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BROWN: On the Chicago River, ‘somebody is going to get killed’

An explosion of boat traffic on the Chicago River downtown is causing safety concerns. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times

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I took one of the Chicago River tour boat cruises to see it through the eyes of its captain.

The river is an exciting place these days, especially downtown on a summer evening, walking along the vibrant new Riverwalk or riding any of the dozens of commercial vessels that offer architectural tours or water taxi rides.

Or aboard a rented pontoon boat or electric party boat.

Or paddling along in a kayak.

Or even working on one of the barges that still navigate the river.

And don’t forget the private pleasure craft of all sizes, as well as the occasional fishing boat.

All trying to share a relatively narrow waterway that’s now even slightly narrower because of the Riverwalk.

It’s an exciting place.

A little too exciting in the eyes of the captain who has seen the amazing transformation of the river from a sleepy afterthought to a hub of city tourism — and the resulting congestion that he believes is an accident waiting to happen.

The captain told me he and other professionals who ply the river agree: “Somebody is going to get killed.”

OPINION

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At the captain’s request, I’m not using his name. I don’t like to do that, but sometimes it’s worth making an exception.

The captain is in a business licensed by the city. I get it. He’s not looking to make waves for his employer, except with the wake from his boat, and even then as little as possible.

What he wants is for somebody in power to slow down long enough to think through the implications of this ever-expanding, almost wholly unregulated river traffic.

And I figure that’s a message worth sharing.

Just an hour before I’d arrived for my boat ride, a water taxi collided with a woman in a kayak, dumping her into the river. An employee of the kayak rental business had to be dispatched by jet ski to pull her from the water.

The captain showed me the photos. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen something like that.

He doesn’t want to pick on the kayak businesses. Neither do I. Renting a kayak is one of my favorite vacation activities, and I think kayaks are a great addition to our urban scene.

Kayakers hug the bank at Wolf Point to avoid Chicago River tour boats. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times
Kayakers hug the bank at Wolf Point to avoid Chicago River tour boats. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times

But during the evening rush with the tour boat pointed west toward the sun and the river shimmering, I could see how difficult it is to spot a kayaker, low in the water, while maneuvering a bigger vessel around an electric boat and making way for a faster water taxi trying to keep to its schedule.

Kayakers are instructed to hug the sides of the river. And most do. But sometimes they need to cross from one side to the other.

The captain thinks the small rental motorboats, whether gas or electric, might pose the greater hazard because they’re often operated by individuals with limited experience and skill — or none at all — with alcoholic beverages in the mix.

The larger tour boats, now seven feet wider than they used to be to accommodate increased demand, contribute to the problem, too.

The captain showed me places where he figures an accident is most likely to happen:

• The blind spot where the river bends between Wabash and Dearborn, a possible entry point for future Wisconsin Dells-style amphibious duck boats.

• The narrow pinch point beneath the Kinzie Street bridge where a new a kayak rental outfit has opened.

• Wolf Point — the confluence of the north, south and main branches of the river — where converging traffic meets another blind spot created by new construction.

“Somebody is going to get killed” might be an exaggeration. I am aware of no serious injuries having occurred.

Just don’t say the captain never warned you.

A tour boat slips beneath the Clark Street bridge between a pleasure boat and a rental electric boat on the Chicago River downtown. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times
A tour boat slips beneath the Clark Street bridge between a pleasure boat and a rental electric boat on the Chicago River downtown. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times

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