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Stuck on the Chicago River? Not so much.

Guest Contributor

I am a USCG licensed Master Captain, and I have traveled the United States visiting different Freedom Boat Club locations. My home club is Holland, Michigan. My guests Al, Emily, Dani, and I met up at the Freedom Boat Club (FBC) in Hammond, Indiana, on a windy Saturday. We boarded our spacious FBC 2022 23' Sea Ray with a 200hp Mercury outboard motor. The vessel easily accommodated our gear- with massive storage space under the sun pad (where an internal engine could go) and a head compartment adjacent to the helm.




This outing was Al and Emily's first time going to Chicago by water, and we wanted it to be remarkable. Since my guests were all FBC members, we assigned each other duties. I drove the boat; Dani was the lookout and responsible for the weather radar; Al was our navigator, and Emily was responsible for refreshments. Emily's turkey and cheese sandwiches on pretzel buns likely ensure that she remains the refreshment coordinator forever.

Interestingly, the FBC Hammond location shares a parking lot with a popular gambling venue- The Horseshoe Casino. Luckily, my crew chose boating over roulette, slot machines, and juicy steaks at Jack Binion's Steakhouse. The Steakhouse offers spectacular Chicago skyline views- but we were after much more than a view.

After leaving the Hammond Marina, we set out to the northwest with a strong southerly breeze. The waves were 1-3', and the Sea Ray handled like a dream, as expected.

After traveling about ten nautical miles, our first stop was Burnham Harbor. Burnham Harbor sits directly east of Soldier Field, and as we poked around the Harbor, we could see and hear the fans in the stands at a preseason Bears game. Go Bears!

Burnham Harbor offers a fifteen-minute "courtesy dock," so we tied up and used the facilities and picked up some treats at the ship store. We also stopped to say hello to the Freedom Boat Club Burnham Harbor dock staff and checked out some of their new boats.

As we left the Harbor, I noticed rougher water between Northerly Island and McCormick Place. Although navigating the water in this Harbor entrance/exit can be challenging, the Sea Ray efficiently handled the 3-4' waves where they were reflecting off of the McCormick seawall.

Back out on Lake Michigan, we sped up and headed north without any issues. We were sheltered from the wind and waves when we approached the north side of Chicago's Adler Planetarium, with its newly renovated copper dome.

We puttered into the crib next to the Shedd Aquarium and then into Monroe Harbor. A few weeks ago, Dani and I anchored here for Lollapalooza- and it was AWESOME- especially minus the $300+ individual ticket price! Next, after checking out Grant Park and the Buckingham Fountain, we turned east to open waters.

A passing water taxi generated a cross-wake, so we got a little wet. As we approached Navy Pier, I noticed that the locks were loading from Lake Michigan, and the light had just changed from yellow (commercial vessels only) to green. We got our bumpers out on the port side and donned our life jackets. In the lock, I explained the landmark's history and why it is so important. Then, as we "locked down" (lowered a few feet), my friends enjoyed a truly memorable and unique experience.

(But remember! Traveling through locks does require additional FBC training!)

When the lock doors opened, and the horn sounded, we moved forward onto the main branch of the Chicago River. However, because of worsening conditions on Lake Michigan, we encountered heavy river traffic as we turned north towards the Ogden slip.

Before crossing under Lake Shore Drive, we allowed the Fort Dearborn, a local tour boat, to exit the basin. Then, we slowly cruised over and checked out the Freedom Boat Club Streeterville boats, located at the west end of the Ogden Slip. FBC Streeterville offers an area for members to tie up and use the bathrooms, grab a pizza, or visit the neighboring Target store.

After saying goodbye to the friendly FBC Streeterville team, we went back out on the main branch of the Chicago River and headed west along the popular "River Walk." There seemed to be more than fifty rental boats causing congestion, but we slid by without any issue. We turned north when we arrived at the "T," where the north river branch meets the south river branch. After passing the old Chicago Tribune distribution building, we looked west to Goose Island. We said hello to the crew loading the fireworks barge for the fireworks display that happens twice weekly at Navy Pier in the summer.

Traveling at a nice 4.5mph, we relaxed and enjoyed Emily's snacks. We passed the Mars candy factory and turned around in the big basin. About 2 minutes after our turn, we heard a band doing a sound check at the newly minted Salt Shed, which hosts concerts. After Googling the venue, we discovered that many upcoming shows were already sold out. Such a great location in an industrial area, including a complete stage with moving lights and a line array.

