Four-and-a-half years ago, after he was diagnosed with ALS, Lance Garms began living his life based upon a new calculus.
“I started this motto: Always say yes. Even if I’m tired, say yes.” Garms, 51, is gazing out across the glimmering expanse of the Chesapeake Bay’s Potomac River on a bluebird spring day. He’s seated in his wheelchair in the dance-floor-sized cockpit of a specialized 46-foot Chesapeake deadrise called Redeemer, surrounded by a group of lively friends and his two daughters, all of whom stumbled out of bed at o-dark-thirty to drive two hours south of Annapolis to meet the boat on time.
Ostensibly, they’re all here to chase rockfish—that’s the tangible part of this day and this boat’s mission. But what they, and this boat, are really here for is the intangible—an opportunity to contemplate the Bay’s beauty, a moment for the spirit to heal, a chance for a day filled with “yes” to bring solace to a life bound by loss. ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, slowly and inexorably robbing a person of the ability to control muscle function, even to the point of being unable to swallow and breathe. It has no cure.
“I’ve never been a big fisherman. I had intentions of learning to fish to go with my plans to go cruising,” Garms says. “I’m losing a lot of functionality now, so every day I can get out, I get out. I don’t want to just sit inside.”
Even up to last summer, Garms was still able to go sailing with his daughters, 17-year-old Julia and 20-year-old Sophia, on his Niagara 35 Wild Wings, the boat he had purchased to fulfill his cruising dreams. His friends had a system to get him aboard, and once on the boat, he could manage in its close spaces fairly well. He loved the peace of the water, the freedom and the autonomy that sailing offered. But by the end of last summer, he knew he had to sell the boat.
As Redeemer trolls in slow, easy loops across a patch of the Potomac, the rods taut in their holders, he talks about how planning adventures large and small since his diagnosis has been so necessary to keeping his spirit intact. When his friend Jenn Dadamo, who works for the BoatUS Foundation, sent him a link about Redeemer, the plan was on. “I said, ‘Oh, we’re totally going to do this.’’’
There are several organizations on the Chesapeake that offer on-the-water opportunities for people affected by mental or physical challenges and their families. Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB) has been taking people with disabilities sailing for over 30 years out of Sandy Point State Park at the base of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and is now building a premiere Adaptive Boating Center in
Annapolis to enhance its mission. And farther up the Potomac, Veterans Fishing Adventure, founded by U.S. Marine Corps veteran Ed Moore and his daughter, takes wheelchair-bound veterans fishing in a 29-footer with a drop-down bow ramp.
But Redeemer is different. Conceived from the start to be a U.S. Coast Guard-inspected small vessel able to accommodate two power wheelchairs, the boat’s intention is to allow wheelchair-bound people full independence while aboard, and to safely and comfortably take them into the wide waters of the Bay for prime fishing. She’s designed so that a wheelchair-bound guest, from the moment he or she rolls through the transom gate, need not require help to access any part of the boat. This includes the head, located in what would typically be the boat’s V-berth. (The space is wide open for a wheelchair to move around in, and it’s accessed by an electric lift from the main salon/pilothouse.)
“From day one, it was never a case of build a boat and figure it out,” says Jim Gosnell, a member of the board that oversees the nonprofit organization Fish Redeemer, which supports the boat and its base of operation in St. Jerome’s Creek in Ridge, Maryland, which has a wheelchair-accessible waterfront house for overnight guests, as well as a wooded campground adjacent, also wheelchair accessible. “From day one it was to give people who had this need a chance to get out on the water and to keep their honor and dignity. It’s not always an easy thing to do. You want to make it really smooth. So there’s a lot of thought about how this boat was built.”
“A lot of people who haven’t been out on a boat tend to be a little nervous,” says Martin Hardy, the owner of Composite Yacht in Trappe, Maryland, the company that built Redeemer. The foundation “wanted this boat to feel very safe.”
In choosing Composite Yacht, the Fish Redeemer group found a team with boatbuilding chops that is led by someone who personally understands their driving purpose. Hardy’s 19-year-old daughter, Ava, has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair-bound.
“I was really psyched about it,” Hardy says. “I spend a lot of time building adaptive equipment for her. I’m all the time putting a handrail here or there, making life easier for her, so it was pretty cool for me to put stuff that I’ve learned through the years to work. I felt like I was the person for this job.”
For instance, he points out that the doorway into the salon is 36 inches wide. “I realize how beat up our doorways get, so the more space you can give the better. That’s why that head is so spacious. The ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] requires 5-foot diameter clear open turning room. To be able to do that in a boat this size is not an easy feat.”
Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Carlos Sivilla, the lead marine inspector for this project, says he believes that Redeemer is the first USCG-inspected small vessel certified for two power wheelchairs and a lift; the next largest vessel having such features would be 150 feet. While the USCG’s certification requirements for small vessels don’t address ADA guidelines, they were considered throughout the building and certification of Redeemer.
