Adam Begley's Handicaptain Rising Again
A son's invention for his wheelchair-bound dad could help handicapped boaters
By Al Parker | July 6, 2019
It's been a little over a decade since Adam Begley launched a plan to build and market a device to aid boaters who need help making the sometimes tricky transfer from the dock to their boat.
Early in 2010, Begley was poised to sell the “Handicaptain,” which had already received glowing reviews and interest among buyers. It looked like the device's four-year journey to the marketplace was smooth sailing.
But a nasty legal storm within the Begley family raged for much of a decade, blowing the introduction of the Handicaptain off course.
It's been a bitter, expensive courtroom battle that has caused a deep rift in the family, according to 58-year-old Begley. With the legal case now settled, Begley, and his wife, Melissa, are determined to make the Handicaptain available to the boating public. He sees the potential for placing the devices on private docks, at marinas, at waterfront restaurants and other businesses.
“In the case of the Handicaptain, necessity was the Father of Invention, because of my Dad,” said Begley.
His father, Phil Begley, was executive vice president of Sara Lee’s Chef Pierre brand, and a longtime boater with two adjacent cottages across some 300-feet of frontage on Torch Lake. When Phil became wheelchair-bound, he was sometimes left sitting in a rocking chair on shore while the rest of the family went off boating.
“Dad had had heart attacks, and his mobility and balance were off,” said Begley. “He asked me to come up with a way to help get him into his boat.”
A self-described “MacGyver” type, Begley looked at a variety of hoists and pulleys that could lift heavy loads, but none were designed to move a person.
Thus began his four-year campaign to create the Handicaptain, an electrically powered hoist attached to a beam that is attached to an existing boat hoist structure. It swings over and back from the dock, over the boat so a user can operate it alone to gently and safely get into and out of the watercraft.
“Dad was tickled when he used it,” remembered Begley. “He was so impressed after using it.”
In order to secure a patent, Begley had to constantly upgrade his original prototype, including using more expensive medical-grade components instead of industrial-grade gear. The units sell for $7,000 and up, depending on the custom items the buyer selects.
The Handicaptain debuted at the Traverse City boat show in 2010, where Begley showed it to a number of wheelchair-bound boaters. He was optimistic that he had developed a product that would not only help his father but also other folks who love boating.
But just as the device heading into production, in August, 2010, 82-year-old Phil Begley passed away.
Soon after, the legal wrangling began between the grown Begley children, five sons and a daughter.
Phil had placed the Torch Lake cottages and property into a trust with very specific details on how it was to be treated, according to Begley.
“Dad had put the cottages into the trust,” said Begley. “He put in money to cover maintenance and taxes and specifically said the property was not to be sold, unless all six of us agreed. He loved Torch Lake and wanted his children and grandchildren to enjoy the property for years to come.”
But three of the Begley children filed suit to sell the property. After some legal wrangling, the court ruled that some language of the trust was “ambiguous” and to allow the sale, making a Traverse City bank the conservator and guardian of the property.
“They immediately began selling things,” said Begley. “I had to buy my Dad's '74 SeaRay boat for $6,000 and pay another $6,000 to have it removed to storage. We were ordered to turn over our keys (to the cottages) and had to ask the bank's permission to use the property.”
As the Begley kids squared off over the years, it caused divisions that still linger today, with some siblings choosing not to speak to others.
The ongoing legal fight became the focus of Begley's life, taking him away from further development of the Handicaptain. “It's been very stressful,” he said. “But you just keep going forward.”
The legal bills kept mounting and Begley, now facing health issues of his own, was forced to sell a duplex that he owned to pay fees and court costs. The case eventually went to the Michigan Court of Appeals in Lansing. After a series of motions and appeals that stretched out over years, in 2017 the court ruled that one of the cottages and 150 feet of Torch Lake frontage should be sold.
And soon after, the new owner tore down the former Begley cottage and built a new sprawling home on the site. “It's heart-wrenching,” said Begley. “They built a McMansion.”
With the legal wrangling over, Begley is now re-focused on getting the Handicaptain into the marketplace. But it took some soul-searching before deciding to invest more time and money into the project, which had been inspired by his father.
“We had to decide whether to cut bait or move forward,” said Begley. “We're moving forward. Last year, Melissa and I agreed to make this happen.”