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Boat Overload? Chicago River Traffic Like ‘The Wild West,’ Users Say

As more and more people use the Chicago River for recreation, safety concerns rise.

Kayakers drift into the center of the Chicago River, creating a potentially dangerous situation with approaching boats. [Block Club Chicago/Alisa Hauser]
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DOWNTOWN — The Chicago River, once an ignored and unloved part of the city, is now a bustling waterway.

But as kayak and electric-powered boat rentals surge in the Chicago River along Downtown’s scenic Riverwalk, so do the potential dangers in what Mayor Rahm Emanuel has called “the next great recreational frontier.”

On the first Saturday in May — warm, sunny and nary a cloud, the kind of weather that makes people who choose to live in Chicago remember why — the river was hopping. More than 50 kayakers, most on guided tours but also a handful of solo paddlers of varying skill levels, navigated near first-time captains powering pontoons. Tour boats and water taxis shared the waterway with yachts headed to slips in Lake Michigan harbors to start the season.

Assessing the crowded scene, Chicago Police Dept. Marine Unit officer Mark Walsh, who’s spent 17 years patrolling the waters, said, “The river has shrunk.”

Space for everyone who wants to enjoy the river’s main branch between Franklin Street and Lake Shore Drive shrinks every season. In 2013, the congestion was alarming enough to prompt the formation of the Chicago Harbor Safety Committee, a group of more than 70 stakeholders such as tour boat operators, barge captains, kayak vendors and rowing club leaders who put competitive interests aside to discuss ways to get along on the water.

“It’s not if somebody gets killed, it’s when,” said Susan Urbas, a rower, Chicago Harbor Safety Committee chairwoman and co-founder of the Chicago River Rowing & Paddling Center. “Either we learn how to self regulate, or we’re going to get it from the top down and no one’s going to like that.”

In a 2017 National Transportation Safety Board report, investigators conducted observations on commercial tour boats in San Francisco, San Diego and Chicago during peak times. They concluded that Chicago, in contrast to other ports, has “unique risks involving interactions between recreational and commercial vessels because of the limited area in which vessels can maneuver.”

The study described the Chicago River’s growth of kayaks (referred to as human-powered craft in MarineSpeak) as “exponential.”

Michelle Woods, the city’s project manager for concessions on the Riverwalkand Downtown Docks, said traffic and congestion on the waterways are always a concern as the river becomes an attractive destination. She expects kayaking to continue to grow.

“Kayaking has grown exponentially each year that I’ve worked along the Chicago River [since 2002]. Traffic on the river has definitely increased and like our city streets, provided that users are following the rules and respectful, it should be manageable,” Woods said.

Walsh, his patrol partner Officer Marcus Buenrostro and Chicago Police Marine Unit Sgt. Eddie Beltran get a front row view of the river while cruising along the waters in a police boat.

Just as they’d do if they were in a squad car on a roadway, they look for safety violations and respond to calls for service.

l-r: Chicago Police Marine Unit Sgt. Eddie Beltran, Officer Mark Walsh and Officer Marcus Buenrostro on the river. [Block Club Chicago/Alisa Hauser]

“You have a crowded waterway with inexperienced kayakers or boaters, you’re going to have some issues. We definitely want to get the word out and educate, give basic pointers and point out the hazards, what to do, what not to do,” Beltran said.

Educating could mean pulling up near a pair of kayakersand telling them to “stay to the right.”

“Like a city road, kayaks are the bicycles, tour boats are buses and smaller recreational vessels are the cars. All slower vessels should stay to the right, otherwise they’re just a navigation hazard,” Beltran said.

If a tour boat is docking, a kayaker should wait for it to dock instead of try to go around it, the sergeant said. “If a big semi truck was going to parallel park, you wouldn’t get close, you’d give them a wide berth.”

Educating also means reminding boaters of the city’s no wake ordinanceprohibiting fast speeds that could create a disruptive wake for others, or pointing kayakers to signs warning of outflow, typically under bridges. Similar to a water jet, the outflow can push a kayaker into the center of the channel.

