It was almost said in a dream.
A few weeks prior, the Marine Operations manager and The Chicago Water Taxi Manager, my boss, pulled me aside at our Captain’s dinner. I had no idea what they were planning to say, my imagination was getting the best of me. “We would like to congratulate you on being a member of the Wendella Ltd. delivery team.” Hands were shaken, smiles given. I’m sure my expression was priceless. Me! I had no idea what I had done to deserve such an honor, but I was not about to ruin that spectacular moment by asking why.
So it was deemed that myself, Captain Nels, and Captain Ray were to take the Wendella Ltd. (one of our prized water taxis) on a journey to the Wisconsin harbor town of Manitowoc to get an engine overhaul. What an experience! What a memory! It was a scheduled fourteen hour trip, with the possibility of added length depending on the sea-faring conditions.
We arrived at 0800 hours to the Jackson St. dock in Chicago to man a full inspection of the vessel. She had to be sea-worthy. We de-watered all the bilges, thoroughly checked both engines and generators, unloaded extraneous materials, and tidied her up. She was ready for the journey. The three of us went home to get some shut-eye before our long journey.
Back to the dock at 2030 (that’s 8:30pm for the non-military time-tellers), we began our excursion. We revved the engines, threw off the lines, and made our way to the Chicago Harbor lock. Excitement was brewing. The three of us had been looking forward to this trip for two weeks and it was becoming a reality now.
As we sat in the Chicago Lock–me on the bottom deck grabbing lines; Nels and Ray on the upper deck maneuvering and keeping watch–the anticipation was building with every cubic foot of water fighting its way into this small canal. At last! The gates began to open fully and after about a minute, the alarm rang through the air, telling us we were allowed to depart. I grabbed the line and we were off the wall and into open water. Lake Michigan, here we come!
Having worked on the tour boats before, the Chicago skyline was nothing new to my eyes, but something about watching it slowly (and we’re talking a good three to four hours) disappear off the horizon was quite an incredible experience. What started out as a piercing display of grandeur and lights in the middle of the night, simply faded away to a soft glow, then eventually to a dark void. The pomp and circumstance of the artificial light gave way to darkness and a new display–stars–became the center focus. What a beautiful thing, the night sky. What a marvel of creation; that God chose to illuminate the night with a display so majestic as the stars and planets. I was quite excited to see the stars again. Living in a large city does not allow a person to fully experience the profound display of the night sky often enough.
We were chugging along quite peacefully in the early hours of the morning. With a light SW breeze on our tail and a clear night which allowed us great vision, we continued making our way north toward Wisconsin. Captain Ray pulled out his phone and we played around with an app that allowed us to see what other registered boats were in the area. A shipping freighter called, “Burns Harbor” was trailing us about 50 miles off. We would see them again around sunrise as they headed NE for a delivery up the Great Lakes.
Ray also pulled up an app that allowed us to see what constellations were out at any given point during the night. That was amazing to me. He just pointed his phone up to the sky and the camera registered the dots and showed an impressive array of constellations right there on the screen! (As much as I harp on my hatred for the idolatry of technology, I have to admit I am duly impressed by it.) That his phone could register dots in the sky and tell us exactly what each of them was! That’s an incredible thing, something the Greeks would have loved to get their hands on.
At this point in the evening (around 0045), I was downstairs reading my latest Time subscription while the guys were upstairs jamming to 60’s and 70’s rock and eating some of Ray’s delicious homemade snacks. Suddenly my reading was disrupted by the handheld radio sitting on the counter in front of me. “Chloe. Copy Chloe.” It was Nels. “There’s an alarm going off in the lazarette compartment. Go down there and take a look.” I grabbed the two hatch keys and met Ray at the bottom of the stairs.
We opened up the hatch of the lazarette (which is another name for the rudder compartment) and Ray climbed down to take a look. I was up on deck still, but I poked my head down into the hold, scanning for anything out of the ordinary. I didn’t see anything at first. Neither did Ray. Then, as Nels turned to Starboard ever so slightly, we saw it. Ray shined his flashlight on the Port rudder and a stream of water was shooting out from the rudder post. “Get me the grease gun.” I went into the cabin and rummaged through the engineering supplies until I found what he needed. Ray filled the rudder post with plenty of grease to stop the flow of water. He filled the Starboard side too, for good measure. After about five minutes the ordeal was over with and we were back upstairs listening to classic rock like nothing ever happened. Just another day at the office.
At 0100 it was my turn to take the helm. We had previously decided to divide helm time into four-hour shifts. So from 0100-0500 I was in control of our destiny. It was pretty intimidating at first. I was adjusting to the waves, the wind, and perpetually looking at the Radar system to make sure I wasn’t taking us across the lake to Michigan (what a great trip that would be though!). Nels laughed at me–the newbie–a warm, brotherly laugh. It assured me. I knew with these two guys behind me, I would be just fine.
