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Accessible yacht aims to bring disabled back to water

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    Accessible yacht aims to bring disabled back to water

    Accessible yacht aims to bring disabled back to water

    Owner Gary W. Melton has offered free rides on his yacht to mobility-impaired and other individuals since 1994 through his non-profit organization Paradocks Inc. Photos by L. Todd Spencer / The Virginian-Pilot.

    By CAROLYN SHAPIRO, The Virginian-Pilot
    © July 9, 2002

    VIRGINIA BEACH -- Beatrice Thompson took delicate steps with her walker across the gangway of the Unlimited. She edged into the yacht's elevator, rode to the upper deck and headed straight for a seat at the railing.

    Midway through the two-hour ride around Broad Bay, the boat sped up. The breeze stiffened, blowing Thompson's brown bob back from her face. Her friends asked if she wanted to move to a more sheltered spot.

    ``No, no,'' she protested with a smile. ``It's not too much wind for me.''
    Not every luxury yacht could accommodate Thompson and her 65 fellow passengers, many of whom use wheelchairs or have trouble walking, but the 86-foot Unlimited was made for them.

    Gary W. Melton, who has used a wheelchair since a car accident in 1981 left him a paraplegic, designed the yacht. It has wide staircases, hallways and bathroom doors, plus the elevator and other amenities.

    Melton, 42, has offered free rides to mobility-impaired and other disabled individuals since 1994 through his nonprofit organization Paradocks Inc.

    His latest move is to solicit corporate sponsorship for Paradocks so he can expand the program, bring in volunteers and pay for a larger boat. Until now, Melton has run the program with money and staff from his other businesses.

    ``I really need some involvement from corporations to continue what I'm doing,'' he said.

    On a recent evening -- about four hours after the groups from Beth Sholom Sands apartments, Sentara Senior Community Care and Sentara Village Norfolk departed the Unlimited -- Melton welcomed another group, sponsored by TowneBank's Virginia Beach office. The bank's board members, managers and clients came to mingle, munch on shrimp cocktail, enjoy the scenery and hear a little about the Paradocks program during a similar two-hour ride between the Lesner Bridge and the Narrows near First Landing State Park.

    Morgan Davis, TowneBank's Virginia Beach president, organized the trip to pitch Paradocks to other local business leaders. He figured he could convince them of Paradocks' value by showing them the boat and passing out a few brochures as they leave.

    ``Seeing it makes it a lot different than just talking about it,'' Davis said.

    Melton hopes those business owners will pledge not only money but also their employees' time as volunteers. Ideally, they will take their support a step further, as Davis did, and sponsor Unlimited events to recruit more companies to the cause.

    The trips amount to ``a soft sell, where we leave them with the literature, but it's not like you're stuck in an Amway meeting,'' Melton said.

    TowneBank's charitable foundation already has contributed $10,000. Melton cannot take a contribution in exchange for welcoming a particular group of disabled passengers; that would classify the Unlimited as a commercial charter vessel and require him to make expensive upgrades to meet Coast Guard regulations.

    Instead, as owner of the Unlimited, he loans his time and the cost to run his personal boat to the nonprofit organization. Paradocks also has received support from Volvo Penta, the auto maker's marine engine division, which assisted with the Unlimited's engine design. Paul A. Galloway, owner of Long Bay Pointe Boating Resort in Virginia Beach, donates the dock space for the Unlimited, worth about $12,000 a year, he said.

    Galloway and Melton are partners in Intracoastal Yachts LLC, a year-old company that designs and customizes pleasure boats for mobility-impaired owners. The Unlimited, designed with a wheelchair-accessible console so Melton can drive the boat, is one of their first examples.

    Even the largest yachts usually squeeze their bathrooms into tiny spaces and connect multiple levels with narrow, steep stairways, ``and your shoulders touch both sides of the corridor,'' Galloway said.

    ``Nobody's thinking about the person that's 65 years old and has a bad knee,'' Galloway said. ``Boating becomes a hassle.''

    Gary W. Melton's 86-foot yacht, The Unlimited, is designed to be completely accessible for people who are mobility-impaired. The boating industry is losing aging baby boomers to motor homes because not enough vessels suit their needs, Melton said.

    As evidence of the growing number of disabled boaters, more and more organizations have sprung up in the past decade to cater to that niche, according to Steve Anderson, sailing administrator for Shake-A-Leg Inc., a nonprofit agency in Newport, R.I., that provides therapeutic activities for people with nervous system and spinal cord impairments.

    On the water, mobility-impaired people can forget their usual worries about
    uneven pavement or available ramps. ``It's the nature of boating,'' Anderson said. ``It levels the playing field.''

    As funding dwindles for recreational activities at centers catering to elderly and disabled people, Melton sees a growing need for Paradocks. Representatives of the homes who attended the recent Unlimited trip said many of their residents depend on Medicare, have limited spending money and cannot afford the cost of commercial boat tours in the area.

    Beatrice Thompson, 72, who has used a walker since her knees were replaced a couple of years ago, said she must worry about accessibility with every Beth Sholom Sands recreational trip and recently had to decline a tour that involved too much walking. Sentara Senior Community Care scrapped a visit to the Virginia Zoo after home officials saw potential problems with steep ramps there.

    The Unlimited presented no such problems, said Shelly Burgess, Beth Sholom's activity director.

    ``This is a trip that caters to people who are usually an afterthought,'' she said. ``They're No. 1 here. That's a great feeling to have in this day and age.''

    Melton was a boating enthusiast before his accident damaged his spinal cord. He beat the doctor's odds, recovering within six weeks, and returned to running his automotive conversion business.

    A relentless entrepreneur, he founded Paradapt Vehicle Services Inc. and Paradapt Equipment Services Inc., companies with locations in Richmond and Hampton that help mobility-impaired people modify the necessary aspects of their lives. A few years ago, he began working with a local Ford dealership to retrofit Windstar minivans for disabled drivers. He also takes wheelchair-bound people trap and skeet shooting.

    Accessibility, Melton said, often takes the form of ``nonprejudiced segregation.'' A wheelchair-bound person going to a movie or baseball game gets relegated to an undesirable space in the back of the theater or the corners of the stadium, while other patrons can choose their locations. At a nearby restaurant with outdoor tables, Melton has to stay inside because of the steps leading to the deck.

    ``Why can't I sit where I want to sit?'' he said. ``I want to have everybody integrated so everybody feels the same.''

    Hattie Farr, 72, has enjoyed getting out on a boat since riding the ferry between Norfolk and Portsmouth as a child. She has continued such trips, even after several ministrokes cost her the use of her left leg and put her in a wheelchair.

    ``I've always been a strong believer,'' she said, ``that all things are possible.''

    After the ride, Thompson said she would probably spend the rest of the day sleeping, still able to feel the breeze in her hair and the spray on her face.

    Thanks Seneca, nice article.

    I wonder if there are any similar outfits on the west coast?

    Onward and Upward!


      'unlimited' pics