It’s an odd scenario, this Kiwi captain and his American wife, using all their savings and monthly paychecks to build a boat for injured U.S. military troops. They haven’t served in the military, nor do they have family who have served. They didn’t even really have a connection to the world of people who live in wheelchairs.
But for the past two years, that’s what they’ve done, sunk every spare moment and every spare dollar into building a 37-foot, custom-designed, off-center console, aluminum boat.
Putting the first of the finishing touches on it in early September, the Gregos looked back on the project and are proud of what’s nearly ready.
“I thought I knew a fair bit about boats,” Capt. Andrew Grego said. “Doing this from scratch is 10 times more than I expected it to be.”
It all started with a desire to build a boat.
“I talked Karen into letting me design a boat,” Grego said simply. After overseeing a $5 million refit on the 105-foot Palmer Johnson M/Y Banyan and working with naval architects the year before, he said he was attracted to the idea of building a boat himself. As a business? Maybe someday. But he had much to learn, so he started with one.
It had to be aluminum, so that the design could change as he learned more.
“With fiberglass, you’re restricted to the mold,” he said.
As he began, he used spare moments to sketch and research. In the summer of 2012, a charter guest on Banyan asked him about his designs. She had cancer and was going through chemotherapy.
“We were out in the Bahamas, perfect weather, great scenery,” Grego recalled. “For a little while, she didn’t think about being sick and she was having a blast.”
That got them thinking: What would it mean to others who are sick or injured, who don’t have the means to get out on a yacht like this, to just take off? This career, this lifestyle that they so enjoy, what would it mean to share that with others who are sick or injured? What would it mean to them to just be out on the water?
This charter guest has a cousin, Aaron Causey, who was injured in the fighting in Afghanistan, so they went to Walter Reed Hospital and visited with him and a few other men there. Once Grego told them what he was thinking of building a boat for people like them, they were enthusiastic and supportive. And his mind was made up.
“I made a promise to two guys,” a promise to take them out on his boat, Grego said. “If you could see them and what they have to deal with.” His voice trails off and he doesn’t elaborate, but the story of Sergeant First Class Aaron Causey is on the Blue Water Warriors web site: a double, above-the-knee amputee injured by a roadside bomb Sept. 7, 2011.
“I don’t have in me what it takes to do it,” Grego said. “If I woke up with both legs and an arm missing, I don’t know if I’d want to wake up.”
“It is not our injuries that hold us back,” Causey writes on the web site. “It is the lack of opportunities to surmount our disabilities. Give us an opportunity and we will be there to show that we are bigger than our wounds.”
So an opportunity he would give. What Grego learned from talking to those men was that they don’t want to be coddled. They want to be able to do everything themselves. No lifts to get onboard, no need for an aide to help them use the head. They want to be able to get aboard and move around unassisted. And they want to drive.
“They’re adrenalin junkies,” Grego said. “We can do a lift, but they don’t want that. They want to do it themselves.”
So the Gregos went back to Ft. Lauderdale after the charter summer of 2012 and got busy.
“Two things have to be right, the bow and the shear line,” Capt. Grego said. “It’s got to be aesthetically pleasing. We’re giving it a go. I don’t have all the answers; I’m just the bus driver.”
In the hours before and after work and on weekends, the Gregos have been able to patch together all the supplies and expertise they needed to build this boat.
The non-profit foundation Blue Water Warriors was born amid the aluminum shavings and the welding in the fall of 2012. It will someday own this boat, which technically still belongs to Vision, the boat building company the Gregos created to start this project.
And even though they have put all of themselves into building Warrior, they say they couldn’t have done it without the unending support of the yachting industry. Naval architect Justin Shell of ESS Yacht Design in Ft. Lauderdale fielded Grego’s calls at 2 in the morning when he wondered if a crazy idea would actually float. KPT Yacht and Ship helped with the welding and building of the hull. Lauderdale Marine Center gave them a spot in the yard to build it; Southern Cross built them an enclosure to keep it protected.
Boat Owner’s Warehouse (BOW) went “above and beyond”, Karen Grego said, to give support and donations of things like filters, tape, hardware, and anything else they needed, and the company reached out to all its suppliers to do the same.
Seakeeper donated a gyro stabilizer. KVH gave the satellite dome. Simrad donated all the electronics and Voyager Marine installed them. Ward’s Marine Electric is doing all the electrical.
Forty-five companies are listed on its web site (www.bluewaterwarriors.org) as having donated products, services or expertise to help get this first boat built.
“Blue Water Warriors offers a tremendous resource to help service members who put their lives on the line and have given so much for our country,” said Nat Bishop, president of Imtra, which provides marine products and systems. “We are honored to contribute to their effort and committed to support Blue Water Warriors with additional products as they build their fleet.”
Grego envisions a fleet of these vessels near the trauma hospitals where U.S. military go for treatment and rehabilitation. In his plans, they’ll be operated by volunteer charter yacht captains like himself.
“Nobody is taking a cent,” he said. “We’re all employed. I know it’s seen as a busman’s holiday, but how many of us wouldn’t love to get in another boat and go out and have fun?”
As anyone who works with boats knows, once the boat is built, that’s just half of it. Boats are expensive to run and tax-deductible donations are welcome through the foundation. Show Management has given Warrior a slip for the boat show this month where visitors can see the vessel and talk to the Gregos.
After a long road of visas and a green card, Andrew is now a U.S. citizen.
“I know what it takes to be here in this country,” he said. “To see these guys out defending a country that so many people want to be part of, the sacrifices they give up for the average American… And then to be injured like that. It’s the least I can do.”
Eventually, the Gregos hope this will be their exit strategy from the day-to-day duties of running a luxury yacht, keeping them engaged in the industry they love but letting them give back. Building this boat has been the passion that gets them up in the morning.
“I made a promise and I’m going to keep it,” Grego said. “And I do get something out of it: I have a design and I get to build a boat. I friggin’ love it.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com.