Columbia Yacht Club
A Jewel on the Lakefront

What is that big ship and where does it go? Are the most frequent questions heard from those who see the "big blue boat" tied up at the head or north end of Chicago's Monroe Harbor for the first time. The answer to this question is that the boat is Columbia Yacht Club and it doesn't go anywhere. This landmark vessel on the Chicago lakefront is the "Abegweit" or "Abby", the most recent in a series of ships that have been the home to Columbia Yacht Club.

Columbia Yacht Club's Unique History

Columbia Yacht Club boasts a history rich in tradition and almost as old as Chicago itself. Plans were put together for the club in 1891, by five sailors who wanted to establish a new downtown yacht club. In 1892, a charter was granted this group by the state and a site selected at the foot of Randolph Street, where it still resides after 113 years.

Columbia has the unique distinction of having always been a floating yacht club. The original clubship was a hand built shack on a floating barge located at the foot of Randolph Street near its current location. The ideal location brought many new members, so "the shack" was soon replaced by a 2-story building, still afloat, to accommodate the new members.

In 1927, the Club purchased "Pere Marquette #4", a 193' steamboat, and towed it to the Randolph Street location. In 1936, this ship was replaced by a former lake steamer the "Florida". A fire in the 1950s destroyed the original superstructure of the "Florida" which was replaced by a more modern design. By 1982, the growing membership determined that the "Florida" was too small and the controversial decision was made to purchase a new clubship.
In 1983 the Club purchased the replacement for the "Florida", the "Abegweit" or "Abby", a 386 foot, 8,500 gross tons, decommissioned railroad-car ice-breaking ferry from the Canadian National Railroad. This ship had for many years been the only way to get from the mainland, in Nova Scotia, to Prince Edward Island. In April of that year 45 club members joined 15 licensed deck and engineering officers from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (all Chicago Alumni) and 6 Canadian officers (returning from retirement), to make "Abby's" final and longest voyage, the voyage from Pictou, Nova Scotia to Chicago. Today the "Abegweit" sits proudly at the top of Chicago's Monroe Harbor; home to an active and welcoming Columbia Yacht Club and a true jewel on Chicago's beautiful lakefront. She remains the largest privately owned yacht to ever traverse the St. Lawrence Seaway.

The Clubship Delivery Voyage

When the Chicago Chapter of the U. S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association, requested volunteers to bring an almost 400 foot long ship down the St. Lawrence Seaway, Second Assistant Engineer Jules Traut, now a Columbia Yacht Club member and Columbia's Chief Engineering Officer, was one of the fifteen association members who raised their hands. The volunteers were told the ship had been in mothballs for over a year and if not relocated would go to the scrap yard, that the two week delivery was planned for the spring of 1983, the pay would be $1 plus the air fare to Halifax, and that their crew would be un-licensed yacht club members! Looking back, it turned out to be a very memorable experience and one that he and the rest of the delivery crew will always treasure.

"We knew we would have to bring our own tools, radio gear, navigational charts, etc., as all these types of things had "walked off" the ship while it was out of service. Imagine going to O'Hare Field today with a tool box full of such terrorist items as screwdrivers, channel locks, socket wrenches, pry bars, etc., along with a one-way ticket out of the country."

"Six of us went up early, on Good Friday morning, thinking we'd use the ship as our "hotel" and tour Nova Scotia, until the main contingent arrived on Easter Sunday night. Ha! We arrived at the waterfront in Pictou, Nova Scotia, about 11 pm, in a very cold drizzling rain and fog. Climbing a rickety narrow gangplank, we entered the vessel at the "mezzanine" level and saw a dim light at the top of the stairwell. There was one bulb on there, one in what is now the formal dining room and one in what is now the bar area. Everywhere we walked the dark maroon floor tile was covered in grit and crunched underfoot. The hull was being sandblasted and painted (part of the delivery terms) and that grit covered everything! There was a sheet of paper taped to the bulkhead designating who was assigned to what cabin. I found mine, dropped my gear on the bunk, found my flashlight and then went exploring. The rail deck was a wide open "tunnel" from the stern to almost the bow of the ship with 3 parallel railroad tracks. There were no lights on and it was very eerie."

