Tall Ships at Navy Pier, Chicago 2016

What is it about sailing ships that makes most of us dream of luxury, romance and adventure? To be sure, the movie industry has played a role, but human beings seem to be instinctively drawn to the sea. The idea of sailing on the open water with nothing but the wind to propel you and the stars to guide you is a compelling one, even for people who would never actually board a ship of any kind on the open seas. Of course, the reality of life on a sailing ship, especially if you were a lowly sailor or slave on an 15th or 16th century voyage to the New World, was nothing like the romantic images Hollywood produces. Hard work, malnutrition, disease and even death were the norm, not cocktails and gourmet meals on demand. Even a sleek, modern sailboat is a lot of work to sail, unless, of course, you can hire a full crew to sail it for you while you man the Champagne bucket.

Still, the ships are beautiful and we can all sail them happily in our dreams. Every three years or so there is a Tall Ship Festival on the Navy Pier in Chicago and 2016 was one of those years. It is a bitter cold January day as I write this, but I am going to grab a cup of hot coffee and look back at a warm weekend last summer.


Over a dozen sailing vessels from various countries and centuries made their way to Chicago in July. It was a beautiful weekend, so why not spend part of it strolling along Navy Pier and enjoying the fresh air, the weather and the ships? If you have ever visited Chicago, it is likely that you spent some time on Navy Pier, the most popular tourist destination in the city. Since it opened as the Municipal Pier in 1916, it has been reinvented and repurposed several times. It was renamed Navy Pier in 1927 in honor of the seaman who trained there during world War I, and a major renovation and facelift was completed this year. Today it boasts one of the finest Shakespeare Theaters in the country, if not the world, along with Lake Michigan and Chicago River cruises, an iMax Theater, the Chicago Children’s Museum, an amazing stained glass museum, a wide range of dining options and more. It’s worth of a blog entry or two on its own, but, for now, I’ll just refer you to the website for details. If you have an hour to spare, the local PBS station did an excellent hour-long documentary of the pier to commemorate the completion of the remodeling.

There are a number of ships permanently docked at the Navy Pier, ranging from the Seadog speedboat to the luxurious Odyssey dinner cruise ship. One such permanent resident is Windy (pictured above). She is a modern ship designed as a Four-Masted Gaff Topsail Schooner, 148′ long and 85′ high. I’m sure all of you know just what a Four-Masted Gaff Topsail Schooner is, but I haven’t a clue. Well. OK, I get the 4-mast part and I know a schooner is a type of sailing ship that has been around for 300 years or so, but that is about it. I am not going to pretend I am an expert on sailing ships. I just want to show you my pretty pictures of them. Good old Wikipedia has a nice summary of the history and design of schooners here.

Spring, summer and fall you can book passage on Windy  for variously-themed cruises to view the Chicago architecture, hear ghost stories about the haunted harbors of Chicago, watch the weekend fireworks at Navy Pier, and more. You can buy individual tickets to trips throughout the day, or you can charter the whole thing for yourself and your friends, family and/or business associates. I haven’t sailed on Windy yet, but I have taken lake and river tours many times on many vessels and they have all been scenic, enjoyable and educational.

Another schooner, the Red Witch, had also been based in Chicago for several years, but relocated to Kenosha, WI in the last half of the 2016 sailing season where it will remain for the 2017 season.



They offer afternoon and evening cruises with the last one occurring at sunset, always a beautiful sight from the water. Red Witch is named after a novel, Wake of the Red Witch, written by Garland Roark in 1946.


Wake of the Red Witch is an exciting sea adventure/love story that was made into a movie starring none other than The Duke himself, John Wayne, in 1949. It’s one of Wayne’s lesser-known films but it is readily available on Amazon in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. Definitely worth your time if you are a John Wayne fan or a fan of classic 1940s movies.


The interior of the ship is decorated with pictures and posters from the movie.

Here’s a little more about the Red Witch from its web page.

“Red Witch was voted Chicago’s “Best Tour & Charter Boat” in 2009, 2010 and 2012. She is a replica of a Great Lakes working schooner from the mid-nineteenth century, is 77-feet long and weighs 41 tons. Her two gaff-rigged masts carry 2,500 square feet of sail. Made of wood, Red Witch was built in 1986 in Bayou La Batre, Alabama at the boatyard of Nathaniel Zirlott, a commercial boat builder known for building rugged ocean boats.”

Here’s another shot of her with her sails down.


Not every boat on display was a Tall Ship. This 1939 custom-made runabout was one example.



