ISLAMORADA CHARTER BOAT OPERATOR MAKES BOATING ACCESSIBLE TO THE DISABLED

Capt. Mick Nealey and Ken Ostebo take staff from the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce on a trip through Florida Bay to introduce them to their nonprofit, Active Disabled Americans. KELLIE BUTLER FARRELL/Keys Weekly

Charter boat Captain Mick Nealey is all too familiar with the daily struggles confronting people living with disabilities. Nealey requires two crutches to get around, the result of contracting polio when he was 2 years old. 

“I realized that because of the polio, sooner or later I’m going to wind up in a chair, so I don’t want to get left stuck at the dock either,” said Nealey, explaining why he started offering inclusive and adaptive charters 30 years ago.

Two years ago, Nealey teamed up with Ken Ostebo. Ostebo is the executive director of the nonprofit, Active Disabled Americans. Nealey’s 28-foot pontoon charter boat, named Unbound, is wheelchair accessible and even equipped with a special lift designed to get people in and out of the water.

The charter is based out of World Wide Sportsman Bayside Marina in Islamorada. “They have supported everything that we’ve done,” said Ostebo of Bass Pro Shops-World Wide Sportsman management.

The charters have been life-changing for customers with limited mobility and a godsend for their caregivers. “For me, almost every trip is tear-filled at the end of each trip,” said Ostebo of the emotional feeling he gets from watching disabled charter guests enjoying everything Florida Bay has to offer.

Now Nealey and Ostebo are working to bring this moving experience to more people.

“Ken is actually helping me grow this thing. We want to expand, get another boat, make it available to more people with disabilities, show them what they can do getting out on the water,” said Nealey. Currently Nealey runs one charter a day and vows to never leave anyone behind. “If you can’t afford it, I’ll find a sponsor,” he said.

Getting the word out about their business included a recent evening excursion for the entire staff of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce.

“I think it’s fabulous,” said Judy Hull, executive director of the Islamorada Chamber. “They can handle someone with disabilities or someone in a wheelchair; even a power wheelchair that’s very heavy, they can accommodate it,” she added.

During the outing, Nealey brought the chamber staff members through the picturesque Horseshoe Key bird sanctuary in Florida Bay. The rookery was teeming with a variety of bird species, including magnificent frigatebirds and some very elegant egrets. 

“I think this is an amazing experience, especially the inclusivity of it all, because a lot of people with these challenges can’t get out to the reefs and snorkel and people don’t realize that there is so much life in these rookeries, these mangrove islands and these seagrass beds,” said Aileen Black, membership coordinator for the Islamorada Chamber.

Chamber employee Jack Ruvo was also impressed with what Nealey and Ostebo have managed to accomplish. Ruvo is known around town as Diamond Jack, of Diamond Jack’s Smoked Fish Dip. He is a double amputee, having lost part of his legs to complications from diabetes.

“Well actually I think it’s a wonderful thing because having a disadvantage – I prefer that to disability – to be able to take advantage of what we can avail ourselves to here in the Keys, I think it’s wonderful. I’m glad to see it,” said Ruvo.

In July, Nealey and Ostebo began offering free Sunday morning charters from 8 to 11 a.m. that feature keynote speakers. “The idea is to engage the community, whether you’re disabled or not disabled, the first 10 people that get to us, we’ll take them out,” said Ostebo.

Nealey and Ostebo also plan to join forces with the marine industry’s Brunswick Corporation on Sept. 10 to promote All Blue Planet Day. The event is aimed at expanding opportunities to experience and share in the restorative power of water.

More information about their mission and charters, including the free Sunday morning trips, is at activedisabledamericans.org.

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Kellie Butler Farrell is a journalist who calls Islamorada home. Kellie spent two decades in television news and also taught journalism at Barry University in Miami and Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. She loves being outside, whether spending time on the water or zipping down the Old Highway on her electric bike, Kellie is always soaking up the island lifestyle. Kellie and her husband own an electric bike rental company, Keys Ebikes.