Waypoint yacht charter ServiceS
By Scott Rains
In May 2008 the chartered yacht Sea Wolf cast off from Gustavus, a l a s k a , t o e x p l o r e G l a c i e r B ay w i t h s e v e n p a s s e n g e r s , m y s e l f i n c l u d e d . This small community—held together by a thin wooden hull as it passed between icebergs, fjord walls, and near beach-patrolling grizzlies—became its own ecosystem, and a sort of freedom machine for disabled and non-disabled alike. a trend in modern history led me there.
Parents once packed kids away in the back seat of the car with the family trailer in tow. Later, a generation retired to the road as RV nomads, while the romantically inclined rediscovered the rails. Meanwhile, cruising became king on itineraries such as alaska’s Inside Passage. Megaship floating resorts won young and old alike to the “unpack once and let the ports come to you” travel style, and the adoption of Universal Design—land-based design guidelines developed in the seventies by quadriplegic architect Ron Mace—and acceptance of its counterpart, the Waypoint-Backstrom Principles of human-centered maritime design, allowed seniors and others with disabilities to travel freely. yet a “small is beautiful” movement to minimize megaship anonymity and to maximize intimate ecological contact evolved among pioneers. naturalist Kimber Owen is one of them. She customized her 97-foot, wood-hulled WWII minesweeper, christened the Sea Wolf, to accommodate slow and non-walking passengers on all three decks. To do that she drew on the nautical technical expertise of paraplegic entrepreneurs like Mike Passo, owner of Elakah Expeditions, and partnered with the yacht broker industry’s only certified accessible travel specialist, Sherri Backstrom, who is also director and co-owner of Waypoint yacht Charter Services, which is based in Bellingham, Washington. Owen picked her crew with an eye for that “something extra.” In the end she has achieved something characteristic of this movement; full programmatic inclusion of people with differing abilities that goes beyond mere physical accessibility. Intentional, systematic social inclusion is the genius of this movement. Stories of magic and adventure often begin with a mysterious beckoning path, a magic bridge, or maybe a doorway of no return. The reader gets tipped off that something out of the ordinary is about to happen. In real-life encounters with profound transformation the props rarely give away the story beforehand, but the Sea Wolf gave me a few hints. My trek began with a slightly goofy-looking black dog bounding toward me down the boat’s ramp as I sat on the dock in my wheelchair. I felt more like I was entering a cartoon than what was to become something of a mythical odyssey, where seemingly simple questions get unexpected answers. Questions like “For a quadriplegic, is getting a new wheelchair closer to putting on new clothes or adding a new body part?” Maybe the dog’s name, Boo, should have been the first clue that the answers would be surprising. all human beings use tools to extend their capabilities. For someone like me, with a mobility impairment, equipment that allows for increased mobility can be seen as the aforementioned freedom machine. That equipment—along with the built environments and attitudes one encounters— represents real gateways to be negotiated on the path to participating in life as a full human being. Tools that equalize opportunities can take on the naturalness and intimacy of a limb over time. I had never thought of a boat in those terms before, though. We left from Gustavus, as I’ve mentioned, which is a small community located inside Glacier Bay national Park. Crystalline air and near-artic light surrounded us with spring-like alaskan weather on our departure. a week of clear skies and a hint of unseasonable warmth were an added bonus. Heading four hours up the bay, our first stop was the Reed Glacier. Glacier Bay is a place apart. Formed by the fastest receding glaciers in the world, this 60 mile-deep network of fjords in Southwest alaska
016 | January/February 2009
Aboard a 97-foot accessible vessel exploring Alaska’s Glacier Bay, the author ponders the meaning of inclusion and the guiding principles of Universal Design.
Whales breach, sea lions sun, otters entertain, porpoises taunt boats to go faster, and harbor seals shyly peek up once they’ve passed.