Kayak tours have guides in the front and back and are much less of an issue than solo paddlers, Beltran said.

“Novice people with no idea will rest right in the center of the channel. Boats don’t stop on a dime. They always have that forward momentum, and if kayakers get in the way of a vessel, they could get hit,” Beltran said.

There have been no recent major accidents or fatalities involving kayakers, rowers and boaters in the river’s main branch, though many river enthusiasts fear it’s a matter of time.

“The only reason there hasn’t been an injury on the river before is because of luck. That’s the condition we are in, not because we are good, just because we are lucky,” said Mark Carroll, a rower and founder of The Rowing Group.

Jenn Junk, founder of Recovery on Water, a nonprofit group that teaches rowing to breast cancer survivors, described the increasingly congested main branch as, “a little like the Wild West.”

Recovery on Water’s teams usually row in the South Branch of the river and avoid the busier main branch. In the South Branch, industrial barges as large as football fields can’t stop easily, so barge captains communicate by radio with rowing teams to avoid any collisions.

“The barges don’t want to run into us, just like we don’t want to run into them. I don’t think the average kayakers has that [thought],” Junk said. “There are people who hop off a kayak dock and don’t understand safety. It’s not like getting on the highway, where you need a driver’s license and have to take a course. It’s dangerous; you mess up, you put someone else’s life in danger.”

Junk emphasized that the potential dangers on the water extend beyond kayakers.

“It’s not just kayakers, you don’t need a license to rent an electric boat. Imagine if they did that with cars: let them drink while they drive and put them on the road with very little direction. There’s not a whole lot of rules and not a whole lot of enforcement. The Marine Police do the best they can,” Junk said.

Though electric-powered boat rental companies allow alcohol on board and everyone on the boat with the exception of the driver can imbibe, veteran waterway users say they’ve seen designated drivers drink behind the wheel.

In a series of detailed safety recommendations published in 2016, Chicago Harbor Safety Committee members suggest a limit to the amount of beer that passengers can consume on an hourly rental boat (2 beers per person per hour and ⅓ a bottle of wine per hour), and they want designated drivers to wear a bright orange wristband.

The group’s recommendations, which also ask for a cap of 24 kayakers on guided tours and a vessel to leader/guide ratio of 6:1, have not been put into law.

Cmdr. Zeita Merchant with the U.S. Coast Guard, which oversees the federal waterway in partnership with police, fire and Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources Conservation Corp officers and along with those groups plays an advisory role to the committee, says the Chicago Harbor Safety Committee “does a great job with self regulating.”

The Chicago Cycleboat debuts on Thursday. [Chicago Cycleboat website]

This season will bring the city’s first electric “cycleboat” to the river through Riverwalk vendor Chicago Electric Boat Company under a new arm of its business, Chicago Cycleboats.

Ron Silvia, owner of Chicago Electric Boat Company and Downtown Docks, said that the cycleboat will open to renters this Thursday in conjunction with the Riverwalk’s season kickoff.

The BYOB Cycleboat offers seven types of cruises , including private and public options. It seats 14–16 people (10 can pedal at once; there is an electric motor to assist if needed) and rides are 90-minutes long. Tickets start at $25/person for a public cruise and go up to $700 for a private cruise.

When asked if the U.S. Coast Guard has considered asking for a cap on the number of licenses for waterway businesses like boat rentals or limiting numbers of tours, Merchant said, “While we cannot mandate the city to limit the number of licenses for waterway businesses, we do review and approve or disapprove projects and events to ensure a safe, secure, efficient and environmentally sound waterways system.”

Novice Boaters Alarm Veteran Captains

Captains for Wendella Boats, a long-running Chicago tour boat company, say they see unsafe behaviors every day.

“We have seen people jump off a boat for a swim, boats cut across our bow or stop in the middle of the channel. We see a great deal of distracted boaters taking selfies or chatting on their phone while behind the wheel. We’ve also seen renters driving a boat while drinking alcohol or even intoxicated. Wendella crews have rescued dozens of individuals in distress; overturned kayaks and people in the water,” said Michael Borgstrom, president of Wendella Boats.

