(Editor’s note: Typically, a journalist does not write about family members. This article includes an exception to that format.)
At Windmill Harbour Marina on the north end of Hilton Head Island, on a brisk and slightly overcast morning in March, five passengers and a captain stepped down from the dock onto the deck of a vessel moored there.
Another passenger for the day’s cruise rolled aboard.
With assistance from his mom (this writer), Chandler Hummell, seated in his manual wheelchair, rolled across a metal ramp from the dock onto to a teak platform attached to the stern of the vessel. The platform was then lowered by hydraulic scissor-lift, controlled by USCG certified Capt. Trey Snow.
Once the platform was secured and locked in place, Capt. Snow opened the aft doors and Hummell rolled onto the deck of the boat.
He was the first wheelchair passenger on the boat that was custom built to accommodate people with mobility challenges.
“It was so cool to be able to take my wheelchair into the middle of Skull Creek aboard Spirit,” said Hummell. “Usually, I’m just looking out from the shore.”
Hummell has a rare neuromuscular disease, Friedreich’s Ataxia, that affects his balance and his ability to walk. The disease affects only about 5,000 people in the United States.
Spirit, a beautifully appointed flat-bottom boat with an enclosed cabin, indoor and outdoor seating (fore and aft), a handicap accessible bathroom, and kitchenette, was conceived with love by owner Terry Brubaker. He had it custom-built so that his wife, Nancy, who is challenged by symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, could enjoy getting out on the water again.
Brubaker commissioned fabled New Zealand builder James Kerr and marine architect Matt Smith to design and build the vessel – the hull in Maine’s Brooklin Boat Yard and the interior in their Rhode Island workshop, a two-year process.
The Brubakers, longtime boating enthusiasts, had previously enjoyed cruising the waters around Hilton Head Island, where they live. As Nancy’s mobility declined, her ability to climb aboard their previous boat declined as well.
Now, on Spirit, the lift allows her to safely get aboard. A specially designed upholstered chair at the bridge lets her sit comfortably next to her captain in the climate-controlled cabin.
The couple has recently made the vessel publicly available for small groups to take tours of local waterways, starting this month.
History tours are narrated by Rich Thomas, an expert on the area’s history. On this March morning, he pointed out that “Everyone who ever came to Hilton Head Island prior to 1956 (when the bridge was built) had to come by boat.” Thus, he said, it makes sense to learn some of the area’s early history by boat as well.
Thomas pointed out spots on Pinckney Island where pirates are thought to have landed at their “careening point,” and where Native Americans had a trading post around 1708.
Thomas is knowledgeable about many aspects of Lowcountry history, from the Tuscarora scouts in the early 1700s to Union troops in 1861, from Native Americans to Native Islanders.
“The vision for these tours is to enlighten people, marveling about the history of Hilton Head, its long-term relationship with the water that surrounds it, and its treasured heritage,” Thomas said.
Voyages of discovery aboard Spirit, with an expert local historian and storyteller as the guide, offer a deep understanding of this unique viewpoint in a luxurious and comfortable setting.
The narrated history tours include the North Shores and Pinckney Island, or the South Shores and Daufuskie Island.
Spirit is also available for other types of cruises, whether an evening on the ocean watching sunset, a lunchtime Mackay Creek cruise with family, a ladies’ day out, or a number of other unique possibilities.
The flat bottom of the boat’s design allows it to cruise the shallows and estuaries, unlike most larger boats, so up-close nature tours are possible.
As good and generous neighbors, the Brubakers have donated tours to several local nonprofits to auction in their fundraisers. To date, the organizations include Hilton Head Humane Society, Parkinson’s Foundation and Memory Matters.
Tours are being offered for groups of up to six passengers, with a base price of $2,000 for a three-hour narrated tour. Individual tickets are not available.
Food and beverages are not included, but can be arranged for an additional fee.
Specific times and dates can be reserved but not guaranteed, due to tides and weather.
Currently, all tours depart from Pinckney Island Public Boat ramp. There is ample parking available and the dock is wheelchair accessible.
For information and to request a group tour, contact Terri Mooney at 603-387-8278 or firstname.lastname@example.org.