the distance between the cockpit sole and salon floor. It needed to be minimal, since the cockpit would have to be raised to meet the salon, thereby creating a single level over which the chair could easily roll.
They looked long and hard, and after a couple of months the Jamiesons found their boat: a 1970 Bertram 38 Widebody with a 14-foot, 6-inch beam and just a few inches dbetween the cockpit and cabin. Of course, the 44-year-old boat had some serious issues and it would need a ton of work, but it had the features Blake wanted most, plus a solid reputation. “If you’re going to restore a boat, it might as well be a Bertram, because the hull is so good,” says Blake. “This boat is built like a tank, and I knew it would make me feel comfortable and confident cruising up and down the coast.”
Blake’s dream boat would need a dream team to put it together, so Bob reached out to a few pros he knew could make it all happen: electrician Al Morgan, fabricator Greg Sharpe, mechanic Cyrus Sayeghan and Loum-N-Vu, who did fiberglass work. Bob was 65 when the project got underway, and his experts—“the guys,” as Blake called them—were close to his age. To get a rise out of his dad, Blake would jokingly compare the crew to the characters in Red, a movie about a CIA agent who brings his former colleagues out of retirement for a special assignment. When Bob asked the men to help out on the Bertram, he anticipated it might take a year or two. It took four. But as Bob and Blake would discover, the guys brought their A-game every day.
Work began after the Bertram was transported to a yard that was easy for the whole crew to get to, especially Bob, who’d stop in to check on progress each evening after work. During this time, father and son would often talk multiple times a day. “I’m one of those lucky people who can say my dad is my best friend,” says Blake.
The first year was the most challenging, as the team tackled the most difficult jobs. There were the engines, of course. The original 270-hp inboards had to come out and the engine room (its floor greasy from four decades worth of oil that had collected under the diesels) had to be prepped with an Awlgrip finish for new 480-hp Cummins’, the mounts for which were made by Bob’s crew. These inboards had been carefully selected. Blake wanted as much horsepower as he could get from propulsion that would fit the dimensions of the engine room. Height was key, since the salon floor could not be raised. “I was holding my breath the day the engines were installed,” says Bob. But in they went, which thrilled Blake as the repower would produce a top speed in excess of 30 knots; a big jump from the 18-knot pace the boat was doing with the original iron. “I knew I’d need the speed to be able to use the boat after work in the summer, when I’d have just a few hours to run in the light,” Blake says.
Another major undertaking was the rehab of the cockpit. The original wood sole was torn out and replaced with Nida-Core structural honeycomb fiberglass, chosen for its strength and light weight—even the hatches were engineered to be light so that Blake could easily lift them. This update, and others, allowed the team to strip many hundreds of pounds from the boat. They pulled out endless runs of wire (“We had piles of it,” says Blake) and, at a later date, the flybridge with its driving station would be removed.
People who know Blake say he’s an idea guy. He certainly had a lot of them for the Bertram. “I’d draw something out on a napkin and talk it over with Dad, who would share it with the guys. There were times I felt bad, because some of the stuff I came up with was just outlandish. But Dad was able to take the good ideas and make them real.” A case in point: the swim platform at the stern. A key element of accessibility, this cable-driven device travels a significant distance up and down the transom and enables Blake to get on and off the boat when it’s docked. Bob, Blake and the guys spent more than a year developing and testing variations of the platform, and it took a lot of trial and error to get it right, which they eventually did. “But then I had this idea to put ramps on the port and starboard sides, pieces that would slide out when the boat was in a slip and cover the gap that would sometimes open up between the swim platform and the dock. At first, the guys looked at me like I had something growing out of my head. But in the end they built an elegant system.”
Time and again, Blake and Bob were challenged to make what they needed, since it was often difficult to find the right systems and features. At the helm, for instance, Blake needed a captain’s chair that would travel from a height of 19 to 40 inches, so they fabricated a seat with a massive piston to do the job. Then Blake realized he’d need a telescoping steering wheel, one that he could pull toward him. “With this type of project, you go in knowing you’ll spend a lot of time searching for parts on the internet, but I just couldn’t find the wheel I wanted. So, we made one. We welded a bracket for a wheel onto the type of sliding mechanism used for a seat. Now, my wheel extends 18 inches from the dash, which for me makes a big difference.”
The Bertram hit the water for its first test run in the summer of 2015. At that time, the boat was still very bare-bones—the swim platform, for instance, was just a rough plywood prototype. “She wasn’t pretty, but I’ll never forget how it felt to get back onto the water,” says Blake. “That was one of the best days of my life. And it was a fantastic moment for Dad and me. We did a few turns around English Bay to make sure all was working well, and then went up to Gambier Island in Howe Sound so I could get the hang of running and docking the boat.”
In some ways, it was a life-changing sea trial for Blake, who once again felt the sense of adventure, accomplishment and freedom experienced by those who sit at the helm of their own boat. He was thrilled, even though he knew there was a lot more work to do.
Over the years, Bob and the guys have continued to modify and improve Blake’s Bertram, which has been in the water every season since that first run in 2015. This summer, the boat will be cruising the Pacific Northwest looking and running better than ever. “We’re still getting a few things dialed-in, but a lot of it is just finishing,” says Blake. “The accessibility part is taken care of.”
The key accessibility features that were added early on include an electric lift that rises from the stateroom belowdecks up to the salon, and an innovative galley design. “The galley was a big job,” says Blake. “The guys set it up so I can wheel under the sink and reach everything, even the pull-out drawers for the fridge.” The galley was built as one module, but it covers a portion of the engine hatch. So, to ensure quick access to that hatch, all water connections have quick disconnects. Blake simply releases those couplings and pulls the whole galley unit out of the way.
On the list of Blake’s favorite new features for his Bertram is Jet Thruster, a maneuvering system that utilizes water pressure. It’s a good choice for this Bertram, which, said Blake, couldn’t accommodate a traditional bow thruster because the hull is so thick. “It allows me to hold the boat against the dock when I need to throw a line, and to push off when I don’t have help. It gives me more confidence to move the boat on my own.” He’s also enjoying remote-controlled features that make boating easier and more comfortable, from the Maxwell windlass system to the SureShade bimini in the cockpit. And recently installed is Imtra’s ZipWake system, featuring dynamically controlled tabs that adjust trim automatically. “We have a lot of logs in the water out here. It’s probably better for me to keep my hands on the wheel rather than worry about trim,” says Blake.
Now 33, Blake is a board-certified radiologist. Having finished a fellowship in MRI, he’s begun the search for work. But even with the demands of a new career, he hopes to have some time to spend aboard Night Float, which is the name he gave his Bertram. It’s the term med students use to describe being on call for seven nights in a row. “That was a grind,” says Blake, laughing. “I remember thinking to myself, man, if I’m going to go into this profession, I better get myself a boat.”
He’s proud of the Bertram and of the guys who helped him bring it all this way. In fact, he’ll often share photos of the boat on his Instagram account, @doc.on.wheels. And those photos, it seems, are inspiring others.
“I hear from guys who have fathers with Parkinson’s and from those who were in the military, the wounded warriors. They have questions about the boat. I say ‘Send me an email and I’ll tell you all I know.’ It would be great to get more guys in chairs on the water. For me, the Bertram is a dream. It keeps me moving forward.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.