"After opening a few hatch type doors, I found a stairwell down to the control room level and thought I'd entered a Frankenstein movie set. Everywhere I looked were 1940's vintage knife blade switches, stacks of resistors, large dials and wheels, etc. I was sure "Igor" would come hobbling out from behind a cabinet at any moment. There were still no lights as none of the ship's generators were working. Going down to the main engines level, reality really struck - there would be no golf, sightseeing or fishing this weekend! Instead a lot of detective work was in store. I could see and hear multiple dripping noises from leaking pipes. While examining valve manifolds, I noted that a great number of brass nameplate disks had been removed and apparently taken as souvenirs. I returned to my cabin asking myself what the hell I'd gotten myself into!"

"First thing Saturday morning, I went into Pictou, found a local hardware store and bought all their masking tape and marking pens. Returning to the ship, I got a couple of the "early birds" together and we started our detective work. There are 2 separate engine rooms below the rail deck, each containing 8 Dominion Sulzer 6-cylinder locomotive sized diesel engines paired to 4 main generators. These created the power to the 4 huge motors driving each of the 4 propellers, 2 forward pulling and 2 aft pushing the ship. We found a sketch in the control room that designated them by number and put a masking tape label on each. We then began opening tanks to see if they contained fuel oil, lube oil, fresh or salt water, bilge or ballast. After labeling the tanks, we traced the piping to and from them, to pumps or manifolds. Labeling the pumps, we then traced the conduit from their motors to the relay panels and labeled the relays. On the circuit breaker panels in the control room, we found that fortunately the identification cards had not been removed and these confirmed our detective efforts."

"Next we figured out how to start one of the small emergency diesels in a room off the rail deck. This provided 440v DC power to the control room and enabled us to start a saltwater, fresh water, lube oil, fuel oil and vacuum pump for 1 of the 3 ship's generators. Once running, that generator in turn produced power to start the auxiliary pumps and then the other 2 ship's generators. We then had enough power to start the comparable support pumps and systems for the main engines. This was a great example of the "domino effect" but to accomplish it took all day Saturday, and a good part of Sunday. We also marked all of the pressure gauge and thermometer dials about mid-range with marking pens, as well as labeling all the valves. This labeling would prove invaluable once the novice yacht club crew joined us."

"The main contingent of the crew (the yacht club members and the rest of the USMMA licensed officers) arrived late Sunday and their "orientation" started on Monday morning. We didn't have time to get into a lot of technical marine engineering, so we just simplified the key points of their duties. The entire crew was divided into 3 watches so everyone worked at least a 4 hours on and 8 hours off shift for the entire trip. My team was the 4 am to 8 am and 4 pm to 8 pm shift. Key training included such things as showing them where a shoe box sized manifold was on each engine that distributed lube oil from 12 small plunger type pumps to key lubrication points, Each manifold had a vertical glass tube in one corner and you could thus see the level of oil in the manifold. They were told that it was vitally important to always have at least "half a glass" oil level visible. In similar fashion, they were instructed to grasp both cooling water pipes on the back of each of 8 main generators each time they passed by. The one touched by their left hand, "closest to their heart," should be the warmer than the one in their right hand, which meant that the generator was getting proper cooling. This was about as technical as things got."
"Over a coffee at the log desk one of the guys on my watch asked me how in the world I knew how to do all this stuff, especially on a strange ship that I had never served on. I answered that it was just part of our training at the Marine Academy, but not having sailed actively as a ship's engineer for 24 years, this delivery trip showed me just how good that U. S. Merchant Marine Academy training was. While stopped in a lock when the entire Seaway System was temporarily in a "stop and maintain position" mode due to very heavy fog, we lost the entire electrical system and were a "black ship" with absolutely nothing running. The system had become overloaded when some additional ventilators were turned on. Anyway thanks to the Marine Academy's training we were back on line and ready to move about 28 hectic minutes later, after a lot of flying around in the engine rooms to get everything going again."

"A huge amount of credit and praise is due the Columbia members that made the trip. They came from all walks of life and everyone rolled up their sleeves and pitched in to accomplish this voyage. All of us worked a lot harder then we had anticipated would be necessary and accomplished the impossible. The Seaway people were very nervous when learning that we had a largely "untrained" crew, but by the time we had progressed through the first few locks, the "word" was passed by radio that these people seemed to know what they were doing. We also had great support from the Canadians who came out of retirement to make the last voyage of their favorite ship. They helped us decipher some of the systems, locate spare parts scattered all over the ship, to fix leaks or get broken pumps fixed, etc."

