An accessible pontoon for Danielle

June 2013 News Brady L. Kay

If you've been blessed in your life with a daughter, than you are fully aware of the great lengths a daddy will go to in an attempt to keep his little girl happy. Yes, sons play an important role as well, but there is just something about keeping our princess smiling that comes standard for most fathers.

So when Jeff Watts was faced with the decision to give up boating and sell his bass boat or find a better way to help keep his handicapped daughter enjoying the water, the decision was easy.

"We were determined to give Danielle as many experiences as possible and moving to the pontoon gave her that opportunity," says Jeff. "In my opinion, pontoons are the best option for the disabled water lover and one piece of advice that I could give is to choose a dealer that is used to dealing with handicapped clients. That worked well for us."

Jeff and his wife Vickie had met Ryan Gruver, the owner of Premier Motorsports in Wayland, Mich., at a boat show years ago and decided to talk to him when they got serious about buying a new pontoon. "Ryan has a sister that is handicapped so we knew at that point when we got ready to buy he would be someone out there that understood our needs," says Vickie. "Like everyone, we were out to find a deal and there were some great deals, but for our needs we couldn't find a show boat that would work so we went to Premier Motorsports."

The Michigan couple was up front and told the dealership they were looking for a boat to entertain and that they were also looking for a boat they could do a lot of fishing in. The boat that was recommended to them was a 25-foot Premier Escapade with a 10-foot wide beam.

Going For 10

"When he showed me the boat that was 10 feet wide I never entertained the idea that we'd go with," recalls Vickie. "But I told Jeff when we went back to look at it again, I told him this is the boat we need for our family and we ordered it."

The extra width compared to a standard 8-foot, 6-inch beam allows Danielle to sit between the helm and the table area without blocking seats for others, but of course the trade-off was they wouldn't be able to trailer it since towing would require a wide load permit. "One of the reasons we went with Premier was because they offer a 10-foot upgrade as a standard option," says Jeff. "Other manufacturers don't list the option, but I know most can build one for you. Frankly, I want a 10-foot boat from a manufacturer that builds them all the time."

A Fishing Fam

True to their desires, the Premier was designed and built with fishing in mind and included is a livewell in the bow as well as rod locker storage under the seats. But the added touch was the front bow seats that were repositioned so their daughter could do a full circle rotation in the reclining seat with the foot rest out to support her legs like her wheelchair does.

"She needs to be able to fish and swivel her chair all the way around because that's what she likes to do," says Vickie. "The first time for her in the bow seat she threw her line a third further because she now had that same support, but that meant we had to spend time getting her baits out of the trees."

The Extras

Besides all the fishing features, the Premier includes a raised helm stand, half-day cover as well as many great standard features. With a weakness for satellite radio, one thing Jeff insisted on was having satellite radio on the boat and he also wanted a Lowrance GPS built into the dash.

"This could possibly be our last boat so we wanted to get everything we wanted," explains Jeff. "We were willing to spend the money now to get what we wanted."

Another must for Jeff was power and he insisted on getting a large outboard that would take advantage of the performance options that Premier has to offer. The boats that Jeff had been looking at that he liked all had 225 hp outboards on them so he knew what kind of power he was looking for, but he wasn't sure which manufacture would work the best for him.

"The dealer recommended Mercury and said because of the super charged motor that I would bet a better hole shot, while the top-end speed would be the same," says Jeff. "So we got the Mercury Verado 225 and he was right, it has a wonderful hole shot."

On a GPS he's topped out at over 40 miles per hour before, but it's not all about speed. The Premier PTX package offers three pontoons with lifting strakes with two 25-inch diameter pontoons on the outside with a center tube that is 36 inches wide with a 12-inch flat planing surface on the inside. This setup explains why the boat turns like a v-hull model. Combine the performance with the Mercury digital throttle and you have one smooth performing pontoon that is ready for Hardy Lake.

Wild Ride

Hardy Lake/Muskegon River is about an hour and a half north of Kalamazoo, where the family lives. The lake is only a mile wide at its widest, but you can run 12 miles from dam-to-dam. It does get crowded during the summer.  Going from a bass boat to the 25- by 10-foot pontoon is something Jeff is still getting used to. But one thing he's happy to adjust to is the safety that he now feels, especially when the lake is busy. 

"On this river it gets so busy and the boats can be so large that the wakes are huge," says Vickie. "What happened with us on the other boat was Danielle was riding in the passenger seat holding on to a bar when we hit a big wave and she bounced up and sheered the pedestal seat when she half-landed on it. After this we felt the boat was not safe and we stopped going out on weekends and holidays. But since we got this, even during the busiest weekends, we feel safe because of the PTX package that just slices through the waves."

River Ridge Marina

The Premier pontoon is berthed at the River Ridge Marina, which is nearly the center of the lake. This give the family the option to go six miles in either direction, plus by having an outside slip they have a front row seat if they'd prefer to just relax and watch the other boats go by.

"We have decent fishing-small mouth, crappie, but the lake is known for walleye-and we've found the best fishing to be down river while we go up the river to relax."

For this family it's the combination of the right dealer and manufacturer, along with the facilities that make the biggest difference."One of the owners of River Ridge asked us what he could do to help from day one," says Vickie. "They were willing to help and that's so important and that has made a huge difference in our lives."

The family's fifth wheel is also located at the River Ridge RV Resort, which is associated with the marina. This park is only eight years old and everything is pretty much handicapped accessible, which is a why the Watts have no plans to look for other lakes in the future. 

"The sweet spot for us is the combination of an RV park on the water with all handicapped facilities," says Jeff. "It allows Danielle to function normally and get into a community of people that are very accepting of her. I can't comment enough on how fortunate we are to have both great management and a great community in such a great location."

Finding Your Own

In life there are very few one-size-fits-all solutions and the Watts family understands this. What works perfect for them might not be the best option for others. They encourage families in a similar situation to evaluate their needs and how they plan to use their boat when they begin their search. "Talk to your dealer and tell them what is most important to you," advises Vickie. "There are just so many combinations available for an accessible boat, but people need to know they can ask for that."

While it is highly unusual for people to find a dealer that also had a family member in a wheelchair like Jeff and Vickie were able to, they still feel it's important to find someone that understands your situation."What you can do is talk to your dealer and have them talk to someone about what is truly needed for a handicap accessible boat to fill your needs."

The Watts family is truly happy with their 10-foot wide Premier pontoon and the safety and security that it offers. And more importantly, Jeff is happy Danielle is able to continue fishing and enjoying life on the water. After all, it's a full time job for dads to keep their princesses happy.  

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