My protective and highly-imaginative father feared my new boyfriend had devious connections. “Lives on a boat, knows all the best restaurants—might have mafia ties,” he warned me.
I reassured him. “A mafia man would have a fancier boat.”
The vessel for my liveaboard sweetheart was a 38-foot 1980 Marine Trader trawler named Mazurka.
The captain was a fiercely-independent “Yooper” from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula; Mazurka became Mark’s solution to living in a city of three million people. It gave him freedom, space and a dockside view of nature. He also had access to world-class culture and activities. On one of our first dates, he took me down the Chicago River and out the locks to Navy Pier, where we floated and watched fireworks right above our heads. I marveled at how spacious—how quiet—the city could be.
I soon learned that Chicago is a boater’s paradise. Whether it’s dropping anchor in Lake Michigan’s “playpen” just north of the Miracle Mile, cruising the iconic river with an up-close view of its architecture or sidling up to one of the many waterfront restaurants (we did visit a lot of them), the waterways welcome the nautical set with open arms.
When Mark and I got married, how could I pass up the chance to live aboard in the city? I gave away most of my belongings and moved on board with my two cats.
The liveaboard lifestyle might sound logical in balmy Florida. In Chicago, not only is it possible, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Changing seasons meant we changed marinas; we spent summers along Lake Michigan and winters on the Chicago River. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and life on board gave us the chance to get to know the quirks and charms of a lot of them, from downtown and the Gold Coast to the South Loop and Printer’s Row to Wrigleyville and Lincoln Park on the north side.
We spent our first summer together tethered to a mooring buoy right downtown in Monroe Harbor. Our South Hotel Ten address had good and not-so-good points. Surrounded by water, we had a lot of privacy and a stunning view of the downtown skyline; every Wednesday and Saturday nights we sat on our aft deck and watched the fireworks over Navy Pier. But to reach our home, we had to either take the tender operated by the Chicago Park District, or we had to row. I was training for the Chicago Marathon that summer, and early on Saturday mornings, Mark would row me to shore so I could run south along the lakefront, past Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park, through Museum Campus with the Field Museum and the Shedd Aquarium and further south through Burnham Park, past more marinas. The city has a lakefront path spanning 18 miles of park space open to everyone, and exploring it is one of the best ways to see and belong in Chicago.
Life on a mooring buoy could also be a huge pain in the ass, like when we had to haul laundry, groceries or engine oil. We had easy access to the downtown activities, but if we stayed out past the last tender, we’d have to row our dinghy, kept locked ashore. We were newlyweds, so the cold October evening we saw King Lear at the Goodman and had to row home, the wind and rain whipping us sideways, was novel and thrilling. Without much protection, a storm kept us rocking for days in 4-foot waves; water got into the exhaust and almost flooded the engine. But we were in love! And no shore power? Not a problem until our generator abruptly quit the day after we got married. (I think Mazurka was a little jealous.)
When the season ended in October, we applied for “Late Leaver” status, giving us an extra month in a municipal marina. We cruised north to a Belmont Harbor dock and spent those glorious days of fall color in Lincoln Park, watching sunrises over the lake from our protected slip. Life on a dock was a whole lot easier, with parking, shore power and front-door access to the paved lakefront trail and public transportation.
When the wind chill fell to single digits and snow started flying, we headed south to River City Marina. This privately owned marina—the only one in the city with its services working year-round—gave us a front-seat view of the Willis Tower in the South Loop neighborhood, undergoing an explosion of new development. We were also within walking distance of Printer’s Row, the lakefront, the library, museums and cultural activities.
In our new neighborhood, we joined the motley crew of “River Rats,” about a dozen of the stoutest liveaboards who gathered at River City for the winter. As you can imagine, winter liveaboards are independent, creative, kind and a little rambunctious. They loved prepping their boats for winter, building the plywood structures for shrinkwrap and wielding the blowtorch. They beamed when something went wrong (broken pumpout, listing boat) and they had to gather together to save the day. The annual holiday party meant everybody decked out their vessels with lights and refreshments and covered the icy docks with towels. The evening culminated with the Bonehead Award for the best boating mistake made by a liveaboard that year. (My husband proudly wore the headband for his epic mistake—which we won’t repeat in print.)
For refuge from winter temperatures, we used multiple heating systems: a Mermaid Reverse Air Heater/Air Conditioner, which ran on electricity, and a Toyoset NS-2800 cabin heater, which could run on either diesel or kerosene. Working together, they kept the interior above 70 degrees. We had a couple space heaters on board just in case, and the plastic shrinkwrap on the top of the boat kept things pretty toasty. For our friends who thought living on board in winter was crazy, our little home was warmer than a lot of their window-covered condos.
Filling the water tanks and pumping out the sewage was a challenging adventure, as the services were on the opposite side of the marina from us. This two-person job required us to stand at either end of the marina, tie the hose to a line, then toss the line across the marina entrance so the hose could reach the utilities. If it was sleeting or snowing or below zero, all the more fun.
The previous winter, Mark had suspended a de-icer (a circulating fan) off the stern to keep the water circulating around the boat, but in our newlywed year, he was distracted and didn’t get around to it. We had mild temperatures, and the river was always flowing, so by February we thought we’d mastered winter.
Until we came back from a weekend away to find the Chicago River completely frozen. Mazurka and all the boats in the marina were entirely locked in ice. It was nauseating to open the door to the frozen tomb, to find our cats puffed up and thirsty, their water dish a block of ice. Sometime in the previous 24 hours, as the wind stopped and temperatures dropped in the subzero double-digits, our heating systems failed one by one. That night, Mark started the engine—the only action he could think to get things warmed up—and we spent the night listening for a cracking hull. The next day we bought more space heaters, and Mark cut a hole in the ice with an auger and got the de-icer circulating water around the boat. By evening, we had a floating boat again, miraculously unharmed, and cabin temps above 70.
Maybe the best neighborhood we got to experience was the nautical zip code just for boaters. A lot happens on the water that landlubbers don’t notice. Our neighbors were the architectural tour boats and police boaters (who one night pointed out coyotes running on the shoreline). Every spring we watched the flotilla of sailboats pass beneath the raised bridges in the annual migration out to the lake. Every summer we served as a safety boat for the “Flatwater Classic,” a canoe and kayak event run by the Friends of the Chicago River to bring awareness to the river’s water quality standards. (In 2010 they achieved their goal when the Illinois Pollution Control Board agreed to strengthen water quality standards.)
Two years into married life on board, we started talking about having a family. “We could have kids on a boat in Chicago,” Mark said.
“We could…” was my answer.
Today, we live in a house on the shores of Lake Superior. In the summer, we explore the big lake aboard Mazurka with our three tsunamis, ages 9, 7 and 5. They are growing up on tales of our epic liveaboard urban life, and making their own memories exploring the remote areas of Lake Superior. Mazurka is happy to carry us all.
On a book tour for my memoir, Newlyweds Afloat: Married Bliss and Mechanical Breakdowns, I returned to Chicago and stayed in a hotel in our old stomping grounds. The compressed urban landscape felt like an assault. How did I survive all this concrete? I wondered—until I went out to the Corinthian Boat Club for the book event. On Montrose Harbor, the spaciousness of the Chicago lakefront greeted me. I remembered the bliss of boat life in a city so big. We had all the cultural amenities but could retreat to our haven on the water.
Boaters really do have the best of both worlds.