OCALA — Florida’s 150 years of treating tourists to gushing springs, lolling manatees, curious fish and emerald grasses undulating in invisible currents is about to take a turn because of a chance remark.
In 2015, Paula Russo, a volunteer for the Florida State Parks Foundation, set up a table for a public event at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville. Russo, relying on a powered scooter because of childhood polio, was there to tout state park trails and paddling for people with disabilities.
“And this woman came rolling over in her manual wheelchair with children trailing along with her,” Russo said, recalling as many as five from about 5 to 12 years old. “She said something to the effect that ‘this is all very nice, but I took the kids over to Silver Springs to go out on a glass-bottom boat and I couldn’t get on the boat. It’s not accessible.’”
“What are you going to do about it?” the woman implored.
That challenge became a marathon for Russo, who will “beat my head until I get where I’m going or I’m bleeding” as an unyielding advocate for parks and people with disabilities.
Nearly six years in the making, Russo’s response to that woman in the wheelchair is taking shape. Emerging from yellow-green fumes of aluminum welding are the distinctive lines of a particular craft.
At the center and bottom of its 37-foot hull are two, rectangular openings, where nearly inch-thick panes of Coast Guard approved strength will be inserted for a window of crystalline clarity 4 feet wide and 16 feet long.
Yet to be launched, the glass-bottom boat already is endowed with reverence and with expectations for a vessel built in Florida by Floridians and meant for what the state is about: the world’s tourists, and especially those with disabilities.
Of scores of such boats plying Silver Springs since the 1800s, the one nearing completion at the St. Johns Ship Building shipyard near Palatka will present a flat deck, ample aisles and will be the first ever with dedicated, convenient access for wheelchairs.
It will cater to those who know exclusion and chagrin, Russo said.
“They won’t have to separate from a boyfriend, husband, sister or family, which often happens to people with disabilities,” Russo said. “They are left behind at the dock, which is what’s going on now. This boat is going to change all that.”
“No one has to call in advance and say ‘hey, I’m a cripple. Will you bring out your special boat?’” she said. “No, they will show up just like anybody else would. This boat will be in daily operation.”
The state possesses hundreds of remarkable, free-flowing springs. Silver Springs near Ocala, constituting a close-knit family of dozens of springs, drops jaws.
Until Florida cities began to pump water from the springs’ source, the underlying Floridan Aquifer, Silver Springs was the world’s largest, most powerful by flow. By comparison, the well-known Wekiwa, Rock, Blue, Ichetucknee, DeLeon and others are quaintly junior-size.
Where a lot of natural Florida is flat and subtly beautiful, the springs seen through boat bottoms strike visitors as dazzlingly three-dimensional, with glimpses of 10, 20 or 30 feet into liquid theater performed by schools of bass, bluegill, gar, bowfin, mullet and more.
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One of the state’s foremost springs researchers, Bob Knight, visited as a 5-year-old. Patrick Rose’s exploration during his youth propelled his path to serve as executive director of the Save the Manatee Club. Karen Chadwick cites being there as a toddler for why she is an eco-tourism guide and environmental activist fighting for Silver Springs.
“The springs were just fascinating,” Rose said, attributing his 1960s outing as a force in “why I became an aquatic biologist and why I’ve worked to protect springs in addition to manatees my whole professional life.”
Springs still holds wonder
Silver Springs has been diminished and darkened significantly by pollution, algae growth and a dam downstream but still conjures its original wonder.
The springs long had been the star of an amusement park, along with jungle cruises, exotic animals, shops and fleets of glass-bottom boats.
With the state’s takeover in 2013, the springs array became part of the Silver Springs State Park of more than 5,000 acres that encompass the springs and the river they create, the 4.5-mile-long Silver River.
The park reduced the glass-bottom fleet to eight, each a half-century old and refurbished, but, with steps down to seats by the glass bottom, deemed impossible to retrofit for wheelchairs.
The Florida park system, a four-time winner as the nation’s best, resorted to an apology for one of its most popular parks: “Unfortunately, we are unable to accommodate wheelchairs on board the Glass Bottom Boats due to the historic nature of the boats.”
Russo would be delayed in her mission to cure that deficiency.
“I had to take a break because unfortunately I came down with cancer and I had to be treated,” Russo said. “There was a good year or more where I did nothing about my idea.”
Russo and a park volunteer, Al Pendergrass, the “nuts-and-bolts” guy, would brainstorm over designs and funding.
Their first thought was an off-the-shelf pontoon boat — not stately but doable, they thought, until they were stymied by myriad rules that Russo has long fought for.
“When people ask me ‘have you thought about converting a pontoon boat,’ I say ‘have you read the American with Disabilities Act regulations,’” Pendergrass said.
The two embarked on a go-big-or-go-home journey. They commissioned a legitimate, glass-bottom vessel worthy of Silver Springs. It would have underwater lights for night tours, special electronics for hearing aids and capacity for underwater video cameras.
Funders were recruited: $200,000 from Florida State Park Foundation; $100,000 from the Ocala-based Felburn Foundation; $90,000 from the Delores Barr Weaver Legacy Fund; $20,000 from the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida; $10,000 from the Friends of Silver Springs; and $10,000 from Cape Leisure Corp., a concessionaire that operates the glass-bottom boats.
