Photos by Tom Spencer
Many Miles To Go
Not even a debilitating disease can put the brakes on one man’s passion to get offshore.
Growing up in the rural countryside of central North Carolina, Perry Nichols spent most of his free time bass fishing and playing sports. He excelled at all of it—especially football and cranking in big ol’ bucket mouths. But as he entered his teenage years, his body seemed to slow down. His mind never wallowed, but his muscles began to let him down. After seeing many specialists, he was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease that erodes muscle strength and takes away movement.
Despite the callous grip of his disease, Nichols never stopped excelling. He built several successful businesses and owned a car dealership. He married a wonderful woman, Lisa. But when his hand strength weakened to the point that he couldn’t cast a fishing rod or turn the reel handle, he thought he was done chasing fish.
“I bass fished my whole life, all up and down the East Coast,” Nichols says. “My hands got too weak to really have much casting ability or reeling ability, so I sold my bass boats and gave away most of my stuff. I was out. I said, ‘I’m done.’”
Decades motored by, but like with most things in his life, Nichols was not done fishing just yet. While on a trip to Palm Beach in 2014, he bumped into Darrell Gwynn, a world champion drag racer who was paralyzed in a 1990 racing accident. Nichols, a car nut of the first order, had a small car racing outfit of his own, and the two men struck up a kinship.
“He said, ‘Hey you ought to come to my house and go fishing with me.’ I said, ‘I can’t go fishing,’” Perry recalls, as he was now confined to an electric wheelchair. “Darrell said, ‘I’ve got all the stuff. We can do it.’” Gwynn owned a pontoon boat that he had customized to accommodate his wheelchair. Using specialized reels, Nichols was able to fish, even though at this point his mobility was limited to his left arm, with a little bit of head and shoulder rotation.
Spending time on the water rekindled the spark in Nichols that ignited as a kid. “I was sold on it,” he says. Nichols, now 62, fished with Gwynn on and off for about a year. They chartered boats in the Florida Keys, but it wasn’t enough to whet Nichols’ appetite for the water. “I decided I wanted to build a boat, but I didn’t know where to start,” he says.
Knot Done Yet
Through a mutual friend, Nichols was introduced to Earle Hall of Bluewater Yacht Sales. Hall was no stranger to customizing boats for owners in wheelchairs. He and his team had transformed a 2005, 52-foot Viking called the Cuttin’ Up for Virginia-based owner/operator Steve Jones, who also has a form of muscular dystrophy. Jones, a self-made businessman, wanted a boat that he could run himself and fish with his family. Hall and his team installed a davit system that Jones used to get from the dock to the cockpit and up to the bridge. They put in lifts and elevators and widened companionways. They created a custom head with a toilet that raises and lowers. Up on the bridge, Jones ran the boat from a Stidd electric chair that can spin, raise up and down and slide fore and aft. While running the boat, Jones has been known to spin around and bait a marlin off the teaser with a bridge rod.
“I’m not going to take my disability, quit and go home. I’ve always had a knack that if they didn’t make it, I’d design it, build it and incorporate it myself,” Jones told Power & Motoryacht in a 2011 interview.
While Nichols’ muscular dystrophy is more progressed than Jones’ is, he would need similar work done to whatever boat he ended up with. So, he spoke with Hall on the phone, and the two hit it off. The next day, Hall drove five hours and showed up at Nichols’ office. They decided to search for a used sportfish in the 61- to 64-foot range. But Nichols had a goal in mind and a tight deadline: He wanted to fish the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, held every June in Morehead City, North Carolina. They made a few offers on boats, but things fell through. Then, Hall spotted a 64-foot Viking at the 2017 Miami boat show that had been taken in on trade. It was a 2008 ex-demo boat with good bones. Nichols told Hall to buy it on the spot.
“Perry’s goal in life at that point was to fish the Big Rock,” Hall says. “We bought the boat in February and got it to our facility in Virginia the first of March. We had our work cut out to be done by June.” They started immediately.
With Bluewater engineer Brian Motter managing the project, they took the stock Viking and turned it into a custom vessel. Nichols wanted to stay on the boat—he’s not one to get a room when traveling—so it had to fufill a lot of needs. First order of business was installing a davit on a big pole in the cockpit to get Nichols and his 500-pound chair onto the boat and up to the bridge. The salon door was widened, and they built a removable ramp to access the cabin. They removed a dinette to free up space for the wheelchair in the salon, installed a scissor lift so Nichols could get from the salon to the master stateroom, raised the head 8 inches and wired the cockpit to accommodate the custom electric reels Nichols uses. The final step, and perhaps the most impactful, was placing the boat’s name on the transom. It fit perfectly: Knot Done Yet. They managed to get all of that accomplished in time to fish the Big Rock. Nichols achieved his dream, but there was still one big project left: the install of a
“We completed all of the handicap modifications inside the boat and literally got everything done the week before the Big Rock,” says Nichols’ captain, Mark Rogers. They fished the tournament then headed back to the yard to install the Seakeeper. That project involved cutting the back deck out and part of the fuel tank off. They had to build two new stringers, a bulkhead, a new rudder shelf and glass the back of the fuel tank. They then mounted the Seakeeper and put a new deck on top of it. It was a two-month project, but they finished in time to fish the Virginia Beach Billfish Tournament.
