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Boat Safe Chicago Project

Guest Contributor


Last summer, there were several severe and fatal accidents in and around the Chicago Waterfront. However, there have been a record number of accidents over the past few years which have started to tarnish the reputation of mariners on Lake Michigan, with more than 43 fatal accidents in 2022. As a USCG licensed Master Captain, I have been operating both public and private yacht charters around Chicago for years on some of the most expensive and high-performance boats and for clients ranging from artists to athletes to business moguls.  I cannot think of a time where we were out on a charter, and we didn’t witness someone doing something reckless and foolish. This can be the guy who borrowed his brother-in-law’s Lund to the charter boat captain drinking beers in the Playpen.

There is a group of licensed Master Captains who want to make a difference with the safety and security of our boating experiences in Chicago. Boat Safe Chicago has its roots deep in the City’s harbors and marinas. The group of training captains includes a Chicago Harbormaster, a California dive-master, maritime law enforcement and water rescue professionals who have the experience to teach others how to be safe on the water. Marketing materials have been sent to all the Yacht and Sailing clubs from Michigan City to Waukegan, and all the registered and legal charter boats that operate in the Chicago area. We have also contacted several of the larger charter operators and boat clubs who are committed to safety, including Freedom Boat Club, Coast Yachts, and Knot My Boat Charters.    

Chicago River

The Chicago River has one of the most scenic and historic routes of any city! The Chicago River is at least 21’ below street level, which means that there are several areas with no wind! This makes for great cruising when Lake Michigan is too rough, or in the early spring or late fall. With the new casino coming to the River North area, things are just going to get busier and busier. The river has obstacles that can make any salty sailor nervous, such as commercial, tour, and recreational boaters all bunched together. Then the rental boats and the kayaks just add to the excitement. Wouldn’t you like to know how to radio the other commercial boats? How about contacting the Locks or where the public restrooms are located? How to pass another boat? Did you know there is a Starbucks and Target with River access?

Chicago Locks

The Chicago River connects with Lake Michigan through the Chicago Locks, operated by the US Army Corp. of Engineers. Generally, it takes about fifteen minutes to lock through… unless there is someone who will screw up everything. These would be the boat operators who forget the life jackets, or where to wait, or what color light allows them to enter the lock chamber. Some “boaters” make a wake coming into the Locks and will pass other boats to get a more favorable spot on the wall. And don’t forget about the “weekend warrior” boaters who decided to consume alcohol in the sun all day, and now they are trying to bring the boat home. We have seen everything from passengers falling off boats, to property damage and worse, right inside the Locks. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some actual training for the locks? How about the boating etiquette and the rules / regulations for Federal Locks?


Located just north of Navy Pier and the Chicago Locks is the “Chicago Playpen.” This protected area sits just east of the John Hancock building, and the iconic Lakeshore Drive. On any given summer weekend, hundreds of boats will anchor and raft off. Unfortunately, this is an area where those severe and fatal accidents are common. In 2022, a licensed charter boat captain ran several women over while they were laying on a raft. That was the third Playpen accident that week. Simple steps such as where to anchor, or how far the rafts are off the stern, to having a responsible lookout.  Several of us charter captains now have “hailers” or bullhorns we use to communicate with other boaters who might be coming too close to our swimmers.  The Playpen is not inherently dangerous, it’s the inexperienced boaters operating in and around there that make everything more difficult. What would a summer look like without Tribune and WGN headlines of boating accidents in the Playpen?


On the south side of Navy Pier and the locks is Monroe Harbor, which offers stunning views of the Chicago Skyline and Grant Park. With wave protection provided by several break walls, this is a great spot to throw an anchor and relax for the day. The Harbor Staff is very friendly, and they are usually busy ferrying guests to and from their moored boats. The Chicago Police & Fire keep their boats in DuSable Harbor, which is connected to Monroe. During Lollapalooza, Monroe is a great spot to anchor and listen to the bands rock the park. Along the west side of Monroe is an area where both tourist and private boats cruise along Lakeshore Drive between the Shedd Aquarium and the Columbia Yacht Club. This also presents an issue for those who are anchored and enjoying the protected waters of Monroe, as the boat traffic on weekends is insane. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had a standard for anchoring and allowing our passengers to swim?  How about some accountability for boaters operating recklessly?  

