Log #5b Chicago into the Illinois River

November 17, 1998 in Log Series 02 - 07, Logs by Series, Series 05 Chicago - Illinois River, The Logs

Log #5b Chicago into the Illinois River

Fairport Yacht Club,
Fairport, Alabama

Nov. 17, 1998

Hi Folks,

We are in Mobile Bay now, having completed the river portion of our trip on Nov.8. We will be off into the Gulf Intercoastal Water‑Way in a few days. I am still having fun (frustrations ) with my limited skills with the computer and E‑mail, however I think I have been able to retrieve my infamous Log #5b which I thought I had wiped off my hard and floppy discs. However, I got it. This was one I thought I had sent as an attachment, except it did not go out. So, here it finally is. Incidentally, I will also be sending out at the same time as this a Log #6a, which may have been sent out on Nov. 16 when I was getting some instruction on E‑mail, and the use of Flash Sessions. I was told it went out with an Activate flash sessions now command. It may have gone out, but I see it is still on a send later file. I hope to pick up AOL For Dummies soon to straighten out my flow of E‑mail. In the meantime, I hope you will bear with me and accept my limitations.

Anyways, here is Log # 5b

All the best,
Aubrey Millard


Log #5b

Chicago / Illinois R

Oct. 23,1998

I got sidetracked in my last log # 5a and so this I hope will give an account of our travels through Chicago and down the Illinois River while the river travel is still fresh in my mind .

The Chicago River

We weighed anchor from the camber inside the first control lock at the mouth of the Chicago River at 0810 on Sept. 30 and four minutes later were going under the first bridge.

(Veleda approaching the first bridge. Note the mast trapped on the X frame forward and the T frame midships giving enough room to walk beneath it.)

The Chicago River goes right through downtown Chicago. We had a beautiful view of the skyscrapers including the Sears Tower, John Hancock building and several others, including some of the tallest condominium projects in the world.

We were travelling through a narrow canyon of buildings, concrete towers and the occasional walkway, the sides linked by a dozen bridges, and gradually giving way to more open industrial spaces.

There is a water cannon that shoots a stream of water across the river just beyond the first bridge at 30 minute intervals during certain hours of the day. This was not operational in the early morning of our transit, but is quite popular with the tourist boats that ply up and down the river. With our mast down we have a height of no more than 14 feet, and thus could get under all the bridges without having to wait for them to open. As we went under the bridges, we saw all the morning rush hour activity. Some people walking along the bridges waved, but most kept on scurrying to their jobs in their busy lives on shore. It made me feel free now that I am retired and have chosen a live aboard life. We took some pictures of the masses of people crossing the bridges to get to work almost with a sense of “playing hookey”.


There was no traffic on the downtown stretch of the river, as it was too early for the tourist boats, and there is little industrial or recreational activity on this stretch. It wasn’t until we had been on the river for two hours that we saw our first of thousands of barges. This was at the junction with the Cal-Sag Waterway which is the industrial canal system coming from Lake Michigan south of Chicago into the Illinois River.

(The first tow passing us – Note the pilot house is on a hydraulic hoist, able to lower when passing under low bridges)

The llinois River
At 1355 we had to wait a few minutes for the first lock, at Lockport, to open, but then we entered, used their lines to secure alongside, and exited by 1440. A nice easy transit of our first lock. After the Welland Canal, this lock was easy. There were floating bollards, but they wanted us to use their lines at the bow and stern. The floating bollards were in recessed cylinders in the lock walls that floated down with the water level. They gave out an eerie screech as they floated down. We did not use these until the Mississippi River.


(Floating bollard rises and lowers with the water level)

After leaving the lock, the weather grew threateningly, and by 1500 we were in a torrential downpour with thunder and lightning, and heavy wind driving the rain and reducing visibility dramatically. We wanted to get off the water, but where? We were passing the community of Jolliet and saw a breakwater to our port side, and did a 180 degree turn to port in order to go both upwind and upstream. It is not a good maneuver to come alongside downwind or downstream if you can avoid it. You can keep better control going up. We had zippered up our enclosure before the rain started, and were dry before the landing. However, we certainly got wet coming alolngside. There was no dock, just a concrete wall about five feet above the water, with no mooring cleats and a chain link partition between park lamp posts. We were happy to just get alongside. We secured to the chain and I went off to find out if it was permissible to stay there as we were only fifty feet away from two giant gambling casino boats, part of Harrahs Gambling Casinos. All doors alongside the river were locked, but I finally found an employees’ entrance staffed by some security guards complete with sidearms. They didn’t know whether the big boats tied up there or not. No one did, so we just stayed there.