The boat sat unrestored and unused for decades until the current owner, Matt Byrne, completed a 5-year restoration project in September of 2012. Only 122 of these boats are built. Now perfectly restored with authentic hardware, it runs like a top and is a little more practical for most of us than a Tall Ship!

Even when there are no Tall Ships to admire, Navy Pier offers a dramatic view of the Chicago skyline.


At night, the city lights make a spectacular sight as well. Here is a shot I took with my trusty iPhone on New Year’s Eve.

These two shots are from the south side of the pier. We’ll see the view from the north side a bit later.

Turning our attention back to the Tall Ships, the Andalucía is a replica (launched in 2009) of the Spanish galleons that sailed and often dominated the seas in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.


There was no vantage point on the crowded pier that allowed me to capture a good shot of the entire ship, so I turned my attention to some of the detail, which was just as beautiful.



You can see more images of the Andalucía (and the other ships) in the gallery at the end of this article. Her home port is St. Augustine, Florida. There is more information, pictures and videos at the official website of El Galeón Andalucía.

Moored next to the Andalucía was the Pride of Baltimore II. She’s another schooner, specifically a topsail schooner.


Her home port is—can you believe it?—Baltimore and her official web site is here.


Earlier we too a look at the view of the Chicago skyline from the south side of Navy Pier and I promised you a look at the view from the north side. Here you go!


As part of the remodeling of the Navy Pier, the Ferris Wheel, which has been a fixture on the pier for over 20 years, was replaced by one that is taller and faster and features temperature-controlled gondolas that allow riders to enjoy the views in air-conditioned or heated comfort year-round.



Some of you may know that the first Ferris Wheel was built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. 264 feet tall, it was an engineering marvel at the time. The new Ferris wheel on the Navy Pier is much smaller at 196 ft (~60 m) than the original, but it is 48 feet taller than the one it replaces. The old wheel was moved to Branson, MO, where it will presumably thrill riders for years to come. The largest Ferris Wheel is in Las Vegas and is 550 ft (~168 m) tall.

Here are a few of the views you can enjoy from the wheel.




There is a premium VIP gondola with a glass floor that let you look down (if you dare) and the wheel lifts you up.


The wheel allowed a very different view of the Tall Ships that you could get from the ground.


The ship that is under sail in the upper left corner is the Friends Good Will, a square topsail sloop. I will again confess my ignorance of the design and construction of sailing vessels and refer those of you who are interested to the Wikipedia article on sloops. Briefly, a sloop is generally small and faster than a schooner and has only one mast and (typically) two sails. They were developed by the Dutch in the early 1600s and important variations on the design were developed in Bermuda and Jamaica and by the navies in various countries. Pirates liked  them because they were fast and could sail into relatively shallow waters. The same characteristics made them useful to the military for running naval blockades of larger ships. The Friends Good Will is a replica launched in 2004 from the shipyard where she was built in Albany, NY to its home port in South Haven, MI. You can read more about her on her home page. 

The Ferris Wheel also provided a great view of the Draken Harald Hårfagre, a reproduction of the largest of the Viking ships that was built in 2010. 


She was built and makes her home in Haugesund, Norway and is the largest Viking ship built in 1000 years. She spent the summer on an expedition in North America, sailing the Great Lakes waterways. Navy Pier was one stop along the way. I have been to the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway and read a bit about the history of the ships and their sailors. Fierce warriors and skilled seamen, you probably know that the Vikings were almost certainly the first Western Europeans to visit North America sometime around 1000 AD. 

I have one last ship to mention, and this one is definitely not a Tall Ship.


This one is about a food long and radio-controlled in a pond next to the Ferris Wheel. There were several models and the kids were having a great time playing with them.

The ride on the Ferris Wheel was the end of our time at Navy Pier, as we were off to a matinee at the Goodman theater. As far as I know the Tall Ships will return on their usual 3-year rotation in 2019, but don’t wait until then to visit Navy Pier. There are activities year-round and plenty of good food and drink for the kids and for adults.

 The author is a member of the Amazon Affiliate program but otherwise has no affiliation with any of the businesses or products described in this article.

All images were taken with a Sony Alpha a6300 camera and a Sony-Zeiss SEL1670Z Vario-Tessar T E 16-70mm (24-105mm full frame equivalent) F/4 ZA OSS lens or Sony 35mm (52mm full frame equivalent) F/1.8 E-Mount Lens using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik/Google plugins. 

The slide show contains additional images not shown in the text above.

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