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Huge waves crash, sink boats in Monroe Harbor

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Updated: November 22, 2011 8:28AM

Big waves and brutal winds sank nine boats and badly damaged 11 more in Monroe Harbor between Wednesday and Thursday in one of the worst storms in more than 30 years, police said.

Winds gusting to 60 mph and 25-foot waves ripped sail and motorboats from their moorings, tangled them together in knots and dragged them to the south end of the downtown harbor, where they smashed against concrete harbor walls next to the Shedd Aquarium.

“The waves were so powerful that one boat was jumping out of the water like an Orca against the wall,” said boat owner Kirk Kessler, who came down to the harbor to watch the destruction Wednesday night and predicted the damage will cost insurers millions.“It got real messy.”

As the Chicago Police Marine Unit surveyed the damage later Thursday, boat owners stopped by in dribs and drabs to see if their pride and joy had survived the night.

Braving the chilly lakefront drizzle in storm gear, they peered into a churning soup of splintered wood, fiberglass, diesel, floating orange life preservers and other boat parts for some clue to their boats’ fate. Masts jutted out of the water at unnatural angles and ripped sails littered the waterfront bike path.

“Oh no, that’s it,” a shocked Bob Brown said as he spotted a package of towels that were unmistakably his bobbing in the water.

His 30-foot sailboat, Lutra, was missing from its mooring and was almost certainly one of the nine sitting on the harbor floor, he said.

“People say that the two best days of owning a boat are the day you buy it and the day you sell it, but that’s not true,” he said. “When it’s a nice day and you’re out there on the lake, there’s nothing better. We had some great times.”

One boat owner took a water taxi to his damaged sailboat Thursday afternoon — but then fell into the 50-degree water and had to be rescued, officials said. While he suffered no major injuries, officials decided not to let other owners back into the harbor.

Police Marine Unit Sgt. Ray Mazzola, who has worked in the harbor for 33 years, said the damage was as bad as he has seen, comparable to a May 1984 storm that sank a dozen boats.

Officers “saved five boats and did what they could to keep others from going into the wall,” he said, but the storm was so strong it ripped at least two cans that are used for mooring from their concrete ties on the harbor floor.

It’s possible that the harbor breakwater — built in 1874 and added to 1934 — has developed underwater gaps that let waves through, according to Steve Hungness, chief of operations for the Army Corps of Engineers Chicago.

A plan to improve Monroe Harbor’s defense to host Olympic rowing would have cost tens of millions and was shelved when Rio won the rights to host the 2016 games, he said.

There’s no money for a permanent fix in what remains Chicago’s most exposed harbor, he added.

Though the harbor holds 1,000 boats during peak season and remains open until Oct. 31, just 200 remained moored there Wednesday night, Park District spokeswoman Matra Juaniza said.

Most owners moved their boats earlier to avoid the riskier late season, she added.

But capsized Tiki boat owner Paul Newman — whose bamboo-covered party boat is one of the more recognizable small crafts moored downtown — said he doesn’t regret his decision to keep his boat in the water as long as possible.

“Some of us are in denial that the boat season ever ends,” he said. “We’ll be back next year, but first I need to buy a bunch of bamboo.”

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