In less than a week, one person remains missing and two others have been seriously injured in or near Chicago's boat hangout known as "The Playpen," a federal anchorage area of Lake Michigan near Navy Pier that's been a staple of the downtown boating party scene for years.
At approximately 5:15 p.m. Saturday, while floating on a raft, a woman's feet were severed and another's hand was injured after they were caught in the propeller of a yacht that had begun to drift. According to authorities, the 70-year-old captain of the rented boat said he was struggling with a malfunctioning anchor, but a lawyer for the woman who lost both feet says the crash was due to negligence.
In Wednesday’s accident, the U.S. Coast Guard and local authorities searched overnight into Thursday morning for one who person fell off a boat around 7 p.m. between the Jardine Water Filtration Plant and the Playpen.
“It’s a very small area with a lot of boats that want to go in every weekend,” said Ryan Remsing, manager of Chicago-area boat rental company SailTime. “That multiplies the danger: moving people, moving boats. That’s an area that’s going to have accidents because there’s so much boat movement.”
According to authorities, boaters can stay in the Playpen all day and overnight if needed. It has no capacity limit, but authorities can use other laws to control how dense the area gets with boats, according to Illinois Conservation Police Sgt. Joshua Mooi.
“There’s not a lot that can be regulated as far as how many boats and where,” Mooi said. “There’s some things we do to cut down on how dense the population of boats and people are.”
That includes enforcing the buoy line along Ohio Street, the border of the anchorage area, and issuing citations when boaters speed or are reckless, Mooi said.
Most of the laws broken in the Playpen are not related to rowdy partying. The most common citations are for not having enough lifejackets, missing boat registrations and operating a boat without lights after dark, Mooi said.
“Chicago is lucky enough that the Playpen is both a blessing and a curse,” Mooi said. “We know it’s going to be a mess of people with a lot of boats and there will probably be accidents. But we’re lucky that it’s an anchorage area that allows people to drop anchor and sleep on the boat” until they’re sober enough to leave safely.
Authorities say it could take weeks or even months before they finish their investigation of Saturday's boating accident, and it’s unclear what if any safety recommendations might come out of it.
“Anytime something like this happens, we go through a process looking at safety measures in the investigation,” Coast Guard Lt. Rachel Ault said. “The investigation may lead to safety recommendations on how to prevent future incidents from occurring.”
Investigators with the Coast Guard and the Natural Resources Department are interviewing more than two dozen people. Any potential citations or license suspensions — or safety recommendations — won’t be issued until the investigation is finished, Ault said.
According to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which tracks drownings, at least 35 people have drowned in Lake Michigan so far this year.
The Chicago Sun-Times wire contributed to this report.