"The touching tributes and warm greetings we received at each of the locks and whenever we passed under a bridge made us soon realize what great service this ship had offered over the years. Canadians who had been transported to and from Prince Edward Island by the ship had signs wishing "Abby" a safe voyage, dropped flowers from the bridges, tooted car horns in salute, etc. The Canadian Coast Guard also sent out an ice breaker to bid her farewell and circled us while we were still crunching our way through the ice packs in the Gulf of St. Lawrence."

"It took us 10 days to reach Chicago. While enroute, we continuously broke through ice reported up to 12 feet thick for about the first third of the voyage. The "Abby" was one of the largest ice breakers in the world and handled herself admirably. We found out, as an aside, that the State Department had gotten involved in the original negotiations for the purchase of the ship for Columbia because they did not want it to fall into the hands of the Russians because of her ice breaking capability."

"The weather turned very sour on the final leg of the trip from the Straits of Mackinac to Chicago. The winds were right out of the north and gusting in excess of 35 mph. We were taking solid water against the windows on the bridge and there was sincere concern regarding the following seas we were in. The sister ship of the "Abby" foundered and sank in a following sea. Take a good look sometime at the flimsy metal door all the way aft on the rail deck. It is much like the roller "curtain type doors" you see on some storefronts, i.e., not very strong. A wave broke over the end of the sister ship, and with the rail deck only about 6 feet above the waterline, it took the door out. The volume of water that then cascaded into the rail deck area, created negative buoyancy and the ship sank!"
"Somewhere off Racine, we almost hit a net trawler that was moving west to east right across our bow. They ignored our horn and lights (there was some thought that they were on autopilot and possibly even sleeping) but fortunately for both parties they missed us by less than 50 yards!"

"Original plans were for us to stop in Kenosha to pick up those club members who had contributed to the bond issue to purchase the boat but were unable to take 2 weeks off to help bring it here. The idea was that as a reward, they could make the last 40-50 miles of the voyage. Unfortunately for them Lake Michigan had other ideas, and the swells rolling into Kenosha harbor were in excess of 12 feet so the pick-up had to be cancelled."

"On arrival in Chicago we pulled into the south side of Navy Pier, sheltered somewhat from the winds, and then took a short cruise the following day on the Lake for those we couldn't pick up in Kenosha, before tying her up on the north side of the present breakwater in what was then a turning basin on the Chicago River and now of course is Du Sable Harbor."

"I don't know what specific fuel prices were back then, but given the fact that the "Abby" was being retired due to fuel prices (as she burned 55 metric tons of fuel a day when all engines were operating) the rumor that it cost the club more to pay for the delivery trip fuel than it did to pay for the purchase of the ship itself did not really surprise us."

"Some 4 or 5 years later, the City of Chicago informed us that the club's lease designated "Monroe Street Harbor" and so we had to move the ship the 40 feet or so from one side of the breakwater to the other. With the ship no longer running this was no small feat and it involved (at a cost of over a quarter of a million dollars) hiring pile drivers to sink mooring stanchions at both ends of the ship, cutting some 80 feet out of the existing pier/dock, hiring 2 tug boats to move us and then cutting new entry doors on both sides of the ship so members could walk through the ship to the pier/dock."

The Ongoing Clubship Makeover

The Clubship, as you would expect of a 55 year old vessel is in continual need of maintenance. In addition, frequent upgrades are required to meet the changing requirements of the membership. Responsibility for these projects falls upon the "House Committee" which oversees maintenance with little more than a shoe-string budget and the kind donations of materials, equipment and sweat equity from club members.

Members have restored the ship's bridge, the radio room and ship's compass, the library, dining room and ladies lounge to like new. The bar has been lovingly re-varnished by members every year and in the last few years they have rebuilt the kitchen, replaced the original steam heating system, installed A/C in the bar and dining room, built a grill in the bar and upgraded the water system. This year aside from the ongoing maintenance and redecoration efforts, a donated wide-screen HDTV has been installed in the bar and members are working alongside contractors installing an elevator to provide access to all three decks of the ship for the older or less mobile club members.

Vice Commodore, Bill Bartz got pulled in to the House Committee when someone asked him to lend a hand. Ten years and several thousand feet of conduit later he is 90% complete on his task of upgrading the ship's wiring!