When potentially dangerous behavior is spotted, Borgstrom says a captain will take appropriate action depending upon the situation.

“There is a whistle signal which can be used by the captain, however, when the person receiving the signal doesn’t know the rules, the whistle signal means nothing to them. They may think we are saying ‘hello’ when we are blowing a danger signal,” Borgstrom said.

Since the river is a federal waterway, a patchwork of groups from various agencies work together to patrol it and respond to calls of distress, including the U.S. Coast Guard, Marine & Helicopter Units from the Chicago Police and Fire Departments and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“All of those [patrols] do a great job and are available to assist when needed however, they have a huge area of water to cover and may not have the resources available at a specific time and location,” Borgstrom said.

Wendella has implemented a number of changes to navigate the traffic, such as hiring more crew members to act as look-outs during peak times and installing video cameras on all vessels to better see smaller human-powered and hourly rental craft.

A tour boat and kayakers on the river. [Block Club Chicago/Alisa Hauser]

Adam Chernoff, general manager of Wateriders Kayaks, 500 N. Kingsbury St., also sees dangerous situations as he’s guiding kayak tours.

“A pontoon will turn around in the middle of the river and a tour boat has to slam on the brakes. The pontoon boats are usually a drinking party. Small boats piloted by inebriated passengers are a problem,” Chernoff said.

Chernoff said he’s seen a few kayakers bump into the side of a boat, and other “close calls.”

“That’s what keeps me up at night. Safety is my number one concern. There’s huge boats made out of metal and you are in a little plastic boat. I try not to think of it as an us versus them because it’s a public river and we all have a right to be there,” Chernoff said.

The main branch of the Chicago River is not the easiest place to learn how to kayak, especially on a warm and busy day. Beltran recommends the calmer North and South branches for beginners, as well as taking a guided tour versus kayaking alone.

“I understand the attraction; it’s beautiful. I wouldn’t do it on a weekend when there is a lot of boat traffic out there,” Beltran said.

Friends of the Chicago River, a nonprofit advocacy group that strives to improve and protect the Chicago River system for people, plants and animals, recently launched a new website, to highlight recreational activities on the river.

Margaret Frisbie, executive director of Friends of the River, said paddle craft recreation and conversation about it is so focused on Downtown despite the many public access points all along the river system and the numbers of users are growing every year.

“Follow the rules of the road is the exact right message. Ours is a federal navigable waterway and therefore we all have a right to be there for all uses (including swimming!) but we need to share it well and respect the other users whether they are larger or smaller than us,” Frisbie said.

Kayakers on the Rise

Kayakers in the river’s main branch. [Block Club Chicago/Alisa Hauser]

With a fleet of 60 kayaks, last summer Wateriders put between 13,000–14,000 kayakers in the river. About half went on tours and the other half kayaked alone or in pairs.

Chernoff said close to 80 percent of Wateriders’ customers paddle to the main branch and the other half turn back when they see all the commotion and large boats.

Kayak Chicago, which operates out of a North Branch dock at 1220 W. LeMoyne St., puts 20,000 people in the water on average each summer. It has a fleet of 115 kayaks available for tours and rentals, said owner Dave Olson.

Half of the people who rent from Kayak Chicago eventually make their way into the main branch.

“Some get to Wolf Point [where the North, South and main branches converge], and they don’t want to brace the water with all those boats. It can be intimidating,” Olson said.

Chernoff and Olson both say rentals grow every season, as more people discover kayaking — a fun, interesting and new way to experience the city’s “glass and steel canyons.”

Business at Riverwalk kayak vendor Urban Kayaks is booming, too.

“We have more than doubled in size. One-fifth of Urban Kayakers are returning customers. Our growth has been huge and with that growth we are more cognizant of safety,” said co-owner Aaron Gershenzon.