“It has been a privilege to be a part of the planning and certification process of this project,” Sivilla said in an email.
At first, the team considered building Redeemer off the Composite 46, which derives from the Markley 46 mold that Composite obtained 20 years ago. But it was quickly evident that the 46 wasn’t beamy enough to provide the stability needed, nor was its cockpit freeboard ample enough. After looking around the Chesapeake and elsewhere for another hull and finding none available (if builders had one, their production time was several years out), they decided to build their own. They designed it loosely off a Bay-built hull but added more flare and tumblehome than Bay boats typically have. The beam on a typical 46 is 13 feet, 9 inches.
“We carry a 16-foot beam for most of the length of Redeemer,” Hardy says. “That’s pretty hefty. This 46 is pretty flat in the stern, typical of Bay boats, but that helps make it real stable.” With props set in pockets, the boat draws 3.5 feet. It’s powered with twin 500-hp Cummins diesels located beneath the cabin sole to allow unimpeded wheelchair maneuverability in the cockpit and salon. (A typical deadrise features a large cockpit engine box.) Another key stability feature is the Seakeeper gyroscopic stabilizer under the cockpit floor that helps eliminate rolling.
The beaminess and wide-open cockpit also mean that, “It doesn’t look proportionately out of scale to have the raised floor that was also a Coast Guard requirement,” Hardy says. “For an inspected vessel, they wanted a 6-inch step up from the cockpit floor to the pilothouse floor. They allowed us to put a ramp in there rather than have a threshold.”
When the time came to lay out the interior, Hardy says the design went through a series of iterations. The lift was a critical element and also one of the most complex. From the start, the Coast Guard inspectors they were working with wouldn’t allow the term “elevator” due to certain safety issues.
“They didn’t know how to handle that exactly,” Hardy says. “They said, ‘Pick out what you think will work. We’ll review it and come up with recommendations.’’’ In the end, their only recommendation was to provide standby auxiliary power for the lift.
But the lift posed other issues. For one, none of the companies Hardy contacted felt comfortable putting their product into a 46-foot boat. He finally stumbled upon a small business in California, Mac’s Lifts, whose owner was thrilled with the idea of building a lift for a charter fishing boat. But he died before he completed the design; his team took it over and finished it for him. “I think Mac would be very proud of it, and it’s worked out so well,” Hardy says. “It’s like it was made for that boat.”
Cardboard mockups helped the team lay out the forward sections of the boat. At first, Hardy says, they considered a small cabin with a berth for someone to lie down in, “but when we finally laid it out, it just didn’t make sense.” Instead, the entire forward cabin is devoted to the head area, with a sink and vanity. For this to be ADA compliant and for a wheelchair-bound person’s legs to fit under the counter to access the sink, they had to modify the available plumbing drains. Just aft of the head on the same level, a few steps down from the
pilothouse and opposite the lift on the portside, is the galley.
Other features specific to the boat’s purpose are lower sills on the salon windows to provide unobstructed views for passengers in wheelchairs, bench seats on each side of the salon that can be folded up to provide maximum open space, and a Coast Guard-required gin pole arrangement that can be quickly deployed to lower a person into or back out of a life raft. Extra sound insulation is throughout so that people can easily converse underway.
“Part of the idea is to keep people comfortable in every way, so that they don’t need help with this or that,” Gosnell says. “It couldn’t be much more straightforward than that. It’s about the quiet of the water, and fishing, and wanting to help others. It’s just a great amount of freedom.”
Al Austin, a wounded Vietnam veteran who attended Redeemer’s christening and is wheelchair-bound, said he went rock fishing with the boat late last fall and found the experience “awesome.” “I was in a manual chair, and the boat’s so smooth I didn’t even have to lock the wheels,” he says. “It’s wide open. You can turn at any time. It’s incredible.”
There is another way in which Redeemer stands out, and that’s in her name. “It’s a faith-based boat. We can all feel redeemed in some way, mentally or physically. We’re doing a service to help folks who need a happy day,” Gosnell says. “Some of these folks may have grown up fishing and haven’t been able to do it for a long time.”
Late afternoon, with one keeper in the box and two undersized fish that were released, a reel sings. Lance Garms’ friends encourage him to come to the rail and take the rod in hand. He’s not able to hold it himself, so his friend Chris Hendershot puts his hands on top of Garms’ and helps him work the reel while another friend helps hold the rod, bringing in a healthy rockfish. The meaning of the moment is inescapable, as is the enthusiasm and love of this group of friends. The feelings here are as palpable as the warmth of the spring sun and the gently building sea breeze.
“This is so nice, and so necessary,” Garms says. He hopes that more people and organizations will see what Fish Redeemer has done and create more such opportunities, “because who can afford to convert or build a boat like this? It’s beyond an individual’s capability. I’m really grateful to them for doing this.”
This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.