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A Touch of Venice in Chicago

Water taxis offer commuters and tourists a scenic river ride to the Windy City’s downtown area 

Yellow taxis are a necessary mode of transport in large American cities — and in Chicago, there are four that offer this service to the downtown area with a bit of a Venetian twist. They are Chicago’s water taxis, and they can be seen running along the three branches of the Chicago River that serve as marine corridors into the heart of the city.  

Wendella Cruise Line owns the water taxis. Founded by Swedish immigrant Albert Borgstrom in 1935, the third-generation company has seen the importance of its water taxi service grow along with size of this sprawling metropolis. With a population approaching 3 million, Chicago ranks as the third largest city in the United States. When you add in the population of its suburbs, there are about 9.5 million people that call the region home. Rather than drive, many residents choose to take commuter trains into the city, and from spring to late fall, the iconic black-and-yellow water taxis are often the train commuters’ transportation of choice for reaching the downtown area.

Of the four taxis in operation, the 20-meter (65-foot) Wendella Limited is the largest of the fleet. U.S. Coast Guard approved for 100 passengers, the vessel typically operates at full capacity during the rush hours. Commuters reserve their seats, as employees depend on it for traveling to and from the Chicago business district. The vessel is also popular among tourists looking for a unique and scenic route to the city’s core to shop, dine, and visit its cultural attractions. In many aspects, the vessels complement the company’s tourism business, as many enjoy riding the taxi to get a glimpse of the city’s architectural beauty from the water.

“We haul over 360,000 commuters a year,” says Andrew Sargis, chief of operations. “Every one of the last 10 years has been a record year.”

The 15-minute ride on the Wendella Limited is more pleasurable than ever these days. After running for years with competitive marine diesel engines, Wendella overhauled the 1962 vessel and replaced them with a new set of PowerTech 6068AFM85 engines. The John Deere marine diesel engines meet Tier 3 emissions standards and were purchased from Superior Diesel through a grant from the Illinois EPA Clean Diesel Grant Program, designed to help fleets upgrade diesel engines to the latest tier of emissions. “We applied for the award and got it. Now we are seeing improved fuel economy and the city will benefit from less emissions and particulate matter,” says Sargis.  

Removing the old engines was no easy task. Wendella hired Burger Boat Company in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to remove the aluminum deck plates from the upper and lower deck. New engine beds were built and new vents were added to the stern to prepare the vessel for the new PowerTech 6.8L engines. 

With a first full season on the job, Sargis says he’s impressed with the engines’ torque and responsiveness — characteristics that are more important to him than speed. 

“The river is a no-wake zone. We are only traveling 8 knots tops, but we need to be very agile and extremely responsive. On the river, we have kayakers, recreational traffic, tour boats, and material barges. Sometimes we need to stop and reverse on a dime and parallel park these boats between other boats.”

He’s also seeing improvements in fuel economy. “We used to use 1,700 gallons (6,435 liters) a week during the peak of the summer. Now we average 1,400 gallons  (5,300 liters) a week, and we are running four more hours a day and the route is now more rigorous. It’s translating into huge savings in both fuel and emissions.” 

There’s also another advantage that regular riders have noticed. “The engines are far quieter than what we had before,” says Sargis, “and our commuters appreciate that.”   

Sargis says he plans to repower a second vessel, Sunliner, with a pair of John Deere engines as well. “We have new engines on order and will install them this year,” he says. “We always try for consistency to make the boats and propulsion systems as similar as possible. Now that we are going with John Deere engines, we will stick with them.” 

Distributor: Superior Diesel in Rhinelander, Wisconsin;

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