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Rookies On The River Turning Tour Boats Into Rescue Vessels, Experts Say: ‘Someone Is Going To Die’

Two kayakers and a dog were rescued by a tour boat Wednesday, and the boat operator said they expect to rescue dozens more by summer's end.

Untrained kayakers and boaters are creating a crowded and dangerous situation on the river, experts say.
Alisa Hauser/Block Club Chicago
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SOUTH LOOP — Two kayakers who had to be rescued by a sightseeing boat Wednesday highlight how dangerous the river has become, according to the tour boat’s owner.

For Chip Collopy, president of Shoreline Sightseeing, it’s not a matter of if a kayaker will be part of a serious incident on the river — but when.

Collopy’s own boat, the Evening Star, was part of a rescue when two kayakers and a dog flipped in the Chicago River near Roosevelt Road on Tuesday. People on the Evening Star saw the kayak flip and called 911 for help, also taking to the emergency radio and throwing a life ring into the water.

The Evening Star’s crew pulled one of the kayakers from the water, and the Coast Guard rescued the second person, said Larry Langford, a Chicago Fire spokesman. The dog was also saved.

And though Collopy was happy everyone turned out OK, he’s been left concerned: Shoreline has had to pull three people from the water in just four days, he said, and they usually end up rescuing about 40 people every summer. His crew members put themselves at risk with every rescue.

“The kayak rental companies are renting kayaks to inexperienced, unqualified, untrained people,” Collopy said after the rescue Tuesday. “This is a dangerous situation. It’s dangerous for the kayaker and it’s dangerous for the crew.

“This has been going on for a few years, and someone is going to die. … Someone is definitely going to get hurt.”

The kayakers, who refused medical treatment, could not be reached for comment.

But it’s not just kayakers who are causing problems, Collopy said: Electric boat rentals are also causing problems.

“They’re renting to people who are inexperienced and creating havoc on the river and, again, someone’s gonna get hurt,” Collopy said.

Collopy’s hardly the first to be alarmed by changes on the waterways: The Chicago River has gotten busier in recent years, and experts are concerned about how that has impacted safety.

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.

Chicago Police Dept. Marine Unit officer Mark 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.

“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.

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

Educating could mean pulling up near a pair of kayakers and 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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.