With the shrill scream of power tools cutting through metal, three men toiled under a sweltering sun in recent days to bring to completion a 25-foot Triton boat, specifically designed for families with special needs.
The overhauled boat—months, if not a year, in the remaking—has been redesigned around the mobility requirements of wheelchairs and gurneys.
Named the “ICAN,” the vessel has been modified with heightened railings, an open floor plan, and wheelchair tie-downs. What makes the “ICAN” unique is its permanently mounted lift, which allows anyone who needs mobility assistance to be slowly lowered into and raised from the cooling waters of the Laguna Madre.
As they come out of the water, a hand shower is readily available to rinse off all the saltwater before they lift themselves back onto the boat. This is the only vessel of its kind in America with these features and for this purpose, its designers said.
“COVID caused a lot of the special-needs families that I was working with to just stop coming to our events,” said Shane Wilson, founder and CEO of South Padre Island-based national nonprofit Fishing’s Future, which brings families together through fishing instruction and events. “We developed an online Zoom curriculum that could teach them in the comfort and safety of their own home, and we’ve done hundreds of them, for everybody.
“And that was filling the niche, but I wasn’t able to get them out fishing.”
The ICAN will change that, Wilson said.
The project began after a chance encounter. Wilson was walking his dogs when he met former fishing captain Tim Lippoldt, and the two began talking about the difficulties people face with wheelchairs.
“Before Tim’s accident, he was a vibrant individual with a captain’s license. He grew up in Port Isabel and South Padre Island and spent most of his life on the water,” Wilson said. “He was part of the community, giving his time and expertise freely to all.”
However, six years ago Lippoldt was involved in an accident and his spinal cord was severely damaged, resulting in paraplegia with no ability to move or sense feelings in the lower parts of his body.
He now uses a wheelchair and has yet to captain a boat since.
Moments after meeting Lippoldt, Wilson told him he wanted to help.
“The idea just clicked,” Wilson said.
With the ICAN’s overhaul, Tim will be behind its captain’s wheel, having regained his captain’s license with Fishing Future’s help. Lippoldt will be able to captain ICAN cruises with the assistance of a qualified first mate, certified in water rescues and CPR.
He found the Triton boat on South Padre Island and redesigned it with Lippoldt in mind, relying on the help of Russell Davidson and Bill Hoenes, both retired engineers who live on South Padre Island.
The customizations have included moving the captain’s console forward for more wheelchair accessibility, reinforcing and clearing the deck of obstructions to wheelchairs, installing a powerful lift, and altering the angle of even the captain’s wheel.
The modifications have not come without pain. While installing the reinforced decking that would not be damaged by heavy wheelchairs, the team worked under a scorching sun. “Next thing you know, we have it all laid down, and Russell stands up and he has two almost bloody knees because it was so hot that day that his knees had blistered and he was so into what he was doing that he didn’t even know his knees had blistered and he had burned the skin off his knees,” Wilson said.
“But we got it on there, and got it on their straight.”
Wilson, Davidson and Hoenes brought Lippoldt to the new deck to inspect the improvements. Yet, the automatic lift had yet to be installed, and the three men had to lift Lippoldt and his chair up to the boat, which sat high on a trailer in Wilson’s yard.
“We put Tim back on the boat,” Wilson said. “Now everytime he got on and off the boat (before the lift was installed), he cannot feel his legs and cannot feel any pain. He’s getting banged up and that’s a problem.”
At least one of the visits required such exertion for Lippoldt that he was in pain for days, Wilson said.
Fortunately, Lippoldt’s inspections led to several improvements.
“This thing has been designed from the very ground floor, or from the deck up, with Tim on his wheelchair, and we listened to him, so that he could move around in it—because he’s spent the last six years in a wheelchair, and we haven’t. There were a lot of suggestions that came from him that we hadn’t even thought of because it’s not our world.”
Wilson’s nonprofit will be launching the boat with a dedication ceremony set for 11:30 a.m. Thursday at Jim’s Pier, 211 W. Swordfish Street on South Padre Island.
Fishing’s Future began in 2007 to strengthen family bonds and increase participation in fishing. Today, the organization has spread into 20 states, educating more than 1.1 million people and helping families connect through fishing.
The ICAN is part of Wilson’s latest dream to make South Padre Island the special needs sportfishing capital of Texas. It has gained support from the South Padre Island Economic Development Corporation, which provided the seed money, and from a grant from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Fishing’s Future will be able to provide all ICAN services free of charge to those who qualify.
“There are over 54 million individuals with special needs and each one has a person that cares for them, a total of 108 million people, about a third of the US population,” Wilson said. “If we can turn South Padre Island into a special needs fishing capital of Texas, more people would love to come here and fish.”
To venture out on the ICAN, a family must first take four 45-minute fishing educational skill zoom sessions and then travel to South Padre Island for a fishing experience of a lifetime. Registration is required for all zoom sessions and fishing trips.
Fishing’s Future intends to roll the ICAN boating program into other communities with support from corporate and private sponsors.
Fishing’s Future is a 501 c3 corporation and all donations are deductible. For more information, call Shane Wilson at (956) 238-9476 or visit www.fishingsfuture.org
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