Shore Beach Service personnel Ralph Wagner, center, and Alan Reece, right, lay a Mobi-Mat to provide wheelchair access to Coligny Beach on Hilton Head Island, as residents and other personnel look on. Disabled residents tested the mat Friday.
-Thomas J. Turney/Carolina Morning News

Deputy Town Manager Chuck Hoelle would like individuals to provide feedback about the beach mat set up at Coligny Beach Park. He can be contacted through the Town Hall switchboard, 341-4600, or his e-mail link on the town's Web site, www.ci.hilton-head-island.sc.us.
Beach mat hits ground rolling at Coligny

HILTON HEAD ISLAND: Pilot project brings wheelchair access to sandy Atlantic shore.

By Frank Morris
Carolina Morning News

Wet from rain but happy, four physically disabled men using wheelchairs and

electric strollers called the Friday afternoon test run of a beach mat a success.

The men, ages 24 to 87, accepted an open invitation from town of Hilton Head Island officials to watch the 2 p.m. rollout of the white matting at Coligny Beach Park and then put their wheels to it for a trial run.

"It's a killer. Awesome," said Jason Davis, the youngest of the group, after taking his electrically powered wheelchair on several test runs during a light rain.

The Ridgeland resident said he'll be coming back during the busier summer beach season "to enjoy the scenery."

He is quadriplegic and took the day off work to participate in the trial and support Bart Brophy of Hilton Head, who heads the Access Disability Action Center and spearheaded requests which led to the project.

Brophy, 42, is also quadriplegic and uses an electric wheelchair. He paired with Davis to take trips up and down the 164-foot length of the 4.5-foot-wide matting. Called Mobi-Mat and manufactured in France, the woven polyester material is ridged and has a hard surface.

It stretched from the end of the wooden boardwalk ramp to about 10 feet from the water line around high tide. Once near the water, Davis and Brophy made runs going about 100 yards along the shoreline.

Joining them for test rides were Clif Hogge and Channing Heiss. Hogge is the Disability Action Center's treasurer and Heiss is its secretary. A woman with a toddler in a stroller also used the mat.

Hogge, the eldest and a resident of a The Cypress retirement community, said the matting will allow him to spend next week on the beach with two grandchildren, ages 4 and 8, coming from Iowa for a visit.

He went down the mat on his red, motorized scooter. Hogge said that nerve damage has required him to use a wheelchair for 20 years. He said he loves the beach and has usually gone to the Folly Field Beach Park, where "I park on the boardwalk unless someone shoves me" across the sand.

Now he'll head for Coligny, the town's south-island beach park off Coligny Circle. "I think a great number will use it once they know its here,"he said.

Heavy rain earlier in the day threatened to postpone the pilot project, which is designed to help people in wheelchairs get across soft sand between the boardwalk ramp and the hard-packed sand in the ocean's tidal area.

But the precipitation slackened to a drizzle by test time and Deputy Town Manager Chuck Hoelle decided to forge ahead.

Mary Boyles of Ridgeland, who came to cheer on Davis, her son, said: "Some people say the angels are crying, and that can be good."

The Town Council in May directed the town staff to order a beach mat for a six-month pilot project, with funding from the town's 2 percent beach preservation fee on overnight lodging. The decision followed the council's January denial of the Access Disability Action Center's request for a $29,207 beach access grant from state accommodations tax receipts.

The contract cost was $13,936, counting delivery charges and $7,500 that had to be prepaid to Deschamps of La Couronne, France, before production. The vendor, Lowcountry Mobility of Beaufort, received the contract award in July. Delivery took months longer than anticipated.

Hoelle, the town staff point man for the project, said that the mat would be kept in place around the clock, barring unforeseen difficulties, for at least the six-month trial period until mid-March. He said he would brief the council at its 4 p.m. Tuesday meeting and recommend expanding the pilot period to a year.

"I think it's working," Hoelle said at the end of Friday's demonstration. He added that recent rains and high tides had packed a much broader area of sand than normal, so the true test of the matting will come later. A small section of a different type of matting tried Saturday was deemed unacceptable.

The State Department of Natural Resources's sea turtle coordinator, biologist Sally Murphy, has asked that the mat be rolled up each night from May through August to protect turtle nesting. Hoelle said he planned to ask her to come inspect the matting and consider allowing it to be left out continuously.

Shore Beach Service, the town's beach operations franchisee, has agreed to oversee use of the mats and roll them up at night when necessary.

Hoelle said that beach erosion caused by recent tropical storms reduced the width of soft-sand area landward of the tide line so much that just two of the three rolls of 88-foot-long beach mat sections were used.

It took two Shore Beach Service officials, President Ralph Wagner and General Manager Alan Reece, 35 minutes to roll out the mats and fasten them to the beach with 26 "U"-shaped stakes. They hammered the 18-inch long stakes along the edges of the matting at about 6-foot intervals.

After the test runs in his manually-operated wheelchair, an invigorated Heiss, 37, of Port Royal Plantation said he enjoyed watching the white-capped waves Friday. He said he would like visits even more next May through July, when the beach will be crowded with sun worshippers.

"Come next spring, we're going to have a very good time," said Heiss, who has spina bifida. "When the weather warms up, everybody comes out like gangbusters, and we wanted to be a part of it."

Without the matting to support his wheelchair across the sand, "I would have made it about two feet," he said.

"This has made the virtually impossible possible," Heiss said. "It's all about everybody being able to enjoy the opportunities that this area provides. Nobody should be excluded from this, and now they aren't."