Just Do It
When this owner decided to run and fish his battlewagon himself, nothing was going to stop him, not even muscular dystrophy.
Easygoing Virginian Steve Jones loves to chase big fish. He also has a hereditary and slowly progressing form of muscular dystrophy that severely limits his mobility, especially in his legs. And since boats don’t come rigged and ready to meet the obstacles for the physically challenged, he recently decided to purchase and retrofit one so that he could run the vessel himself, as well as fight and land tuna and billfish.
As we spoke, Jones was zipping across Florida in his modified truck on a business trip. He designed a lift allowing his electric scooter to store inside the truck bed. An avid hunter, he also built a turret-like contraption that is made of aluminum, can store in a suitcase, and enables him to quickly swivel and get a bead on birds while hunting. If that isn’t enough, he also created an elevator-like, pop-up seat for his truck in order to hunt deer. This 50-something outdoorsman just doesn’t take no for an answer. “I’ve always had a knack that if they didn’t make it, I’d design it, build it, and incorporate it myself,” Jones says confidently, adding “I’m not going to take my disability, quit, and go home.’
He talks to me with wide-eyed, childlike enthusiasm about how this boat project started just under two years ago during a late-summer fishing trip. Jones relates that while out on a friend’s 56 Viking, the crew caught and released 20 billfish in one day. This angler, a self-made and successful businessman, says that he was bitten hard by the offshore fishing bug that day and decided that he wanted to buy his own bluewater-capable boat.
Jones is a lifelong boater but had never owned anything larger than a runabout. He tells me that he was eyeing two potential routes: The first one leaned towards a one-level, mid-30-foot center console that would enable him to work around the whole boat without any raised obstacles. The second path would be a much longer and larger convertible. He chose the latter, and last spring purchased a 2005 52-foot Viking.
With the assistance of Viking’s mid-Atlantic dealer, Virginia’s Bluewater Yacht Sales, Jones says that he found a “pristine boat with low hours that was mostly cruised.” Bluewater’s Yachting Center crew was also instrumental in the design, manufacture, and installation of the upgrades onboard the boat now called Cuttin’ Up. The company’s vice president Earle Hall told me that the key for his staff to make this idea work was to simply listen to what was needed from the owner and then create a way to fulfill those needs.
Jones says he began by going over his battlewagon to identify the obstacles for him, the first of which was how to get from the dock to the deck. “I didn’t want to rely on someone picking me up,” he says. Although a floating dock would enable him to slide over the gunwale, fixed docks would not be so forgiving. His solution was to add a davit behind the flying-bridge helm station with a seated harness that could be operated via a wired lanyard.
To fit the davit, the rocket launcher piping on the flying bridge was cut and fitted with hinges on the starboard side, allowing it to swing out and give the davit room to drop, lift, and place Jones on the deck. Should he find the need to get around while he’s in port, his scooter would need to be onboard. So, the port side of the mezzanine was cut out to act as a storage area for it. Jones affectionately calls this spot the “dog house.”
Hydraulic and electric lifts have a featured role onboard Cuttin’ Up because Jones can’t lift his legs. He can, however, slide them from place to place on level ground. To create flush surfaces, a scissor lift was placed in the cockpit by the steps leading into the saloon. Jones simply steps on what looks like a hatch cover and presses a button on a palm-size remote control, and the hatch is raised level with the landing platform to the mezzanine and saloon door.
There are two elevator-like platforms, too. The first one is hydraulic and is attached to the completely revamped flying-bridge ladder. This one—operated with the same remote as the scissor lift—brings Jones up to the bridge where he can then take a step and slide into his Stidd electric helm chair, which can spin around, raise and lower eight inches, and also shift fore and aft eight inches. Jones happily recounts that while running the boat from this location last summer he spun his helm chair to face aft, hooked up a white marlin from a bridge rod, placed his legs on the davit, and successfully fought and landed the fish sans assistance.
A second, belt-driven electric elevator, activated by a key fob or push button, is found in the companionway and brings this owner to and from the accommodations area. In its off position, the carpet-covered aluminum platform rests in the companionway sole. Jones says the key was to make all of these modifications, which were done over a lightning-quick eight-week period, to appear as a natural part of the boat.
Jones’ proudest upgrade—the one that he calls “slick as a whistle”—involves the MSD. With the help of a plate that travels up and down the head’s wall, the toilet can rise up to 30 inches allowing for easy access on and off.
As impressive as these modifications are, it’s the intrepid nature of this man and what they allow him to do that are remarkable. So what did this owner do after getting back his revamped boat in August? He sat in that Stidd helm seat and headed for blue water as often as possible.
Jones and his fishing family, which includes his wife Debbie; sons Travis, Nicholas, Casey; and daughter Faith Victoria, managed to squeeze in five fishing trips before the offshore season ended. In total, the avid angling family caught one blue marlin, 38 white marlin, one sailfish, one wahoo, and numerous gaffer and bailer dolphinfish.
But Jones isn’t resting on his past achievements. This owner-operator angler has an eye on the future with a couple of cruising trips planned as well as some hard-core tournament fishing on the docket for this summer. And expect to see Jones in the cockpit’s Release fighting chair, which was modified by the manufacturer to allow the left-side armrest to swing out 90 degrees. This setup enables an angler to slide into and out of it. Jones was excited to note that this chair could even allow someone in a wheelchair to slide into it and fight a fish. Actually, the modified chair is an idea that all anglers could benefit from as it eases the process of getting around the protruding footrest.
This champion of making things happen also hopes to encourage those who are limited in their mobility to see that they can do as much as want to. A lot of the work done on Cuttin’ Up was created from scratch, but with this vessel’s modifications completed, there’s now a blueprint for other aspiring physically challenged boaters to make the on-the-water dream happen. Jones relayed the story of a friend whose son is physically limited and who always wanted to go offshore fishing, but didn’t have a boat equipped to handle it. “I can pick a person up in the harness, raise them all the way to the bridge, and set them in a helm chair,” he says, adding “And a kid that may never of had the opportunity to go fishing, now can. I know the need is out there.”
And if there’s a need, the chances are very good that Jones will find a way to fill it.
Bluewater Yacht Sales
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.