Nothing Keeps Him Down

Ex-firefighter seeks to take boating to everyone

April 2019 Feature

Tom Smurthwaite was once a firefighter in Rochester, N.Y. A backdraft explosion blew him down a set of stairs and crushed his back, giving him spinal nerve damage, and leaving him in constant pain. He’s unable to sit, and such an injury has limited many people to a life staring at the ceiling from a bed.

However, Smurthwaite is not like most people. He decided that his injuries would not keep him from doing the things he loved. With some help he designed—while his friends modified—two garden tractors, for doing yard chores. He also modified a station wagon so he could drive while in a prone position.

Smurthwaite lives near Lake Ontario in New York and became curious as to what it would take for him to start boating. His research led him to Custom Pontoon Boats and owner Jeff Collier. Collier had just completed a pontoon boat for a customer in a wheelchair, and had displayed the results on the company website (

“It was a great size, and the twin Lenco electric DC motors were perfect,” Smurthwaite said.

Tragically, the original owner of the boat passed away just a short while after Custom Pontoon Boats delivered the finished product. The late owner’s sister contacted Collier to see if anyone might be interested in buying the boat, and Collier immediately thought of Smurthwaite.

“Jeff asked if I wanted to buy it and have him make the changes I needed,” Smurthwaite said. “It was a little odd at first, but the sister had heard of my modified tractors and car and was hoping I’d buy the boat.”

Smurthwaite decided to purchase the boat, and Collier went to work on the modifications required for the former firefighter to get out on the lake.

A bridge on the waterway from his home to Lake Ontario requires that the whole boat be no higher than the top of the 25hp Mercury engine in the down position.

The in-deck area was already designed to accommodate someone who is disabled, so Collier added a platform for Smurthwaite to lie on while driving the boat.

The finished product is quite a sight. The low profile allows Smurthwaite access to Lake Ontario, while the twin Lenco electric DC motors are controlled by a joystick at the helm; the motors can propel the boat at 3.5 miles per hour and allow him to maneuver the boat at the dock like he’s in a car.

“You can turn on a dime,” Smurthwaite said.

The 25hp four-stroke Mercury gas engine can reach a top speed of 13 miles per hour. It is steered with a stick steer controller, so there is not a wheel at all on the boat.

Today, Smurthwaite enjoys motoring along Lake Ontario on calm sunny days, or just taking the pontoon out to the three-mile-long pond in his backyard.

Smurthwaite’s vision extends beyond himself; he hopes he can inspire others to follow his example.

“I’m just trying to get the idea of driving in the prone position out there, so if there’s anyone out there who doesn’t know this is possible, they can design it and run with it,” he said.

For more information on Custom Pontoon Boats, visit its website at or call 937-323-2770.

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