January/February 2009 | 017
At top, the harness used to hoist kayaks—and our author—from the ship’s deck where guests explore the shoreline in tandem boats, center. At bottom, the 97-foot World War II minesweeper Sea Wolf is retrofitted for accessibility.
literally did not exist when the first European explorers—led by Captain George Vancouver— passed by in 1794. Where seawater still sloshes under the calving tongues of glaciers, there is more to be revealed. The bay continues growing. Grizzlies and black bears prowl anxiously each summer, exploring the addition to their territory that comes with glacial retreat. Humans have two fundamentally different ways of being introduced to the primitive enclave that is Glacier Bay. approaching from the Pacific Ocean reveals an ecosystem of mature forests and a diversity of land and marine wildlife. Bears rule the land, while signs of native alaskan culture still linger in the woods. Offshore whales breach, sea lions sun, otters entertain, porpoises taunt boats to go faster, and harbor seals shyly peek up once they’ve passed. We were introduced through the opposite approach. We started at the barren end, where life scratches for a foothold on land. There, alien landscapes held frozen and scrubbed barren under up to a mile of ice emerge for a second life after hundreds of years. The birth of icebergs into the sea means the rebirth of that time-suspended glaciated land. The interdependence of it all is starkly apparent. Seabirds nested on the high fjord walls capture, and then predigest, nourishment for their chicks. as if following the same script, glaciers spew powdered and dissolved remnants of the walls themselves where they meet the sea and form teeming marine nurseries, nourishing the hungry new life gathered there. Here the near-freezing water is far too cold for sustained human contact, so the proper tool for participation in this “mountains-intothe-sea” encounter at the mouths of glaciers is a sea kayak. The same winch aboard the Sea Wolf that lowered the boats from their storage on the third deck to the water below “flew” me down to my own kayak. While the way I entered was not the same as those who could walk, the tool required for everyone’s kayak to enter the water was the same one that I used. The first of several “inversion of perspective” moments created by the ship’s singular environment occurred when I realized that the ladder down the side of the ship was a “special accommodation” for the walking guests. My needs, it seemed, were not really so “special” after all. as a quadriplegic with an unreliable grip, someone else needed to paddle, so a tandem kayak was the appropriate design for me. Through the wisdom of the Sea Wolf crew my paddle-wielding companion, Sarah Betcher, was also a young and perceptive naturalist.
Primary photography by Scott Rains
018 | January/February 2009
The following accessible motor and sailing vessels are available through Waypoint Yacht Charter Services for itineraries found around the world:
Argyll (motor vessel, or M/V): 153’ for 10 guests, five cabins. Caribbean, New England, and Bahamas. Kona Aggresor II (M/V): 80’ for 14 guests, six staterooms. Built in 1995, this dive boat explores the rugged, beautiful western coast of the island of Hawaii. La Reine Pedauque (M/V): 128’ for eight guests, four staterooms, including two accessible suites. Cruises the scenic Burgundy Canal in France. Savoir Faire (M/V): 132’ for 12 guests, six staterooms. Choose from seven itinerary choices in France, Belgium, or Holland. Sea Wolf (M/V): 97’ for 12 guests, six staterooms, including three that are fully accessible. Guest areas include a dining room, main viewing salon, and a covered aft viewing/dining deck. Seadream I & II (M/V): 344’ for 110 guests, with 55 staterooms. The ultimate private luxury yacht experience for corporate groups, family events, and reunions. Shannon Princess II (M/V): 106’ for 10 guests, five staterooms. Built in 2002, she cruises along the lower Shannon in Ireland. Islander (motor sailing vessel): 192’ for 10-12 guests, five staterooms. Luxury cruising at its best in the Mediterranean Lord Nelson (sailing vessel, or S/V): 137’ with eight wheelchair berths, individual bunks. Sails from various ports in England, Wales, Ireland, and Belgium. Solis Invictus (S/V): 43’ for six to eight guests, three to four venturetrav.com
staterooms. Dedicated to charter holidays for guests of all abilities. Tenacious (S/V): 164’ with eight wheelchair berths, individual bunks. Sails from various
ports in England, Wales, Ireland, and Belgium. Verity K (S/V): 35’ for five guests, three staterooms.