About ten minutes after I returned to Veleda, the rain eased off and one of the big (about 250 feet, four decks high) casino boats backed out into the river. I had no idea if it was going to come alongside the seawall where we were moored or not. It just sat there in the middle of the river for a long time, and the second boat came out and then back into the slip the first boat had vacated. The first boat stayed out stationary in the river for about an hour, then the second boat eased out, and the first went back to its original slip. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I hoped I was not in one of their slips. There were no bollards or anything for them to secure to. I hoped I was not in their turning circle as they manouevred in the the river. The boats kept up this game of “musical chairs” all night long. We could see no passengers on board, only a couple of officers way up on the bridge, some deck hands handling lines and some serving staff removing carts of food. We couldn’t figure it out.

Apparently this is the way the gambling boats have to operate. They have to cast off in order to gamble, so they load up the gamblers inside and shove off 200 yards into the river, and sit there for an hour and a half allowing their patrons to gamble; then the boat comes in to allow those patrons to disembark and to take on another load. The ships looked deserted, but there were several hundred patrons on each passage, but none were interested in looking outside of the ship. What a waste of a perfectly good vessel!.

These casinos have good bars and restaurants inside them, and you can go in (no admission charge) and have a lovely reasonably economical meal without going on the boats and without gambling. We went in for breakfast but decided against it because they had a power failure due to the storm and had only a continental breakfast available.

The other claim to fame that this community of Jolliet has is that it has a maximum security penitentiary.

The next day we saw more barge activity and went through two more locks. We had to wait two hours at the first lock as a tow was going through. They call a collection of barges being pushed by specially designed boats a “tow”. The tugs that push them are not called tugs, but tows or tow boats (even though they push the barges).

We looked for an anchorage. There were no bays except in the shallows, and rimmed with sand bars. We found an island that had a channel go around it off the river. We went to the downriver side where the channel rejoined the river, about 100 yards downstream, and anchored there, out of the river channel, for the night.

Barge Traffic at Night

Our first sight of a tow at night was eerie. The leading barges have port and starboard navigation lights at their respective sides, and a flashing amber light in the middle. Then there are no lights until the actual towboat appears, and it has the appropriate steaming lights, but no special lights indicating it is a towboat with a gaggle of barges ahead of it. From the bridge of the towboat shone an illuminated finger of white light that penetrated the darkness for at least a half mile, shone by the skipper trying to make out the unlit buoys and daymarks.

When the first one came around the bend about 500 yards downstream of us, I saw a red light that I thought might be a buoy light. Then I noticed a flashing amber light; then saw the probing flash of the spotlight as it searched the shoreline; then the port light of the towboat and heard the whine of its powerful engines. As it came around the bend it shone its searchlight on Veleda, blinding us. The skipper shone it on us frequently to make sure we were not moving. We had a kerosene lantern lit as an anchor light,(remember we had our mast down on a cradle just above our bimini and bow pulpit) but it would be so pale in the merciless white light of the towboat’s spotlight that he wouldn’t recognize it. We were out of the channel and not in his way.

The barges silently slid by us with only the red port light and the flashing amber light at the front in a river of blackness; then a void stretching for several hundred yards until the actual towboat came up, with its penetrating white lance relentlessly searching the shoreline, navigation lights passively indicating port and starboard, a line of white and amber deck lights illuminating the crews quarters, and then its powerful whining engines with their penetrating, throbbing buzz saw cacophony rending the silence of the night.


(The loud thrumming of the Tow boat’s engines can be heard and the red port light sighted as it passes our anchorage)

The separation of the tow boat from its front barges is awesome at night especially. Each barge is 30 feet wide by 110 feet long. Tows of up to fifteen barges are not uncommon on the Illinois River. They are even larger on the Mississippi. A tow of fifteen barges would be three barges wide by five barges long. That means the front of the first row of barges is 500 feet in front of the tow boat pushing it. So there is a 550 foot silent sea of black separating the port and starboard and amber flashing lights at the front from the illuminated powerful vibrating tow boat pushing them at the back

The tows on the Illinois are limited to a maximum of fifteen barges because of the size of the locks. I will explain the locking procedures for these tows and the pastoral beauty of the Illinois River in my next log