The Gemini catamaran Dream Catcher docked in front of CRAB's nearly-complete adaptive boating center. Photo: Steve Adams

Accessible Boating Org. Gets First Wheelchair-Ready Powerboat

Chesapeake Region Accessible Boating (CRAB) is known on the Chesapeake Bay and beyond for giving people with disabilities the chance to leave behind their limitations and sail on the open Bay, using specially adapted sailboats.

CRAB is preparing to open the doors of a first-of-its-kind Adaptive Boating Center in just a few weeks. But that’s not the only exciting new addition for 2023: CRAB has recently acquired its first powerboat.

The organization bought a Gemini Freestyle 399 Catamaran that is being modified to become an “adaptive catamaran” that will host guests (who can board right in their wheelchairs) during diverse outings on the Chesapeake Bay. 

“The Gemini is a very exciting boat to add to the CRAB fleet because of what it will mean for getting more people with disabilities and more kids from underserved communities on the water,” CRAB Executive Director Paul “Bo” Bollinger told Bay Bulletin. “The B in CRAB stands for boating and that’s not specific to sailing, so the Gemini will help us further our mission by providing a very comfortable, very safe platform for more guests to experience and enjoy the Chesapeake Bay.”

With over 140 square feet of open deck space and a hardtop to protect from the weather, the Gemini will allow up to five guests in wheelchairs (plus their family members or friends) to do much more than simply take a ride on the Bay. (And if wheelchair-accessible docks can be had on the Eastern Shore, it could even take trips across the Bay.)

Noting how smooth the ride was while traveling from Pier 7 Marina to CRAB’s dock on Back Creek in Annapolis on a very windy day, Bollinger lists fishing and crabbing, learning powerboating skills (potentially including the opportunity to earn a Maryland Boating Certificate), and even wakeboarding as additional future recreational opportunities supported by a boat that was originally designed for scuba diving excursions in the Gulf of Mexico. 

And Bollinger isn’t the only who’s excited for its newest vessel to start getting guests on the water.

“I can’t wait until the catamaran is ready to go!,” Matt Peeling, president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, Colonial Chapter (covering MD, DE, NJ and parts of PA) wrote on Facebook in response to the news. “We have a group of folks that love fishing and being on the water, but do not want to leave their chair. Thank you so much for making this addition!”

But Bollinger, CRAB’s fleet directors, and the various boat vendors they’re working with have lots of modifications to make before the Gemini is guest-ready.

“It’s easy to buy something but then, regardless of what type of boat it is, we have to make it accessible to our guests,” says Bollinger. He notes that while CRAB has been customizing boats for 32 years, its norm is to go above and beyond the ADA accessibility standards that are set by the Department of Justice’s U.S. Access Board. For example, they built an eight-foot wide dock at the new adaptive boating center, rather than the ADA-required three feet wide.

In addition to installing a 10-foot ramp with handrails that will allow people using wheelchairs to safely board and disembark from the boat, CRAB will work with Koons Ford Mobility to install tracks that will secure wheelchairs while underway and custom-made stanchions with lifelines to go on the stern. They will also install a GPS chart plotter; and Annapolis Gelcoat is cutting out part of the gunnel so that guests can board from both port and starboard. Finally, Bollinger hopes that an artist or designer will create a high-visibility design for the hulls that combines CRAB’s logo, a wheelchair, and a dreamcatcher (the boat’s given name is Dream Catcher, which CRAB intends to keep).

Why was now the time to add a powerboat to the CRAB fleet? Bollinger explains that adding a cruising vessel was a longtime notion. The organization considered a pontoon boat, but the often choppy Bay could create issues for safely boarding wheelchairs. Plus, demand for pontoon boats spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, making one hard to find.

So Bollinger jumped at the opportunity to purchase Dream Catcher, a boat that he first saw at the Annapolis Powerboat Show in 2020. CRAB was able to buy the boat at cost after Annapolis Yacht Sales owner Rob Tashoff connected CRAB to the CEO of Florida-based Gemini Catamarans and CRAB received a grant from the Meridien Foundation.

With the addition of Dream Catcher, CRAB’s fleet now includes six Beneteau First 22As (Adaptives); a Martin 16 with a servo motor, which allows sipping and puffing to control the sail and rudder; an Ohana canoe, consisting of two 30-foot, four-rower canoes connected by a beam; and two radio-controlled boats. And Bollinger is still hoping for at least one more: a J-105 that could be modified to enable guests to participate in Annapolis’s infamous Wednesday Night Races, perhaps with guests on Dream Catcher looking on.

The public can get a first look at Dream Catcher (and learn more about CRAB and its brand new adaptive boating center) at the Annapolis Spring Sailboat Show, taking place April 28-30 at City Dock in Annapolis.

-Steve Adams