Columbia Yacht Club Today

Sandwiched between Chicago's Monroe and Du Sable Harbors and just south of Chicago's Navy Pier, the Clubship and it's dock provide it's members and their guests unquestionably the ultimate platform for watching the Independence Day and Venetian Night fireworks spectaculars, and if that is not enough we also get our "private" bi-weekly (Wednesday and Saturday) fireworks shows all summer long courtesy of Navy Pier!!

Membership Events

Socially the club has a broad and diverse membership, both in terms of age and interests. Young or old, flip-flops or formal, Columbia's Activities Committee makes sure that in addition to the expected on the water activities, shore-side there is something to offer everyone.

For the kids highlights of the year include Easter with bunnies, eggs and treasure hunts, summer kite flying, and an incredible Kids Halloween party (with the club turning itself into an authentic Ghost Ship, complete with ghouls, witches, cauldrons, fortune tellers and mummies). The huge Children's Holiday party is the finale to the year, when a long-standing member with "an inside track" to Santa, gives the kids the opportunity to whisper their desires into Santa's ear and get a Christmas photo with him.

For the grownups the jam-packed social activities schedule provides the adult membership with events from Black Beard to Black Tie and Tie-Dye!!

The Black Beard event is in conjunction with the national Talk Like a Pirate Day. Columbia hosts a "Pirate's Ball" in September, which "brings out the pirate in" hundreds of our members and their guests, with the best-dressed pirates making off with all the booty from Columbia's very own swashbuckling event. Black Tie gives everyone the chance to dress up at the stunning Commodore's Reception, Holiday Dinner Dance and New Year's Parties.

Tie-Dye, another event that is Columbia's own is the "Dead Of Summer Party" with a number of our most active members selling "original" Columbia Tie-Dye creations (hats, shirts and skirts) to the revelers, who dance and party the warm mid-summer night away on the dock to the sounds of one of our favorite Grateful Dead tribute bands while taking their fill of our chefs pig-roast.

Columbia's Sailing School

Providing sailing instruction for both adults and kids, the sailing school lets you leave life as a landlubber behind. Many club members have come to the school for lessons and then joined the club to fully participate in the ongoing sailing camaraderie.

Our Adult Sailing Program offers hands-on experience in the classroom and on the water. You choose the vessel: 420 dinghies or J-22 sloop-rigged keelboats. This is supplemented by our Skipjacks Program which is a member-sponsored learn-to-sail program for adults run on Tuesday evenings using those club members' boats. Building on that experience some students choose to become involved with the Wednesday night Beer Can racing while others elect more private or group lessons. Racing Clinics are designed to teach advanced boat handling maneuvers and sail trim techniques to give you an edge on the race course and our US Sailing Keelboat Certification Program enables you to become certified to charter a boat with confidence, both locally and abroad in just two short weekends.

During the summer, as many of the adult members toil in their offices, hundreds of junior sailors stream through the Columbia doors and take over the dock. The Junior Sailing Program offers these students (from 8 to 18) the opportunity to take the helm and get a head start on a lifetime of sport. Spring, Summer and Fall sessions in Optimists, 420s and Lasers ensure a wide variety of challenges to young sailors of all skill levels. This is our next generation learning to harness the wind for their enjoyment. Those who qualify for the 15 - 20 member racing team will travel to neighboring states or as far as the East and West Coasts to compete in various regattas during the summer. The Opti race team, composed of six of our younger sailors, has traveled about five thousand miles to compete against others in the under ten-year old division.

Many recent graduates of the Columbia Junior Sailing Program have qualified for college sailing scholarships and currently there are two girls and two boys sailing on three different boats attempting to qualify for the US Olympic Team.

Finally Columbia is also home to the Sea Scout Ship "Challenge" #5111. The Sea Scout program teaches young adults (13 to 18 years old) not only to sail but the basics of good citizenship and leadership through sailing, stressing both safety and sportsmanship.

Boating at Columbia - Spring, Summer and Fall

During the summer, life revolves around boats and the Lake, as one might expect, with a variety of on the water activities to engage every type of boater.