Up in the distance, I was following a slow blinking red light as a point of destination. Racine. A small Wisconsin town, just over the border, nestled between two industrial cities: Chicago and Milwaukee. Within an hour, we were blazing past this sleepy city and onto Milwaukee–brats, beer, and baseball. At this point, my eyes were fixed on two vertical poles decked with a series of blinking red lights. Probably created for air-traffic control, they helped guide me through the night as a heading. I have never been to Milwaukee, so my imagination was running wild creating the buildings and streets that were only visible to me via night lights, and fifty miles offshore at that.
We passed Milwaukee with little disruption, the tunes of Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, etc kept me from falling asleep through the wee hours of the morning. There really is nothing like the music that emanated from that era. It is timeless. It always makes you want to tap your toes and show off your best “air guitar.” When you hear the likes of “Layla” or “Hard Day’s Night” circulate through the air, you can’t help but sing along. We listened to an uninterrupted stream of classic rock (thank you, Sirius Radio) from the moment we left Chicago to just south of Sheboygan. What a legacy! What a gift to humanity. I digress.
At 0500, it was Ray’s turn to take the helm. I quickly made my way downstairs for a much-needed cat nap. With oil-absorber pads as my pillow and a comfy bench seat as my bed, I crashed. After what only seemed like a minute, Nels came and woke me up when the sun was beginning to show its first set of colors. He knew how much I had wanted to see the sunrise on this trip. There is nothing like seeing a sunrise–or sunset–on open water. It is one of the closest experiences we have to seeing creation as it was first meant to be seen. Pure, serene, unobstructed.
My camera at the ready, I snapped away. What a beautiful sunrise it was, too. The sky was a vivid, clear blue all around–except on the eastern horizon where there was a thin, solitary, horizontal strip of puffy cloud hovering just above the dark blue water, almost acting as a blanket from which the sleepy sun would emerge. The sky around the cloud was a hazy yellow, deepened in the center with the glow of red-orange from which the sun would soon appear. And she did not fail. Yet again, the sun birthed her way into the world from this watery bed. What a promise. New life, every day. If anything on this trip was worth it, I was staring at it that very moment.
Since the sun was up and none of us were able to sleep, we all decided to partake in breakfast. Ray brought a delicious egg bake, as did I, and we commenced in dishing out our sustenance. There were only a few hours left on the water, but what a beautiful last few hours we had ahead. The sun was up in a deep blue sky, the air was brisk–perfect fall weather–and we had NPR’s “Fresh Air” to entertain us for the last leg of the journey.
We could see Manitowoc far sooner that we actually were able to enter into the small harbor mouth. It was tantalizing to watch the small white harbor lighthouse grow larger and larger as we came closer. We were all ready to get off the boat and head for home. As we pulled into the harbor and onto the Manitowoc River, a sense of joy and accomplishment filled me. We did it. We made the fourteen-hour overnight journey with no incident. I was proud of my crew, proud of myself. This was my first long-distance boat delivery and I was hooked.
Nels maneuvered us through “downtown” Manitowoc, calling the two bridges obstructing our passage. Nels began doing his best imitation of a local news anchor: “Downtown traffic report: The eighth and tenth street bridges are suspended, holding up traffic for a single yellow boat. Chicago Water Taxi is now making its way through town, folks. Free shots at Bridgeview Tavern to anyone who was waylayed by the incident.” I busted a gut laughing. In Chicago, it’s a big ordeal for the bridges to have to go up in the spring and fall, allowing sail boats to get through the city. It holds up traffic for hours. I didn’t see a single car on the road while the bridges in Manitowoc were being raised. Small town America at its finest.
We snaked through the river for about a mile until we got to Burger Yacht yard, the company responsible for doing the overhaul on the Wendella Ltd. Nels backed the boat into the slip and they prepared to lift her out of the water. I don’t know if you have ever seen a boat lift, but they are usually decent-sized machines with semi-truck tires and heavy-duty straps. This particular boat lift was gargantuan. It made the other lifts I’d seen look like play toys. The tires alone were six feet tall! This machine was a massive display of engineering.
After a union lunch break and a little hiccup with some paperwork our office had overlooked, the team began to lift the Ltd. out of the water. What an ordeal. A diver, six straps, and a snails-pace of maneuvering later, the Ltd. was finally out of the water. Our crew had to sit and wait for the team to finish their business before we could clear out and go home. Needless to say, it was four hours before that actually happened. We were all exhausted and sunburned and ready to leave. Grabbing our belongings, and waving one last time to the old gal, we hopped in the work truck and headed south for Chicago. Home sweet home.
We didn’t anticipate a five-hour drive back, however. To tack onto the already long day we had, we hit rush-hour traffic in both Milwaukee and Chicago. Lovely. By the time I got home, I had been awake for nearly twenty-seven hours. Woof.
I have to say, it was worth it. The journey that Nels, Ray, and I took was a memorable one. A trip filled with laughter, good conversation, and the thrill of a fourteen-hour boat ride. I think I was swaying for at least a day after we touched back on dry land. I am thankful for the opportunity and the trust that Wendella has given me through this adventure, and I look forward to more in the future!