As we cruised back south, we dodged some more rental boats, and when we rounded the last corner by Wolf Point, we could feel the wind increase. I also noticed that the boat was having trouble turning to port, and the wheel would only turn about 2" at a time. When I corrected to starboard, it was a workout to try and manipulate the wheel. I texted the Chicago Harbor Master, Captain Mike, and informed him about our issues. Had we called our FBC Club, they would have sent a replacement boat. But as an experienced Master Captain, I felt confident continuing our voyage.  

Captain Mike suggested we take the river back to Hammond. "Stay on the river and off the lake.", warned Captain Mike. By now, the forecast of 1-3' waves was more like 4'+, and there was no way we would try and maneuver the already challenged boat in such heavy seas. I consulted with Al, Emily, and Dani, and we decided to ride the river.

Captain Mike answered my questions about speed and hazards, and I told him we would check in with him along the way. As we passed Chinatown, we were excited about this journey and how this Chicago boat trip had just become an Illinois adventure.

South of Chinatown, the Chicago River is very industrial. We passed barges and tugs moored along the riverbank. When we arrived at the Chicago Ship & Sanitary Canal, we could speed up a little and eventually open up the Mercury Verado outboard. I found that we could do approximately 38mph at 5,000+ RPM by trimming up. Pulling back on the throttle, we cruised at 33mph / 4,400rpm, with a fuel burn of 10.5 GPH.

We slowed where the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal meets the Illinois River. We then turned east on the Illinois River in an area known as the Calumet Sag Chanel. We passed several swamped boats, sunken wrecks, and litter in the water. I sent Captain Mike an iMessage about our location.

When we finally slowed down around Calumet City, we stopped for fuel at the Sunset Bay Marina. We docked the boat, and I could see that the fuel dock office door was open. I met a friendly man with his name, "Gator," embroidered on his shirt. It was now 5:30 pm on Saturday, and his dock closed at 4 pm. I showed him my Master Captain license and some cash, and he sold us $40 in fuel, which was about 6.5 gallons. Hammond was only 10 miles away on the river, and we would do a slower cruise back to the marina. Al left "Gator" a generous tip for accommodating us after hours.











As we continued toward Hammond, we discovered another Corp of Engineers lock-the Thomas J. O'Brien Locks and Dam. Just like in Chicago, the doors were open, and we entered without delay. Since there were only two boats in this lock, we could float or hang on to the sides. Since I always enjoy a challenge, I decided to float in the middle of the lock. While waiting for the lock doors to close, I took a 3-second video of the steering situation and sent it over to our FBC Michiana dock manager.















As the lock masters opened the lock's north gate, we could feel the surge as the basin filled up. It was about a ten-minute wait to lock up to Lake Michigan level. We set off for the International Port of Illinois when the gate opened.

Along the way, we discovered several scrap metal and scrap stainless steel yards, as well as aggregate and petroleum companies. Then, just before the 95th Street Bridge, we boated under the Chicago Skyway, which was so EPIC! As a kid, I always dreamed of boating under the Skyway!

The final mile of the Calumet River has a few turning basins, a few tug companies, and a large port where Canadian lumber is taken off of ships and loaded onto rail cars. Leaving the river and entering the Calumet Harbor, we hugged the south side break wall to stay out of the wind and subsequent waves.

I radioed the FBC staff on VHF 08, informed them of our ETA, and requested a dock cart. When entering the Hammond Marina, I checked my Navionics app- we had boated 77.3 miles in 7 hours. Of course, I had to take a screenshot, as that was a new record for us! The friendly FBC Hammond staff met us at the slip, and we docked without incident.



thumbnail_IMG_5213.jpgThe furthest we were from FBC Hammond was at the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal intersection with the Illinois River- 23.05 miles. Always remember that FBC boats must stay within the 25-mile limit established by the club- unless you have a prior approved float plan. Because of the wind, waves, and steering issues, I was content with taking this route. I have also retold this adventure to other captains and FBC members, all of whom want to try and make it the "Hammond Loop." 

Here is a HUGE THANK YOU to Captain Mike for his guidance and Gator for the gas! Yet another epic day on the water with Freedom Boat Club!