Boating Safety Tips for the Chicago River
Many locals like to paddle the Chicago River in kayaks, canoes and rowboats. But the busy waterway is often crowded with bigger crafts — pleasure boats, tourist vessels, water taxis and even barges — so every boater needs to know the basics of water safety. Dave Olson knows how crowded it can get on the river. As owner of Kayak Chicago, he offers paddle tours, lessons and rentals while teaching people how to have fun and stay safe. “Paddling is beginner friendly and anyone can do it,” Olson says. “It’s just great to be out doing something and being adventurous. But the Chicago River is a working river with all kinds of boats on it. It gets quite a bit of usage.” Here’s what you need to know about boating safety before you strap on a life jacket and climb aboard.
Knowing Where You Fit
“You have to figure out where you would fit in the hierarchy of the river,” Olson says. “You need to be out of the way of other boats and give other boats the right of way. You stay on the right side. But there are some tricky situations. Sometimes you need to leave it up to the barge captain to tell you where to go while he is maneuvering around.” The good thing about the Chicago River is that it’s a “no wake” zone, Olson says, which means there’s no wash from a big boat to swamp you. There are large vessels out there, but they’re not going any faster than you are. “It’s not like you will ever have a barge coming at you at 20 mph. It’s moving really slow and safe,” Olson says. “You have plenty of time to see it and prepare.” During his lessons, Olson cites the importance of always wearing a life jacket — even if you’re a good swimmer. “That is a controversial issue for [everyone from] beginners to advanced paddlers,” he says. “Everyone thinks they know how to swim. In reality, anything can happen. If you get knocked unconscious, a life jacket could save your life.”
Plenty of Rentals
There are shops all along the river that rent out canoes and kayaks for an average of $20 an hour. Many of them also offer guided tours that emphasize the unique architecture along the river, such as the Willis Tower. The Chicago River Water Trail Map shows access points where you can put in your own kayak, rowboat or canoe along with the areas that get low and high traffic. The low-traffic zone starting at River Park on the north side of the river is only for human-powered crafts, making it a much more serene excursion. To add to the safety of those on the river, business owners like Olson, as well as city officials, have helped contribute to and edit the river guide. “Starting out with a paddling sport such as kayaking is like downhill skiing on a ski slope,” says Michelle Woods, assistant project director for the Chicago Department of Transportation. “You wouldn’t get on the steepest mountain your first time, just like you wouldn’t get into a kayak without some knowledge.”
Other Safety Tips
Paddling can be physically exhausting, so Woods suggests knowing your nearest exit and entry points on the river, which you’ll find on the Chicago River Water Trail Map. Here are a few more suggestions from Olson to help keep you safe:
- Stay as close to the shore as safely possible and don’t go down the middle of the river, especially when there’s a lot of boat traffic.
- Tell a family member or friend of your paddling plans, including when you’re leaving, returning and any stops you might make along the way.
- Use a paddle leash, which makes it easy to retrieve the paddle if it’s dropped.
- Carry a whistle or air horn in case you need help.
- Learn how to re-enter your vessel. If you get out of your kayak to swim or you accidentally fall out, you need to know how to properly get back in. Ask a professional or watch a YouTube video on the subject.
- Pack beverages, snacks, sunscreen, sunglasses and rain gear.
- Wash with soap and water after paddling because of the high levels of bacteria in the river.