Harry Lewis had never been on a boat before.
Born with cerebral palsy, the Greenport resident has used a wheelchair most of his life. Few vessels are wheelchair accessible, and although he’s been on a ferry a few times, they were not necessarily wheelchair-friendly.
“The last time I was on a ferry was 2012 and the captain had told me, don’t worry, it’s all safely accessible,” Mr. Lewis said, laughing. The pitch of the ramp varied substantially, depending on the tide, and even though he’s “a pretty strong guy,” it still took five people to help him up the slope. He said to his niece at the time, “This is lovely, but I’d never be able to do it on my own.”
“But this,” he added, referring to Impossible Dream, a universally accessible 58-foot catamaran that docked in Greenport last week, “…is truly a universal design that can change people’s lives, to feel the air on their face and just dream and listen to the water and meet new people — you know, it’s great.”
Impossible Dream was conceptualized by Mike Brown, a paraplegic with dreams of sailing in a vessel that could be fully operated by a person in a wheelchair. He brought that dream to reality in 2002. Years later, the boat was purchased by Deborah Mellen, who — with Harry Horgan, founder of Shake-A-Leg Miami — founded the Impossible Dream nonprofit.
Now, since 2015, the catamaran spends every summer docking at harbors up and down the East Coast, operated by mixed-ability crew members — both volunteer and staff — along with a service dog. They offer free sailing trips for wheelchair users and people with other disabilities.
According to its website, Impossible Dream is “the world’s only catamaran built from the ground up to be universally accessible.” Both power and manual wheelchairs can operate comfortably on the boat, which includes a lift, extra handles and low countertops.
A jewelry designer from Woodstock, N.Y., Ms. Mellen commented on the beauty of the boat’s design. As it became more accessible, it “became more beautiful,” she said — nobody who has visited the catamaran “doesn’t think it’s just a beautiful boat and easy to drive and easy to live on.”
“My pet peeve is that, you know, people get angry if something has to be accessible because people build one way and then they add on,” she said. “They add on ugly ramps and lifts, and if you just think about universal design, design that works for everyone, it’s more beautiful design also.”
The Impossible Dream made its first trip from Greenport last Thursday, carrying four East End residents and their companions. The boat had docked in the marina at Mitchell Park last year, and though the pandemic meant it couldn’t host guests at the time, its crew members decided to come back in 2021.
“It’s great to meet other people with a spinal cord injury, or with any disability, and trade thoughts and ideas and tricks,” said Ms. Mellen, a wheelchair user who has a spinal cord injury. “That’s what this boat really does, it brings a community of people with disabilities together. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Other guests on the catamaran included Matt Raynor, a photographer from Hampton Bays, and Joe Lynch and Robert Profeta from Peconic Landing in Greenport. Amber Breese, who works in recreation at Peconic Landing and accompanied them, said she was so excited to hear about the boat, she almost cried.
“This is so important, to get them out on the water,” she said.
Mr. Lynch, a former Stony Brook physics teacher, used to scuba dive and Mr. Profeta, who was in the military, built his first boat at 18.
Mr. Lynch spent much of the two-hour trip on the net in front of the catamaran while Mr. Profeta sat in a chair at the prow, observing other boats and houses on Shelter Island — “reflect[ing] on life.”
“Once someone interviewed me and they asked me, ‘Why do people with disabilities need to go out on the water?’ And my answer is, everybody needs to get out on the water but people with disabilities don’t get the opportunity because nothing’s built for them,” Ms. Mellen said. “We all have the same needs. Just because we’re disabled doesn’t mean we don’t have the same needs.”
Mr. Lewis, who works in data entry at Suffolk County Community College, said Impossible Dream is “important” because “it shows you what can be done.”
He added that many of his friends have invited him on boats before, without realizing the logistics of getting his wheelchair aboard. The experience on the catamaran was “better than [he] imagined,” because it was such a seamless transition — something he was nervous about beforehand. But then again, he added, “everything’s a little scary when you first do it.”
Ms. Mellen said Impossible Dream will come back to Greenport next summer.
“We love it here,” she said. “We’ve met some wonderful people that want to help their community.”