Our Power Fleet offers a Leukemia Cup "Poker Run", raising money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society running between every harbor on the Chicago lakefront collecting playing cards and returning to the Columbia dock to see who has collected the best poker hand for the grand prize, and of course, a rocking party. Chicago's Venetian Night also provides the Power Fleet the opportunity to join with their Sailing Fleet brethren and dress their boats up for a spectacular harbor parade and fireworks display which challenges the Independence Day fireworks for the best show of the summer.

Sail Fleet members have their choice of cruising Lake Michigan with the Cruising Fleet or a wide range of racing options ranging from the casual Beer Can racing, to the more competitive LMSRF Area III and MORF racing, the huge West Marine One Design, Lands'End NOOD, Leukemia Cup and Verve Cup regattas as well as of course the Chicago MAC race. Racing and cruising fleets are not mutually exclusive as we frequently see racers join in on a cruise, and equally members of the "cruising fleet" are regular entrants in the Wednesday night Beer Can Races.
The cruising events range from long weekends to Michigan City and Hammond to "cruising the harbor" from boat to boat for a potluck dinner or cruising to another club for lunch. It is a congenial group which always welcomes new members and encourages non-boat owners to join in.

Columbia has made a strong commitment to Chicago's racing fleet as a regular sponsor of a number of the LMSRF Area 3 races as well as the growing West Marine One Design regatta, providing race committee and hosting post-race parties on the our dock after every race they host. Among the races we sponsor is the world's oldest continually run freshwater race, the Chicago to Michigan City race (which is older than even the Chicago MAC race). In addition there is our Commodore's Invitational (the first race of the season), the Mayor Daley and Centennial Regatta, the Fran Byrne, and the overnight first leg of the Tri State Race, the Chicago to St. Joseph in Michigan.

Columbia also hosts Chicago's Wednesday and Friday night Beer Can racing which draws a more casual crowd from all Chicago's clubs in the Monroe harbor area. Beer Can racing in Chicago is almost as big as the LMSRF Area III racing and it is not uncommon to see over 100 boats going off the line in classes that range from Jib and Main (JAM) to spinnaker sections with the Santa Cruz 70s.

Columbia's racers are consistently at the top of their classes. For 6 of the last 8 years Columbia boats have won the LMSRF Area III "Overall PHRF Boat of the Year" award with "Assassin" having just won it back-to-back in 2004 and 2005, and this year adding to our club laurels further, "Kutty's Ark", one of the club's oldest boats, won the Mackinac Trophy in it's 30th MAC race!!

Finally wrapping up our on the water activity and not to be ignored are our Laser, Vanguard and Penguin racers, a hardy group who besides racing their summer series can also be seen "frostbiting" in the harbor in the spring and fall, when the rest of us are snug inside.

Entertainment and Fine Dining at Columbia

With its breathtaking views of the city and lakefront Columbia Yacht Club offers a fine dining and special event venue unmatched in the city. Columbia's ever-changing menu highlights the bold, the new and the delicious. Our chef and his staff use the freshest produce and finest meats and seafood available, indeed those familiar with Allen Brothers Steaks or the impeccable seafood from Wabash or Plitt Seafoods will not be disappointed, as these are the club's primary meat and seafood suppliers. A combination of seasonal specialties and proven favorites, along with a stellar view of Lake Michigan and the skyline, make dining at Columbia an experience certain to please even the most discerning palate.

Although primarily servicing its members the Clubship is available for special event rental for parties large or small. Its various decks, salons and even the ship's beautifully restored bridge provide a wide and spectacular range of settings in which the club's professional staff can cater for a gala wedding for 410 or a business meeting for 10.

An Open and "Floating" Invitation

Entering or even seeing Columbia Yacht Club for the first time sitting in her prime berth on Chicago's waterfront, one immediately is struck by how unique this place really is. A yacht club on a boat is not an ordinary venue. Looking around the Clubship however, one still sees members working on various maintenance and upgrade projects, continuing the tradition of our founding members who built the original club structure by hand more than 100 years ago.

Columbia Yacht Club is a place where individuals of many ages and backgrounds, members, guests and visitors, join to share their love of the water. The Clubship, "Abegweit", is home to a vibrant community of sailors and power boaters committed to sportsmanship and fun.

Columbia already offers reciprocal visiting yachtsman privileges with many yacht clubs but to visit the Clubship or learn more about lessons, membership, hosting an event or any of the activities mentioned, please call 312-WET-DOCK (312-938-3625) and someone will be happy to help you.

For more info on the Columbia Yacht Club visit