Last August, high water prevented many of the excursion boats plying the Chicago River from clearing the many historic bridges spanning the city's central artery. Those vessels couldn't sail on some of the best cruise days of the year.
Excursion boat Chicago's Leading Lady is designed to clear the Windy City's low-draft bridges on the Chicago River. (Brian Gauvin photos)
Chicago's Leading Lady, fresh from the Burger Boat Co. yard in Manitowoc, Wis., was purpose-built to clear the river's lowest span, the 18-foot, 5-inch Madison Street Bridge, at normal water by 28 inches. But what about high water?
"The Leading Lady has a full load of passengers and therefore we can clear the bridges by a few inches," said Capt. Bob Agra, owner of Chicago's First Lady Cruises. Agra was at the wheel while the tour boat sailed under the spacious bridge. "As a small business, I wear many hats," he said.
Agra is the third-generation owner of Chicago's First Lady Cruises, the company his grandfather founded in 1935. When Agra's father died in 1976, Agra took over at the age of 18. The fleet consists of four double-decker boats: Chicago's First Lady, Chicago's Leading Lady, Chicago's Fair Lady, Chicago's Little Lady and Lady Grebe, a 48-foot yacht catering to private charters.
Chicago's Leading Lady was designed by Mark Pudlo of Seacraft Design in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., a close neighbor to Burger Boats. "The fit and finish on this boat is phenomenal," said Agra. "But you'd expect that from craftsmen who build mega-yachts worth $65 million or more."
The vessel's owner, Capt. Bob Agra, operates the throttle during a tour of the river and canals.
The lines and finishes of the 98-foot vessel are reminiscent of the luxury cruising yachts of the 1920s, with some shoe horning and creative design work to achieve the low profile. For example, the pilothouse was recessed into the upper deck, which in turn necessitated the engine room to be designed as a crawl space, housing two Caterpillar C12 mains with ZF gears and two Caterpillar C4.4 generators.
The vessel is licensed for 299 passengers and crew with an open fore deck and climate-controlled enclosed lower deck with grand and curved stern windows. The open upper deck, with 255 seats, affords a great view of the city's magnificent skyline.
"We have a cooperative agreement with the Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) that has worked out very well," said Agra. Each cruise carries a CAF docent, who is knowledgeable about the significant buildings lining the river.
"Each docent is dedicated to explaining the architecture of Chicago, and each of them presents it a little differently. But they are proud of the city's architecture and it shows. So it is a good cooperative venture that makes us the premier architectural cruise," said Agra.
Left, Docent Patricia Grund explains the city skyline to more than 200 guests on the upper deck of Chicago's Leading Lady. Right, Capt. Bob Agra, owner of Chicago's First Lady Cruises, is proud of his fleet's urban architecture tours.
From left, deck hand Keith Krokosz, Agra, deck hand Scott Kozak, Grund, and deck hand Jose Garcia muster outside the wheelhouse of Chicago's Leading Lady.
Left, the excursion vessel offers a unique river view of the Sears Tower. Right, engineer Mark Easterbrook at work with a Caterpillar C12 Tier 2 engine.