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Newport Beach shows off new ‘human lift’ to improve access for disabled boaters

Bhumit Shah, a disabled boater, is lifted onto a power boat.
Bhumit Shah, a disabled boater, is lifted onto a power boat where he demonstrates a new body lift, a device to safely transport disabled boaters to and from boats at the Marina Park vessel dock.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Ann Marie Jones was trying to figure out how the lift worked.

Jones was familiar with pool lifts, which allow for disabled swimmers to move into a chair or sling and be lowered down into the water. But she wasn’t familiar with the contraption attached to the base of the gangway in Newport Beach’s Marina Park that city officials said was meant to help transport disabled boaters from land to sea.

The “human lift” is the first of its kind in Newport Harbor and is one of only a handful throughout Southern California. The lift utilizes a metal arm with an attached hybrid chair-sling that can transfer its users from the dock to an adjacent vessel over railing of up to 18" above the dock. It can be used for vessels such as a small sailboat, a small powerboat or kayak.

It can also lower and retrieve users down to the water level.

The lift is detachable and operated by the city’s harbor department. Residents or visitors interested in using the lift will need to contact the harbor department ahead of time, but it will be available to the public daily between the hours of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

City officials, accessibility advocates and boaters of all stripes looked on Thursday as the lift was demonstrated first with a city staff member, then with volunteer Bhumit Shah, who uses a wheelchair.

Bhumit Shah, a disabled boater, is lifted onto a power boat.
Bhumit Shah, a disabled boater, is lifted onto a power boat where he demonstrates a new body lift, a new device to safely transport disabled boaters to and from boats at the Marina Park vessel dock. The lift is available to the public on request between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. daily.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Mayor Kevin Muldoon said the new lift’s installation is the result of almost 10 months of work.

Muldoon said he and Christian Buhl, founder of California Inclusive Sailing, began discussing the possibility of installing a lift in a public location more than a year ago. After discussing with city staff about its feasibility, Muldoon introduced the item to his City Council colleagues in the fall, who then voted unanimously to support it.

The lift went through a couple of renditions, including one that had wheels, before staff and engineers settled on using a “peg” design to ensure safety, in addition to keeping the lift from rusting. Then came figuring out how to incorporate the use of the lift into an adaptive sailing program for disabled boaters, training staff in its use and installing the lift on the gangway in April.

The lift itself cost $3,000, but required special installation at a cost of about $5,000 — bringing the total cost to about $8,000.

“Christian and I were talking because Christian is an avid sailor and a true believer in providing access to boating,” said Muldoon. “He said, ‘Kevin, we have a problem. Some of these yacht clubs are having insurance problems. We can’t put a lift that will help individuals that have access restrictions on their property due to insurance. What do you think we could do as far as a public place?’

“I said, ‘Christian, I have the perfect place: our Marina Park.’”

Bhumit Shah, a disabled boater, is lifted onto a power boat.
Bhumit Shah, a disabled boater, was lowered onto a power boat as part of a demonstration for a new body lift installed in Marina Park. This is the first of its kind in Newport Beach and will increase accessibility to disabled boaters.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Buhl said that while immediate efforts took almost a full year, he and the organization he heads personally had been striving for the installation of such a public transfer lift for at least seven years. Before the installation of the ramp, Buhl and volunteers had to use a sling to help transport people from the dock to the boat.

Jones, a disabled boater herself, said the importance of the lift really came down to safety.

“Normally, what Christian and another gentleman does ... two men will pick me up off of [my wheelchair] and put me into the boat. Now, I’m little, but for somebody who’s a normal size like a guy, that gets really dangerous,” said Jones. “It’s dangerous for them because of their size and weight, but it’s also dangerous for the people lifting them. So for safety purposes, this is far, far better. Totally far better.”

Buhl described the day as “momentous” and said, “With the right team and the right tools at the right time, we can sail far.”

Bhumit Shah, a disabled boater, sits with Mayor Kevin Muldoon, from left, after demonstrating a lift.
Bhumit Shah, a disabled boater, sits with Mayor Kevin Muldoon, from left, as they ride back to the Marina Park dock after a short cruise in Newport Harbor.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

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