When Urban Kayaks started in 2011, it had a fleet of 40 kayaks and put 8,000 people in the water with a handful of staff. Last year, well over 20,000 enthusiasts enjoyed kayaking and the fleet of kayaks has grown to 118, Gershenzon said.

All Urban Kayaks customers must watch a safety video and have some prior kayaking experience. They need to prove their skills in a staging area where they’re quizzed on safety and navigation and asked to show paddling form and techniques.

Urban Kayaks’ Riverwalk manager Eric Schwartz demonstrates the kayaking assessment test all prospective renters who say they’ve kayaked before must take. [Block Club Chicago/Alisa Hauser]

Urban Kayaks, like all of the city’s Riverwalk vendors in the main branch, are part of a public private partnership and share a portion of revenue with the city.

Urban Kayaks’ maximum operating capacity is never more than 80 kayakers in the river at one time. They employ a dedicated “crossing guard” on a jet ski to patrol all of its kayakers, and assign another staffer to sit in a kayak under the Michigan Avenue bridge to further monitor kayakers.

“We are the only kayak vendor on Riverwalk managed by the city; the city is our landlord and we report to the city. The other operators are privately owned, some are better than others. We were the first to do the safety video. We do the paddle assessment. Little stuff like that goes a long way. We try to set a good example. The [police] marine unit tries to keep an eye on everyone and enforce the rules, but there is still a long way to go,” Gershenzon said.

This summer, Urban Kayaks got the green light from the Park District to add an additional livery in Monroe Harbor, where it will rent kayaks on the lake as well as offer stand-up paddle board rentals and yoga on paddleboards.

Kayak Chicago also rents stand-up paddle boards at North and Montrose Avenue beaches. Olson says he thinks that there will be a time when stand-up paddle boarding eventually comes to the river.

“As the river gets cleaner, there will be paddle boarding. With paddle boarding you are more likely to fall in, the river is just not there yet,” Olson said.

Recreational Boat Traffic Surges

Police and fire boats at the scene of a boat fire on May 5 near Trump Tower. [Provided]

Along with the remarkable growth in kayaks and electric boats, over the past four years the city’s recreational boat traffic has climbed by almost 40 percent, according to Chicago Harbor Lock, which tracks when commercial and recreational vessels go from the river into Lake Michigan and vice versa.

Beltran says the numbers do not present a complete picture because there are some vessels that stay in the river and never go into the lake through the lock, such as kayaks and electric boats.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Chicago Harbor Lock, reports that from April to October 2014, there were a combined 48,902 commercial and recreational vessels passing through the lock, while the same period last year saw 64,218 combined commercial and recreational vessels.

The significant spike is almost entirely due to recreational boats, as the commercial numbers stayed with the 11,000 range for each year from 2014 to 2017, while the number of recreational boats going through the locks over the four-year period spiked 39.7 percent, from 37,619 to 52,564.

Beltran requested the vessel traffic numbers from Chicago Harbor Lock to show evidence of what he sees during daily patrols: a significant rise in recreational boat traffic on the river after the opening of the Riverwalk and Downtown Docks in 2015.

“More people want to go to the river. It’s so beautiful, now we are seeing boaters wanting to come down here [from the lake]. We are watching people just sitting and enjoying the river, we’ve never seen that before. We want people to enjoy it, we just want them to be safe about it,” Beltran said.

Sam Mesi, manager of Downtown Docks, which offers docking for boats between State and Dearborn streets along the Riverwalk, said they’ve implemented new safety measures as more boats enter and depart from the dock.

“When we send [rented] electric boats out; we will do the security call for the customer [on Marine VHF Channel 13, to let other boaters know they’re departing the dock]. We will never send anyone out in front of another boat. Part of the congestion in this area is that this is the only dock, they either can dock here or they don’t. There was no dock here before [the Riverwalk] and boaters only had the Marina City and North Pier docks,” Mesi said.

