Big City Lights


The expanse of the open waters, without the sight of land, can be intimidating -- even more so in Lake Michigan. Mariners often describe the waves as short, choppy, and frequent. Boaters who have ocean experience will tell you that they prefer the ocean. It’s for this reason that first-time visitors to Lake Michigan are anxious about crossing the big lake. It’s also for this reason that caution should always be taken when doing so.

Lisa and I were excited about the weather window we chose to make our journey from the east shore of Michigan to the windy city of Chicago. We had a 12-hour day scheduled and calm waters of one-foot or less were predicted. Our trip west to Chicago was one every boater hopes for and often will get if you’re patient enough. Luckily, our timing was exceptional.

Jim enjoys the nighttime Chicago skyline from the vantage point of Kismet’s anchorage just behind Navy Pier

A short time after we lost sight of the Michigan coast we started to make out the skyline of Chicago, about 45 miles out. At first we could only see the dark shapes of the Sears Tower and John Hancock Center buildings as we motored at eight knots in calm waters towards the shores of Chicago. It seemed as if the city was being built before our eyes. The closer we came the more picturesque the metropolis became and the more detail we were able to make out in the skyline of America’s third largest city.

As we entered the harbor we made our way to the north side of Navy Pier where there’s a designated anchorage area. We set our hook 600 feet from Lake Shore Drive with the backdrop of the Chicago skyline directly at our stern. We had a glass of wine to celebrate our crossing as we settled in to watch the sun set against the iconic Chicago landscape.

It’s a relaxing, and I’d have to say peaceful, feeling to be able to sit on the back of one’s boat watching the rhythm of the commuter traffic working their way out of the city. Along with the stream of headlights were all the joggers, bikers, and walkers working their way up and down the Lake Shore Drive pedestrian path. It was as if we had our own private viewing room of the city.

After pulling up our anchor we found the reason we moved during the night, -- massive amounts of seaweed and muck.

Before we retired for the night (I know, this makes me sound really old!) I set the anchor alarm on our GPS. At 1:30 in the morning I was awakened to it’s warning that the boat had moved more than the 120 feet for which I’d set the alarm. The wind had picked up a bit and it was coming out the south; sure enough we’d moved, parallel to shore. After the anchor reset and I adjusted the anchor alarm I decided to remain in the pilothouse to sleep, just in case. I fell back asleep until the alarm woke me up again, this time from a nightmare that our boat was crashing into the Chicago break wall. It was just a dream. However the startle of the alarm indicated that our anchor had dragged again past its set point. This went on every hour or so until daybreak, when I calculated that we had moved a total of 539 feet during the night. We were never in danger as we were moving with the shore and not towards it, but nonetheless I got little sleep on our first night in Chicago.

After a short lumpy ride from the anchorage we settled into DuSable Harbor Marina, situated at the doorstep of downtown Chicago, a short walk from the Museums, shopping, parks, and restaurants. We planned to spend three days exploring Chicago before we entered into the Chicago River that would lead us south.

We like to walk to get exercise when we travel and Chicago was no exception. Lisa is standing on the Michigan Avenue bridge.

Chicago is such a vibrant city with many festivals, events, museums, and sights to see that it’s difficult to decide what to do first. Nonetheless we prevailed by window-shopping on Michigan Avenue, and walking through parts of Grant and Millennium Parks. Both parks sit between Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive, making it both people friendly for Chicagoans, and a very short walk from the marina for us. The gardens, sculptures, walkways, bike paths, and trees are an added bonus to what makes Chicago so appealing. We also found Rosebud’s, a great Italian restaurant, where Lisa and I celebrated our anniversary early with a late afternoon dinner.

Chicago is where Looper’s exit the Great Lakes, either through downtown Chicago on the Chicago River, or through the Calumet River and Sag Channel 10 miles south of the city. If your boat can clear 17 feet, you have either river option, however in all cases you have to get below 19’ 1”. Our Kismet, when the mast is lowered, gets down to 15’ 9” so we decided to take the scenic downtown Chicago route (more on that in a future log).

Lisa and I spent our anniversary day shopping, dodging rain, going to Zanies Comedy Club, and having an early dinner at Rosebud’s Italian restaurant.

Between DuSable Marina, Burnham Harbor Marina, Monroe Harbor, and the Chicago Yacht Club, there were about eight Loopers who’d gathered in Chicago, all planning to spend some time in the big city before moving into the river system. As I mentioned, we’d only planned to stay three days in Chicago. However the remnants of Hurricane Ike had worked their way up to the Great Lakes area, dumping 10 to 12 inches of rain. Because of the rain, the rivers started rising to flood-stage levels, which in turn caused the locks to close down. We wanted to be underway, but were thankful that we weren’t in harms way somewhere on the flooding rivers.

We ate well while in Chicago.

Shortly after all the rain came, we began hearing about the rising waters from Chicago all the way south of St. Louis, on the Mississippi River. By our third day in Chicago I started each day by checking the weather conditions, water levels, flood stages, and lock closures. Each day we were disappointed when we’d learn that the water was still rising, even after two days of no rain. Because there were record amounts of rain in such a short period of time, some 50-year-old flood-level records were breached. This was no time to be moving into the river system, even if the locks had opened.

Our extra Chicago time was put to good use by getting to know some of our fellow Loopers. The interesting aspect of this type of travel is that you get to meet boaters from all over the country and all walks of life -- the common thread being their love of boating and adventure. The group who was gathered in Chicago, the same time as Kismet, included couples from Michigan, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, and Connecticut. The first group of Loopers we met was traveling in a variety of boats, sizes, and brands. Most were some configuration of a trawler.

Lisa has a soft spot for farmers markets so we embarked on a nice long walk to find these tomatoes at a small inter-city farmer’s co-op.

The group included a Tartan sailboat, an Ocean Alexander, two Californians, a Tollycraft, a Med Yacht, a Legacy, a Meridian, and our Fathom. Most in the first group we met are retired but some are engaged in working from their boat. Meeting new people, getting to know them and traveling with them is one the ancillary benefits of doing the Great Loop. If our last Loop trip is any indication some of these folks will become good friends as the trip unfolds.

Lisa mentioned in our last log, because we’ve done the Great Loop before, that we expected that the thrill of the unknown would be somewhat taken away during our second Loop. The excitement of seeing and experiencing something for the very first time can never be duplicated, and this is why we’ll be venturing into areas to which we didn’t travel or visit during our last Loop. Now, two weeks into our voyage, we find ourselves docked in a city we’ve been to before, but docked in a different marina.

Lisa and Jim entering the Chicago Lock.

Now, here we are, stranded in a familiar city by the near-record-breaking river levels and closed locks. This is a new experience, one we’ll learn from and use to make us better boaters. We’re so fortunate not to have been in harms way during the bad part of the storm. So easily, we could’ve been farther south by now, and at great risk during the hurricane that hit Galveston.

After six days in Chicago we have good news. The waters have receded enough to open the Chicago lock so that we, and the other Loopers who are waiting, can set out and resume our travels.