“I love competition of any kind. I want to win more than anybody,” Nichols says, but he also loves the camaraderie on the docks. “It’s really a small group of people that you always see in the same places, like a traveling circus. There are always a lot of characters.”
One of the people Nichols met was Pat Healey, CEO of Viking Yachts, who heard about the boat and wanted to see the work Bluewater had completed. Healey was impressed: “He said, ‘Next time you do this, I want to be involved,’” Nichols says.
Nichols did not stay idle. He fished up and down the East Coast with his family and friends. They spent a 30-day stretch at Chub Cay in the Bahamas and fished nearly every day. “I didn’t get off the boat but 10 times in 30 days,” Nichols says. By all accounts, Nichols loved his 64, but space was getting tight. Between a captain and a mate, and his two lifelong friends, Keith Jones and Derek Simmons, who travel with Nichols and attend to his needs, they were outgrowing the boat.
“It really came down to the room,” Rogers says.
After all of the alterations to the 64, the boat only had two staterooms and three beds. That meant guests had to sleep on couches and the mate was stuck sawing logs on an air mattress after busting his butt in the cockpit all day. It was time to call Healey.
“By going to the 72, even changing the design a bit to make it more functionable, we went to seven beds,” Rogers says. “Everyone got their own room. There’s plenty of room for guests, and no more couch riders.”
They also got a major boost in power. Nichols likes speed, so he opted for a pair of MTU 16V2000s with 2,635 ponies a piece. She’ll do 46 knots in the corner, and Nichols gets a kick out of passing other boats. Unlike his previous boat, all of the alterations Nichols needed on the 72 were done at the Viking facility, and again, he set a hard deadline of early June so he wouldn’t miss the Big Rock. “Initially I didn’t want to build anything new because I knew it would take two years or more, but Pat gave me a spot and had it finished in about eight months,” Nichols says, and that was despite the pandemic. The team at Viking went above and beyond, altering the layout, customizing the head, installing lifts and elevators and incorporating a similar davit system that Nichols used on his previous boat. Nichols took delivery of the boat and high-tailed it to North Carolina to fish the Big Rock. Turns out the the boat raises fish—Nichols released a white marlin and a 300-pound blue!
Going into a new build also provided the opportunity to make some improvements over the 64. The first item to address was the entry way. The ramp they had used for the salon entry on the 64 was long and cumbersome. There was no good place to store it; it blocked the drink box, and it made accessing the ice dump and other in-deck hatches a pain.
“One of biggest things I enjoy on the new boat is the scissor lift in the cockpit that did away with the ramp,” Rogers says. “The steps slide out, Perry drives over the platform and it lifts him up to the height of the drink box, and he can wheel right into the salon. Most people don’t even notice it until we use it.” That’s the key: All of the alterations are hardly noticeable, but the craftsmanship and engineering behind each item required a lot of thought and design. For that scissor lift to work, Viking had to put a notch in a fuel tank to make room for the lift to sit in.
To get Nichols up on the bridge, Viking cut the belly band on the aft flybridge in half and placed hinges on either side so it opens like a gate. The davit raises Nichols up and places him on the bridge deck. On calm days and river cruises, Nichols enjoys the view from up top, with the enclosure open and the wind on his face.
“I don’t know what it is, but I just love being on the boat,” Nichols says. “Any time I get feeling bad at home, I get to the boat and everything is okay. If we catch a fish, that’s good. If we sit at the dock and watch it rain all day, that’s okay, too.”
But don’t be fooled—Nichols wants to catch fish. When the crew is fishing offshore, he never leaves his spot in the left corner with his hand resting on the controls of the reel, waiting for a bite.
“The reel has a switch on it for retrieve and deploy,” Hall says. “He can take his arm and drag it to freespool and drop back to the fish. He found a way to be successful. To witness it really takes your breath away.”
His friends successfully petitioned the big tournaments on the East Coast to let him fish with his electric reels, which is a no-no for able-bodied anglers, and Nichols is out there just like everyone else. Even in nasty weather.
“I stay on deck the whole time,” he says, though rain and saltwater don’t mix well with electric wheelchairs. “I’m not afraid of a little rough weather. Sometimes we get back and someone will ask how was the weather and I say ‘I guess it was okay,’ and they say ‘You’re crazy. We were all over place!’ I just never noticed it. I look at my line and block all that out.”
With the new boat in his possession, there was only one person Nichols wanted to own the 64—Steve Jones, the owner of Cuttin’ Up. He and Nichols had gotten to know each other, and they worked out a deal. Word on the dock is Jones is enjoying the larger vessel and spent all summer hitting the rip.
There’ve been many great days on Knot Done Yet, with double-
digit releases of white marlin, swordfish over 400 pounds and big yellowfin hitting the deck. In just a few years fishing the tournaments, Nichols has made a lasting impression on just about everyone he’s met. It’s inspiring to see someone go to such lengths to be out on the water doing what they love.
“We were sitting in Morehead City last year, and this man comes over and says to Perry, ‘My son has muscular dystrophy, and I never dreamed he could go offshore,’” recalls Hall. “‘You made us believe he can do it.’”