Rental Boats

There are several boat rental operators in both the Chicago Harbors and on the Chicago River. The rental pontoon boats are usually easy to spot as they will have some type of advertising on the sides. These are the boats where we will see everything from bow-riding to speeding and driving with the anchor or swim ladder still in the water.  There are also the infamous kayaks and paddleboards. While not as dangerous to others, these renters usually have no idea about boating laws or regulations. The kayaks will operate at night for a “city lights” experience, which requires larger boats to have a spotter as the kayaks do not have any navigation lights. How can responsible boat owners and operators work around all the rental boats? The answer is training and situational awareness.  Good boat captains must anticipate the rental boats moves and plan accordingly. Not every boat rental agency just lets people drive off. Credible businesses offer training and other assistance so that their boats comeback in one piece. 

Boat Clubs

Several boat clubs operate in the Chicago area, including Freedom Boat Club, Carefree Boat Club, Pinnacle Boat Club, etc. There are also various “boat sharing” groups, with everything from sailboats to 55’ Sea Rays. Professional companies like Freedom Boat Club require members to sit through a few hours of classroom training before the practical on-the-water sessions. FBC also has graduated levels of training, including offshore, lock operations, anchoring and night boating.  Other clubs and groups who have boats in Chicago are not so organized. It is common to see members of the other clubs violating speed and other restrictions or making everyone wait at the locks because they forgot which side their fenders were on.  Just one geographical area of a boat share club had over 40 members arrested for BUI in 2022.  Boat clubs are a great idea, and when members are properly trained, safety shouldn’t be an issue.

Private Yacht Charters

Chicago has charter boat services for six people to go fishing up to 749 passengers for sunset cruises. The most exclusive of the Chicago charter yacht companies is Coast Yachts on River North, which caters to the jet-set. Coast Yachts is known just as much for their high-net-worth clients as for their safety record. Coast Yachts deliberately hires US Coast Guard Master Captains whose experience reaches well beyond driving a boat. Some Coast captains are former law enforcement, water rescue, dive-masters, lifeguards and pilots. They will pre-trip a yacht like a preflight inspection on an airplane. Factoring in wind and wave conditions, the captains already know where they will anchor before they leave the docks. Coast captains can always be spotted as they are watching their guests in the water, as well as all the boat traffic.        

Private Party Boat Charters

Just because some charter companies cater to the party crowd, doesn’t mean that they lack in safety! “Knot-My-Boat Charters” operates out of 31st Street Harbor with a fleet of boats from 36-56’. In 2022, KMBC had over 2,000 trips with zero (0) accidents. Although catering to a different crowd than Coast Yachts clients, KMBC has been very proactive with their client’s safety. KMBC also has a list of approved captains who had to audition to even drive for them and possess that pragmatic safety approach. When a group of friends charters a KNMC for a Saturday afternoon in the Chicago Playpen, those guests know that they are in capable hands. Like Coast Yachts, KMBC puts passenger safety ahead of profits.


In closing, we all want to have a great time out on the water with our family and friends. It is so relaxing to drop the hook and float in the shadows of the Chicago skyline.  Most other boaters do not consciously and deliberately act like fools on the water, they just lack both training and safety skills. Alcohol and cannabis always have no place at the helm. A properly trained, sober skipper will always be safer than some college kids on daddy’s boat. Being part of the solution and less of the problem seems obvious, and Boat Safe Chicago is a great starting point to use as the foundation or cornerstone for other maritime training programs. Together, we can make the waters in the Chicagoland area safer!