January/February 2009 | 019
I know people who swoon at the idea of being poled lazily in a gondola through the canals of Venice. not me. I am not a passive participant in the outdoors. I grew up hiking, skiing, camping, or eco-volunteering into the Cascade Mountains at least once a month throughout my youth. So it was a measure of Sarah’s skill that I could be satisfied contributing no physical effort to our kayak’s graceful forward motion while she explained the chemistry that colors glacial ice, the anatomy behind the unique sound of a surfacing Harbor seal’s breath, and how the vegetation on the land to either side of us broadcast the exact date when the glacier melted permanently, exposing a particular patch of land. I did make a contribution, however, and that was to be the person that the Titanic lacked; the man at the bow guiding our thin shared skin safely past razor-sharp icebergs. Once, when we were safely past a “tiny” piece of ice, we turned to watch it demonstrate the law of physics that keeps at least 90 percent of its mass below the surface… most of the time, at least. Behind us we watched as the backpack-sized protrusion of ice we’d just disturbed flipped on its axis, flailing sharp edges as it spun. In the process it exposed the submerged body, which was much larger than our boat. That lesson in survival through interdependence brought me back to the core of disability culture: We progress best when we acknowledge our personal lim-
itations and freely share—and draw from—our differing abilities. We progress best when practicing this interdependence. In fact, the event made its way into the current version of the Waypoint-Backstrom Principles (the complete document can be viewed on the Waypoint YCS Web site, which accompanies this article): Maritime practice traditionally assigns clearly-defined shipboard roles and responsibilities. Design assumptions follow. assumptions about the abilities (physical, mental, or sensory) of the idealized role-holder as they are designed into products, spaces, and practices may prove to be disastrous in emergency situations. In such cases the only person available to fulfill a lifesaving task may not share the ability set assumed in the design whether that is through temporary injury of the crew, or substitution of a child, elderly person, or person with a permanent disability. Designing for extraordinary conditions is a principle that accepts current evolving definitions of disability as the interaction between ability (functionality) and environment (design; social response to variety in human functionality). It “imagines” disability as a normal consequence of life and designs for it proactively. Inclusion is transformation of the world through imagination. Travel agents know that they sell dreams, not
020 | January/February 2009
Wildlife abounds in Alaskan waters.
tickets. They wrap destinations with imagination and invite customers to picture themselves there. architects know that built barriers are nothing but a failure to imagine users properly. The U.S. national Home Builders association knows that their industry’s fastest growth sector is rebuilding homes on the principles of Universal Design as homeowners “re-imagine” themselves aging in place. Robotic exoskeletons that respond to the wearer’s brain waves are available for rent in Japan, erasing differences between disability and superhuman strength. The manufacturer of the SeaLegs amphibious boat knows of one customer in new Zealand with limited mobility who heads straight to town in his boat to pick up his mail and do errands. nobody considers glasses or contacts a prosthetic device anymore, where a “difference” has simply become a part of life. Imagination applied to the world as we find it is making small intimate spaces—like a 97 foot-long community amid icebergs—the first in a new fleet. For me the most enduring moments on Glacier Bay were not seeing the mountain goat families with their kids, the roaming wolf pack, the golden sunset and green aurora Borealis, or the bears up close. The birthday parties, gourmet food, and shared slide shows remain vivid, but secondary. Halibut fishing, shoreside excursions by wave-tossed skiffs, and conversations over shared bottles of wine were enjoyable. The most enduring moments flowed directly from evidence of prior planning; the application of imagination to building a boat standing as concrete proof that all passengers were of equal worth. as the environment and crew wrapped itself around the three passengers with declared disabilities, those with hidden disabilities felt free to reveal themselves, and the circle of warmth, humor, and humanness grew. The tempo of communication changed. Priorities became more immediate and satisfying. Where I would usually experience frustration at the weakness of my gnarled, bony fingers, I saw someone else’s
equally disabled hands reach in and accomplish the task because they were marginally better; they possessed the right tool for the moment. In the end, the question still lingers: “Change of clothes, or change of limbs?” Maybe that’s part of the mystery of inclusion through Universal Design. Maybe the whole message is how fundamentally true it is that we are all part of one body, and we all succeed together.
January/February 2009 | 021