Boaters: Navigate Chicago’s Nautical Nitty-Gritty

Chicagoans have a soft spot for their large lake—in fact, there are about 160,000 recreational boats in the Chicagoland area, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA). Lake Michigan is the fifth largest lake in the world, and with spring in our sights, Chicago boaters are already daydreaming of their weekends spent cruising the shoreline. If you’re thinking about becoming a boat owner, we’ve tracked down some overlooked issues that Chicago boat owners face. Here are a few things to know before you jump on the boater bandwagon.

1. The paperwork

If you’ve just purchased a boat, you have 15 days fill out an application for registration and titling, according to state law. Once the application is filled out, you’ll want to locate the manufacturer’s certificate of origin (if the boat is new) or the previous owner’s registration and title (if the boat is used). You’ll also need to provide proof of sales tax payment. Registration fees are based on the size of your boat and range from $28 (at 16 feet) to $210 (at 40 feet). All of these documents and fees can be mailed to: Watercraft, Department of Natural Resource P.O. Box 19226 Springfield, IL 62794. From there, you’ll receive your registration, title and necessary decals in the mail. You’ll also want to be sure your boat is insured before you cast off, and ask if the insuring company offers a “lay-up” discount for the winter months, when you can’t use your boat.

2. Storing your skiff

In a city like Chicago, you’ll need to keep your boat safe and secure at a nearby marina, especially during the winter months. Winter storage is available at Montrose Harbor and 31 Street Harbor, with both indoor and outdoor options. Additional moorings are available at eight different Chicago harbors, and range in price based on location and boat size. If you choose, you can also tack on winterizing the engine, water and plumbing to your mooring fee. You’ll also want to reserve your place about five months in advance, arranging your winter storage in the summer, before the spots fill up, according to the Chicago Park District.

3. To slip or not to slip

If you choose to go for a slip, you can expect to pay about triple the cost of mooring, but you get hook-ups for water and power, complimentary pump-out stations and parking is usually closer to the boat. Lincoln Park’s Montrose Harbor has 711 slips that can accommodate 25- to 50-foot boats. If you opt for a slip at Montrose Harbor, you can expect to pay about $2,700 for a 25-foot boat to about $6,000 for a 50-foot boat for the 6-month harbor season (from May 1-Oct. 31). Chances are you’ll be on the less expensive end of the spectrum—after all, 95 percent of the 12.4 million registered boats in the U.S. were 26 feet or less, according to 2011 data from the NMMA. If you are not a Chicago resident, a 25 percent non-resident surcharge will be added to your cost—this add-on can really up your slip cost.

4. Maintaining your boat

When shopping for a boat, be sure to seek out a fuel-efficient one. Gas can cost about $400 to fill an 80-gallon tank, and an oil change is about $300. You’ll have to maintain your boat to keep her cruising and that costs money, whether it’s replacing the sails, repainting the bottom of the boat or checking out your powerboat’s engine.

5. Know Chicago’s regulations

The Indiana Natural Resources Commission covered the 10 most violated laws on Lake Michigan, and included at the top of the list were: boating while intoxicated, operating a boat in a reckless manner, and entering a No-Boat zone. Failure to have sufficient life preservers also made the list, and according to a City of Chicago press release, 84 percent of drowning victims were not wearing a personal floating device. Statewide, there must be one, properly fitting, life preserver on board for each passenger, according to the State of Illinois. Whether you’re boating on Lake Michigan or taking a jaunt down the Chicago River, the same regulations apply.


If these often overlooked boat-owning issues haven’t scared you off, it may be about time for you to join the 425,000 boat owners in Illinois—and start sailing while you soak up the Chicago skyline.

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