Custom boat gets family back on water

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A 21-foot NovaScotian-builtCapeIsland Trawler is rigged with a portside door for wheelchair access

A 21-foot NovaScotian-builtCapeIsland Trawler is rigged with a portside door for wheelchair access

Gary Forehand is a boatman.

Retired now in North Carolina, Forehand likes to go out on Core Sound with his wife Deborra and son Daniel. They fish for sea trout and red drum, visit islands and anchor off the beach at Cape Lookout – activities they couldn’t do together until they found a boat they could customize to bring a wheelchair aboard.

Danny, 32, has muscular dystrophy. He has been in a wheelchair since he was 10 years old.

“Danny loves the sea, as do I,” says Forehand, 56, an electronics technician who retired from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2006.

Forehand’s Retro 21 Cape Island Trawler, named Simply Messing, has been designed with a door amidship on the port side so that Danny can roll on and off the boat in his wheelchair at the Forehands’ dock on Cove Sound in Marshallberg, N.C.

“It’s real steady,” says Danny. “It’s a great boat. I don’t have to tie down the chair or anything.” He could if he had to: The cockpit is fitted with stainless steel pop-ups that can be used to tie the wheelchair down with nylon straps. “We haven’t actually had to use them, the boat is so wide and so stable,” Forehand says.

The 21-footer, based on a 100-year-old Nova ScotiaCapeIsland fishboat design, is an adaptation of a workboat built by Southwest Fiberglass Products Ltd., of Nova Scotia. “[Southwest] has been building these boats for 20 years. They’ve been building them as pleasure boats since 2002 or 2003,” says Mitch Sorbera, partner in Retro Marine, of Salem, Mass., which sells the boats for Southwest.

Forehand says the boat gives him everything he needs to accommodate Danny’s wheelchair: roomy cockpit, stable, beamy (8 feet, 6 inches) hull, shallow 9-inch draft for cruising the sound, pilothouse, cuddy cabin below and a fuel-efficient 70-hp Suzuki four-stroke outboard that gives him a cruising speed of 10 knots and top speed of 20 knots to outrun a thunderstorm, in a pinch.

Custom features include the side door and deck tie-downs, extended hardtop that keeps Danny out of the sun, and special windows at just the right height so that he can see out from his wheelchair when he is in the pilothouse.

The Forehands keep Simply Messing on a lift at the dock behind their home. The dock is less than a foot above the boat’s deck, so Danny can roll down the dock onto a ramp and board the boat through its side door while it’s on the lift. Though the lift’s maker doesn’t advise it, the Forehands lower the boat to the water and lift it back up with Danny in it, using a lift that is designed to handle 7,000 pounds – more than twice Simply Messing’s weight.

“We’ve been interested in boats for all of our lives,” says Forehand, who worked at Miami’s air traffic control tower for many years. “We used to go canoeing in the Everglades when the children were little. We did quite a bit of that – us and the alligators.” Danny would sit down in the bottom of the canoe.

Forehand, who put in four years with the Coast Guard as a Loran C technician, also is an avid shoalwater sailor. He sailed a Cape Dory 14 on Biscayne Bay and later a 21-foot Dovekie, a shoal-draft, double-ended sharpie designed by Phil Bolger and built by Edey & Duff, of Mattapoisett, Mass. Designed with a sprit rig and leeboards on either side of the hull, it was a challenging boat to sail in a wind, but it drew just six inches of draft. Forehand used to sail it on Chesapeake Bay and on overnight cruises to the Eastern Shore.

He says he likes the Retro, in part because it also is ideal for gunkholing.

“We can get to the edges of the marshy lowlands where the waterbirds are and there’s all this stuff to see and do, if you like that sort of thing,” he says. “We do.”

Danny is a longtime aficionado of pirate lore, and around Cape Lookout, OcracokeIsland and Beaufort Inlet (where Blackbeard’s flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, ran aground) they are in the midst of the famous pirate’s old haunts.

Together on Simply Messing the family can take in some history, do some boating, see birds, catch fish – and help maintain Danny’s quality of life.

Though technically retired, Deborra and Gary Forehand remain “busy with life,” both on the water and caring for Danny and Danny’s 94-year-old granddad. “We’re retired, but we’re not ready to kick back and put our feet up – yet,” Forehand says.