A boat traveling along an icy Chicago River in February is a rare sight.
But when the temperature drops and the river freezes, the Christopher Wheatley crushes the ice with deceptive ease.
Operated by the Chicago Fire Department, the Wheatley is designed to break ice that has formed on the Chicago River. If, for example, a person falls in the water, rescue personnel would need an unencumbered path through the ice, explained Jason Lach, CFD Marine and Dive Operations deputy district chief.
Once the boat cuts through the middle of the river, surrounding ice slowly breaks off — and on one recent trip, some gathered geese honked loudly as they were forced to move.
The Chicago Sun-Times joined CFD personnel aboard the Wheatley Thursday as it created a path between the Chicago Marine Safety Station and Wolf Point.
Lately, the colder-than-usual weather has kept the Wheatley out on the Chicago River every other day, Lach said.
The 11-year-old boat is a beast of a vessel, built of reinforced steel and concrete. When it hits the ice, it sounds like metal shards spinning in a blender. It has advanced life support systems — and deck guns that can pump out 15,000 gallons of water per minute. The boat is staffed 24/7 by at least five crew members, such as paramedics, EMTs, boat pilots, engineers and firefighters, he said.
And in a pinch, it’s a portable hydrant.
“When we get down to some of the shipyards or other places, we can have engines from landside bring a hose over to them and they’ll have an endless supply of water,” Lach said.
Although designed to break ice, the Wheatley is used year-round as a mobile command center for water rescues on the river and Lake Michigan. This winter, the James J. Versluis, operated by the Chicago Department of Water Management, is the boat in charge of breaking ice on the lake.