Boating for people who use wheelchairs launches at Tampa Electric boat ramp

Dave Gondreau, left, his wife Melintha, with friends Brad (also a TECO retiree) and Catherine Marrow enjoy a day on Tampa Bay

Life for Dave Gondreau took a familiar turn the sunny day he rolled his wheelchair onto a boat and set out onto Tampa Bay.  

 Gondreau worked for Tampa Electric from 1984 until he retired in 2017. Fast-forward to 2022, and he was using a boat ramp owned by Tampa Electric at the Florida Conservation & Technology Center (FCTC), as part of a boating program for people with disabilities. FCTC is a campus next to Tampa Electric’s Big Bend power station in Apollo Beach and home to its popular Manatee Viewing Center.  

Gondreau, who has had quadraplegia since a diving accident at the age of 17, said it was a wonderful way to spend the day in the company of his wife and friends.

“It’s so nice to be on the water,” he said. “The breezes, the views…it’s glorious.” 

For people who use wheelchairs, it can be hard to find many opportunities for boat trips. That’s where Captain Thomas Griffin of Bird Dog Boats, and now in collaboration with Tampa Electric, are making a difference. Griffin’s nonprofit offers charter boat trips throughout Florida for people who use wheelchairs  and others with disabilities. His organization, coupled with Tampa Electric’s private and easily accessible boat ramp, is a winning combination.  

The boat ramp is normally used for research, summer camps and field trips at FCTC. But this year, Tampa Electric agreed to allow complimentary access for some of Griffin’s day trips.  

“The boat ramp is great,” Griffin said. “It’s so wonderful because of the privacy. Everyone can take their time and be safe. It can be hard for those who use wheelchairs to go to crowded public boat ramps.” 

 Gondreau couldn’t agree more. 

“The boat is really cool and super safe,” he said. “You just load in easy-peasy. It’s shaded, and it handles the waves very well.” 

Bird Dog Boats’ specially-designed accessible boat at the FCTC boat ramp

Griffin says about 80 percent of his outings are free, made possible by grants and other funding. The boat he uses at Tampa Electric’s boat ramp is specially-designed for people who use wheelchairs; everything is accessible, from the engine props to the helm controls and emergency equipment.  

As a retired ocean freight forwarder, Griffin wanted a way to give back to the community. His motivation stems from his experiences with his brother-in-law, who suffered a brain injury decades ago.  

“When someone is disabled, they really appreciate situations like this,” he said. It’s very meaningful.” 

For Stanley Kroh, Tampa Electric’s senior manager of land and stewardship programs, it’s a fantastic opportunity for people with disabilities to see Florida’s natural habitats in a safe and unhurried way.  

“For folks who don’t usually get the chance to go boating, the fact that they can do it on our property is just great,” he said. “The boaters have had some really special, memorable experiences out there.”  

The Big Bend power station brought back fond memories of Gondreau’s years in IT