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Now he’s steady as she goes

Necessity, or passion for fishing, was the mother of invention

A former NASA engineer and Marine Corps pilot refused to let a disability ground him.

Severe back problems left Jeff Thompson having to crawl around the deck of his boat during fishing excursions. In 2010, the Indianapolis man underwent a nine-hour surgery that replaced six discs in his back. After about a year of rehab, the 61-year-old could walk again.

But he was just as concerned about being able to fish again – from a vertical position.

“I can only walk a limited distance and I can only sit a limited time,” said Thompson, who served during the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War. “Now that I can walk, I wanted to do something for other vets.”

He is the designer of EPCO Products Inc.’s Fish ’n Rail, a security and support railing system for boats that allows those with disabilities to engage in their pastime. Stainless-steel framing permits them to hoist and steady themselves aboard boat decks.

Depending on the type of boat and the extent of railing needed, prices can range from $500 to $2,000.

The product is on display during the four-day Fort Wayne Boat Show & Sale that kicked off Thursday at Memorial Coliseum. The 32nd annual event features more than 60 exhibitors, including 20 marine dealers from Indiana and Michigan. At least 10,000 people are expected to attend the show.

Thompson hopes the Fish ’n Rail exhibit encourages anglers with disabilities.

“They shouldn’t have to give up something they love,” he said.

Dwight Creger agrees. He is a sales manager with EPCO Products. While Thompson’s story is inspiring, his invention is just as motivational, Creger said.

“With the veterans coming back from the (Middle East) with disabilities, many of them want to begin careers as professional fishermen,” he said. “Some just want to get back on the water. The Fish ’n Rail system will allow them to do that.”

Thompson said he is glad he could put his NASA engineering experience to use.

“After what I went through, I wanted to do something that could help other people like me,” he said.

If you go

What: Fort Wayne Boat Show
& Sale
When: 3 to 9 p.m. today, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Memorial Coliseum
Cost: $6 adults, children 12 and younger free
Parking: $4

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