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Wendella to offer free rides to mark 50 years of water taxi

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Updated: November 12, 2012 11:50AM

A seemingly endless torrent of office workers pours out of the Ogilvie Metra station Wednesday morning, many streaming across the Madison Street Bridge, where back-to-back buses rattle and thump across the steel span.

A few commuters branch off, heading down a set of dimly lit stairs to the Chicago River, where the Lyric Opera House looms on the far bank, and a small bright-yellow boat and “Captain Doug” await them.

“It’s just a very soothing way to get to work — the beauty of it, the peace of it,” says Susan Stewart, 57, of Lincoln Square.

Harried commuters — many, like Stewart, looking for a brief respite before the workaday grind — have been taking Chicago Water Taxi since the early 1960s. For 50 years, to be precise.

“It’s a 12-minute vacation,” says Craig Wenokur, vice president and general manager of Wendella Boats, which operates three taxis along a 1.1-mile route from the Madison bridge to Michigan (excluding the less frequently used extension to Chinatown). “There are no cars, no honking, no red lights. It’s quicker than walking a lot of times. It’s a great way to get home.”

In celebration of its 50th anniversary, Chicago Water Taxi is offering free rides all day Thursday. The company says that for every rider Thursday, it will donate $3 to The Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

In 1962, the first water taxi was white, not yellow, and it was called the Commuter Cruiser. Businessmen in suits and hats paid 10 cents each way. Now the fare is $3 and a growing number of riders are tourists and shoppers.

After the Madison “hub” stop, riders can disembark at La Salle/Clark and then Michigan Avenue next to the Wrigley Building.

On Wednesday morning, Capt. Doug Chyna is at the helm of the 50-foot Alpha. With a light breeze ruffling the surface of the river and almost no other boats in sight, Chyna’s looks like a very low-stress job.

“It’s peaceful in the morning and peaceful at night, but during the height of the season, it gets a little crazy with all these other boats, and kayaks and canoes,” explains the cheerful captain. “Sometimes you get these people with big checkbooks (who) write out a check, buy a boat and don’t have a clue what they’re doing.”

During a typical shift, Chyna says he makes 40 to 50 trips. Many of his passengers are regulars, some of whom climb up into his cramped pilothouse for a chat.

“My dog is sick — I told Doug about that,” says Stewart, a law firm marketing manager. “When my dad died, I told him about that. He told me about his girlfriend.”

Aside from the neck-stretching views of the city’s skyscrapers, passengers get to see barges, kayakers, the occasional dead rat and, from time to time, a homeless person trying to sleep within the crisscrossing beams and struts of one of the river’s many bridges.

Whatever Chyna spies from the helm, it’s never dreary.

“I love being on this boat,” he says, as sunlight glistens on the river. “I love the morning shift because seeing that sun rising over Michigan Avenue, it does not get old.”

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