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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

WHEELCHAIR-ACCESSIBLE CARIBBEAN CRUISING -- part 3



WHEELCHAIR-ACCESSIBLE CARIBBEAN CRUISING

By Steve Wright

Once you’ve studied the cruise literature, asked all of the questions about access and selected the ship and cruise just right for you, it’s smooth sailing, right? Not exactly.


Sometimes ships can pull right up dockside at a port. This means they simply fold down a gangplank -- which is like a giant ramp -- and you walk or roll down it onto the ground at your port of call in San Juan, St. Maarten, Nassau, Cozumel or wherever.

But some ports will not accommodate such large vessels, or the weather conditions will not allow docking.

In these cases, passengers going ashore must transfer from the ship -- often down a steep stairway -- onto a small tender, or boat. Passengers then ride the tender to the port, disembarking there.

Even for able-bodied folks, transferring from ship to tender is a bit tricky.

For wheelchair users, it typically means being carried in your chair by crew members down a stairway, and being lifted onto a little inaccessible boat bobbing like a small cork in a giant, churning sea.

Arrival in port means being lifted – wheelchair and all – from the tender to the dock. At the end of the day, you get to do it all over again when the process is reversed.

In all fairness, the cruise lines are becoming more aware of the difficulty of tendering for passengers with disabilities, and some are attempting to address it.

Cruise lines that care about their mobility-impaired passengers are creating ways for them to board tenders either directly from a platform or via an internal lift -- thus eliminating the need to descend an external stairway.

Some tenders are equipped with stair-climber devices that attach to a wheelchair, then safely allow chair and user to be moved up or down the steps in the tender.

You must first decide if shopping for emeralds on Grand Cayman or seeing St. Martin’s famous beaches is worth the hassle.

If you are a wheelchair user and decide to give it a go, it’s best to make the attempt in a lightweight manual chair and with an able-bodied companion to steady you and to run interference between you and the crew members who try to lift your chair by the (too easily) removable armrests.

TOMORROW: SHORE EXCURSIONS

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