Woods said safety measures for Chicago Riverwalk vendors include staff training with Chicago Fire Department on “what to do, in the event of a person in the water” and requiring vendors who operate boating concessions to provide a security plan. There are also ring buoys within each block of the Riverwalk.

“Public safety on a body of water is always a great concern. The Department of Fleet and Facility Management [which oversees the Riverwalk] has great communication with CFD and CPD marine units and coordinates activities and issues that impact the south bank of the main branch of the Chicago River,” Woods said in an email.

The U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Unit issues mariners licenses, conducts vessel inspections and works on boating education and outreach.

Chief Warrant Officer Matthew James with the U.S. Coast Guard says commercial vessels like tour boats which require a Coast Guard-licensed captain behind the wheel are regularly inspected while smaller recreational boats available for rent by the hour are not as closely monitored.

“There is very little by way of inspections to get a business started. If someone rents the boat, the USCG sees that as a recreational vessel. We typically board the electric and pontoon boats every summer and some of the pontoons get boarded two or three times a season. If we see an inexperienced boater not operating with good navigation, we will board the boat and say, ‘Hey, you should be more to the right’ or, ‘Hey you should not have stopped in front of that water taxi,” James said.

A spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection said the city only tracks commercial passenger vessel licenses for captained tour boat and taxi companies, and while there are 58 active licenses for those companies, that number does not reflect the number of boats in each business’ fleet. The number of Limited Business Licenses (LBL) issued to electric powered-boat and kayak rental companies is not readily available, the spokeswoman said.

Electric Boat Boom

A Duffy electric boat available for rent from Chicago Electric Boat Company. [Block Club Chicago/Alisa Hauser]

The Chicago Electric Boat Company, which also manages Downtown Docks in partnership with the city, started in 2012 with two boats and now offers a fleet of 12 Duffy electric boats available for rent out of 300 N. State St. under Marina Towers and Downtown Docks, 27 W. Riverwalk South.

A customer testimony on Chicago Electric Boat Company’s website says, “I was initially nervous because I’ve never driven a boat but my worries were for nothing — it was like driving a golf cart.”

Captains and tour guides are available for an additional cost, though general manager Jenel Ami says the boats are so easy to drive, most renters chose to pilot the boat themselves. All boats are fully booked on most summer weekends and the most popular boat is a 10-passenger Duffy that rents for $150 an hour.

Steering a bareboat charter does not require any experience or licensing outside of showing a valid driver’s license and being over 21.

“The crew members come on and show everyone where everything is. The training is a five-minute video that goes over the basics and the crew members answer any questions. It could take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes [to learn how to drive the boat],” Ami said.

BBQ Pontoon, which docks out of 2120 S. Canal St. behind Lawrence’s Fish and Shrimp in the South Branch of the river in Chinatown, is under new ownership this season.

Richard Harper and Christina Tus worked as sailors on various charters for the past 10 years and recently acquired BBQ Pontoon.

Harper said the fleet of two electric pontoons will grow to four by June. All of the BBQ Pontoon boats are equipped with pizza ovens and boaters get a free pizza to bake on their journey.

“People really love this, they have so much fun and I’m seeing the smiles when they come back. We are glad to be able to share this with people,” Harper said.

All BBQ Pontoon customers get a 15-minute safety briefing before starting their cruise.

It’s only been a few weeks into the couples’ first season as boat vendors, though so far they’ve not had to refuse any customers. “We will turn anyone away who’s intoxicated. They can bring alcohol on the boat, but the driver cannot drink,” Harper said.

Harper says he understands why bigger tour operators and captains of large tour boats have been frustrated with the smaller rent by the hour boaters.

“I’d like to have a dialogue with them, to alleviate their fears that the people we rent to aren’t going to get out there and act crazy, for lack of a better word. Some of their gripes are legitimate but they can be a little too hard on some of the smaller boaters out there. Captains seem to think anyone who doesn’t have a charter license doesn’t belong on the water,” Harper said.

Boats near Lake Shore Drive and to the far right, two kayakers.
A kayak tour near the Chicago Avenue bridge.