The state of Florida is contributing motors, batteries and electronics.
A designer was brought on. Steve Aprile, vice president of Lay, Pitman & Associates, a naval architectural firm in Neptune Beach near Jacksonville, said his company has drawn plans for Mississippi River casino boats, offshore workboats, ferries, tugs and others now from Maine to New Orleans.
As with tradition, the new craft was named after a Florida Native American leader: Betty Mae Tiger Jumper, the Seminole Tribe’s only woman chief, Chief Potackee, who died a decade ago.
The new boat’s propulsion system will be cutting-edge and the only of its sort approved by the Coast Guard, Aprile said.
The existing boats have 16 lead batteries weighing 400 pound each and located under seats. The new boat will carry four lithium batteries, like those powering electric cars, each weighing about 150 pounds and installed in the hull.
There will be a pair of electric, outboard motors, each with 20 horsepower, or much more than current boats. Top speed is estimated at 4 mph.
With aluminum skin 3/16ths of an inch thick, the boat will be light at 18,600 pounds and able to carry 30 passengers of an average of 185 pounds. Loaded, it will sink less than 12 inches, or a little more than a canoe.
The design honors the traditional look of Silver River glass-bottom boats, said Leif Detlefsen, the firm’s chief naval architect.
The sides of the cabin tilt outward to block glare on the glass bottom. There will be 14 portlights, or round windows 12 inches in diameter on each side and above square windows. The boat’s roof will rise nearly 9 feet above the water. There will be stadium-style seats and space to turn a wheelchair around.
“We’ve designed hundreds and hundreds of boats,” Detlefsen said. “This is our first glass-bottom boat.”
Building the boat
Construction began in June last year with the bottom of the hull, building it upside down until nearly complete, and then flipping it for fabrication of the passenger compartment.
The St. Johns Ship Building shipyard builds mostly ships. Small by comparison, the tour boat Chief Potackee is of “big-ship rules, big-ship qualifications and big-ship skills,” said Bob Amaral, the company’s production and scheduling superintendent.
“A boat like this, we would probably normally build in about two months,” Amaral said. “I bet you we are going to do this in probably six.”
St. Johns Ship Building has been in business for 14 years, but its shipyard location off the St. Johns River has been the site of waterborne industry since cypress logging in the 1800s. The builder runs two shifts daily with 130 workers, making a clamor with tools on steel and aluminum.
“I’m pretty new to the area, as I’m sure you can tell,” said Amaral of his accent etched by Massachusetts shipyards.
But one of key welders on the boat, Danielle Brinson, 28, born and raised in Gainesville, grew weary of restaurant jobs and went to welder’s school.
The boat’s thin, aluminum skin requires reduced voltage and a slower feed of welding wire. Her precision technique sounds like mashing potato chips and tearing paper at the same time.
“I have a lot of friends with children, some of them in wheelchairs,” Brinson said. “I’m proud to be part of this.”
Jeff Brown, 34, is a fitter, who cuts and bends aluminum. “I used to go to Silver Springs on field trips for school.” He has two children, 12 and 13, and plans to ride with them on the boat his gloved hands will know every inch of.
“I’ve been building boats since 1974,” Amaral said. “The customer gives you money, you build them a boat and they go away. To see how happy they are about this boat: they envisioned it, they funded it and to see Paula like a little kid, it energizes me.”
“I’m just hoping to God we break even on this because there’s no way we are going to make any money on it,” Amaral said. “We’ve had to do some very expensive details, making them from scratch because they don’t exist in a catalog. We want to give them a quality boat that we know is going to get a lot of attention.”
Within weeks, the boat’s aluminum skin will be coated Kelly green and trucked to Silver River and launched with a crane.
What captains think
Silver Springs boat captains are enthused, if uncertain about a high-tech, unproven boat.
Their work is rooted in the days of Silver Springs as an amusement park but now tied to service to the public at a state park. The result is a patter of hokey jokes and straightforward references to wildlife, spring flows and history.
If passengers jump overboard because of a rogue torpedo or pirates, said Capt. Robbie Morin over restrained laughter, “our highly trained team of rescue alligators will be dispatched to help.”
For Kaylene Sturgeon, her 2-year-old daughter and friend Jamie Sites from Kokomo, Indiana, a glass-bottom boat ride earlier this month was thrilling.
When the boat’s window paused over a sleeping manatee, they gasped, realizing how vividly they could view the animal. “Oh my gosh,” Sturgeon said. “He’s hairy,” Sites said. “Name this manatee Hairy.”
Under state management and until the pandemic, Silver Springs drew about 150,000 people annually to take a ride.
Russo now works for the Florida State Parks Foundation. She never learned the name of the person in the manual wheelchair she spoke with six years ago. But the woman’s frustration is widely shared.
On the day of Sturgeon’s tour, a New Jersey retiree who winters in Ocala, Dewitt Marsh, was steering his electric scooter along a Silver Springs State Park path. He had had a stroke a few years ago.
Marsh said he would definitely board the Chief Potackee.
“Unless you are handicapped, you really don’t know what handicapped means,” he said.
- Kevin Spear, Orlando Sentinel