The crew on captain Graham Hooper’s 46-foot Bertram sportfishing yacht caught two blackfin tuna, two schoolie dolphin, and a couple bonitos during the Grove Slam! Tournament held a few weeks ago in Miami. They tended trolling lines, told jokes, gaffed fish, drank a couple beers and enjoyed themselves as much as the rest of the fleet did that day.
But unlike the members of the other 116 crews that fished the Slam, Hooper is a quadriplegic, and so are anglers Chris Hickox and John Beauregard. First mate Merritt Matheson is legally blind.
Their boat, the Matrix — soon to be renamed the Lucky Dog — may be the only fishing charterboat around that is operated by a disabled crew for disabled clients.
“Right now, I want to focus on getting veterans and disabled people out fishing,” Hooper said. “Or if there’s a person that just needs a boat ride and they’re disabled, I’m all about this.”
Hooper, 40, of South Miami is a veteran captain who led international fishing and diving expeditions before becoming paralyzed from the chest down in an auto accident ten years ago. Recovering, he was forced to re-learn basic tasks such as eating and driving.
“You’re basically like an infant,” he said. “How am I going to reinvent my life so I can do things again? It’s a slow learning curve.”
With the help of friends, Hooper settled into his new life. About two months ago, he launched the Hold Fast Foundation (WeHoldFast.org) which bought the Matrix, and registered as a non-profit with the state. The boat is based at Shake-A-Leg Miami on Biscayne Bay, the region’s headquarters for accessible boating. One of the foundation’s donors suggested Lucky Dog as the boat’s new name.
The Matrix’s previous owner installed a davit to hoist the skipper from his wheelchair to the fly bridge since he can’t climb a ladder. Hooper relocated the throttles to operate them with his right hand since his left hand has less function. Wheelchair users use a ramp to board the boat, and the cockpit is large enough for two.
Hooper says his younger brother Logan serves as “my hands and feet and everything else.”
During the Grove Slam, Hooper motored the boat out to a color change in about 120 feet of water off Miami Beach while Matheson rigged two fishing lines on each of the two outriggers plus two flat lines — all baited with live pilchards and threadfin herring.
Since Matheson can’t see more than a foot away, he said he sets the lines by counting.
“Eight seconds from one wave to the next,” he explained. “I’ll put the line on the first wave, then I’ll count to eight to get to the second. Then I’ll put the riggers out on the seventh or eighth wave. I tie the knots from memory.”
Helping out on the deck were Matheson’s cousin Austin Matheson and fellow crew members Otto Foerster and Chad Burkley.
Hickox, who became a quadriplegic four years ago when he fell off a swamp buggy, caught two schoolie dolphin and a bonito. Burkley steadied him in his wheelchair as he fought the fish.
Beauregard, who has been in a wheelchair since a 1984 construction accident, caught both blackfins. He wears a harness to help him hold the fishing rod. The Miami man owns a 17-foot Chris Craft that he has made wheelchair accessible and says he often catches and releases tarpon in Biscayne Bay. When he’s not fishing, he travels internationally to perform as a wheelchair dancer.
Foerster, who is able-bodied, said he began hanging out with Beauregard and Hooper after his cousin Woody Beckham became paralyzed while playing rugby three years ago. Foerster said he wanted to learn what it is like to be in a wheelchair. These days, he says, he doesn’t even notice his friends’ chairs.
Foerster, a Miami insurance salesman, helped form the Woody Foundation in his cousin’s name to raise money for programs “enhancing the life of someone in a chair”, he said, such as Hooper’s new charter fishing venture.
Hooper says that since his accident he has encountered some wheelchair users who delay taking measures to become more independent, believing a cure for paralysis is right around the bend.
“But I like living in the here-and-now,” Hooper said. “You could be sitting around 20 years waiting for a cure.”
So he intends to keep fishing, and introducing disabled anglers to the sport.