The largest passenger boat on the Upper Mississippi River — Moline's Celebration Belle — has a new calling.
As the vessel heads downstream from its home port for the first cruises of the season, passengers are getting something many didn't expect: They find themselves smack in the middle, literally, of a billion-dollar spectacle on the water.
Beginning on the Bettendorf and Moline shorelines, miniature cities made of platforms, cranes, portable toilets, shipping containers, cement trucks and workers press inward toward the channel. But they have to keep the passageway clear so boats and barges can use the river, too.
Some of the workers who are building the new Interstate 74 bridge took a moment last week to acknowledge the Celebration Belle passengers who waved at them from the boat's upper decks.
As the pleasure-boating season approaches, many Quad-Citians soon will get their chance to see for themselves what's been going on in the water. And, just like the people driving cars and trucks in construction zones on land, boat pilots are likely to encounter an obstacle or two that tries their patience.
The bustling scene on the water is a chaotic display of human ingenuity, and it is in our nature to want a closer look.
For the lunchtime cruise on Friday, April 13, the Celebration Belle boarded 104 passengers.
Most were staying at the Isle of Capri on the Bettendorf riverfront; in town for a weekend of square and round dancing.
Though the four-floor vessel typically departs from its home port on the Ben Butterworth Parkway in Moline, the crew spared their passengers the commute and powered across the Mississippi for a special pickup.
When everyone was aboard, Captain Patrick Kroeger stepped out of the warmth of the enclosed captain's bridge and onto the port side of the vessel. The top-level cabin is flanked by "wings," which are equipped with steering capabilities.
Kroeger needed to see the Isle's docks as he pulled off, and the wings make that possible. The outdoor steering area also made it possible for the captain to communicate directly with the crew below as they untied the Belle from her mooring. As rain began to fall in a sprinkle, the captain turned the bow of the boat downriver.
"We'll be in the construction zone in no time," he said, stepping back inside the heated captain's bridge.
A native of LeClaire, Kroeger comes from a boating family and got his first vessel at 14. He earned his pilot's license about 10 years ago and said, "I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
Even on a cold, windy day, the view from his "desk" of the Mississippi River stretching out before him was solid evidence of Kroeger's claim.
As crew members cleared away the lunch buffet on the first deck, a couple dozen passengers headed for the dance floor, swirling and twirling to the tune of 'Rollin' on the River.'
A dozen-or-so others wandered onto the captain's bridge. Between Kroeger's narration about the Rock Island Arsenal and other local history, the curious slipped in their questions.
"Is it going to be a whole new bridge?" one out-of-town passenger asked.
"Will they take the old bridge down?" asked another.
"Do you really think the thing will ever get done?" inquired a skeptic.
And Kroeger answered them all — mindful that his expanding expertise will be in demand for the next several seasons.
Scott Schadler grew up in the riverboat business that his father, Joe Schadler, built.
He knows his boat, and he knows the Mississippi River. He hopes he knows his customers, too, because his gut tells him people will book his cruises, at least in part, to get a good look at the bridge construction.
"I think we'll get a lot of people who aren't just from the Quad-Cities who want to see it," he said. "It's pretty amazing to look at. The project is huge."
Boat manager Bob Martinez said he's typically too busy during cruises to step outside and gawk at the birth of the new I-74. But, when he's not running up and down the four floors of the Belle, he steps out and takes a few pictures with his phone.
"I've posted some pictures on Facebook, and friends ask what's going on with the construction," he said. "I think we'll get people onboard who want to see it, but I think we'll get even more next season.
"Passengers can look at what's going on now and compare it next season — when the new bridge will actually be coming out of the river."
'At night, it's like an airport'
Anyone who spends time on the Mississippi River is aware of it dangers, especially for boaters.
During the next several years, beginning this season, boaters are going to have to be extra vigilant when in the water near the I-74 bridge.
"It can be dangerous out there," Schadler said of the construction areas. "At night, it's like an airport. The big lights are on, and they're moving all over the place."
Also a licensed captain, he said everyone needs to be hyper aware when the amateurs hit the water.
"They'll have their hands full with the recreational boaters," Schadler predicted of the construction crew.
"The main thing they'll have trouble with is keeping them off the Illinois shore," Kroeger said, adding that most area boaters know the river is plenty deep in areas around the bridge; not just in the channel. "I wouldn't want to be on a construction barge and have some 20-foot boat come by and throw a 4-foot wake."
Scott Clements is a longtime boater and has served multiple terms on the board of the Lindsay Park Yacht Club on the Davenport riverfront. He said this year's late start to the boating season gives him time to get word out about any changes to the navigation channel in the area of the I-74.
And he thinks the Coast Guard should make some changes, agreeing with Kroeger that recreational boats could threaten worker safety.
"The crew is running small boats at the construction zone," Clements said. "If somebody zips through and throws a wake, those guys could be thrown right off the boat or against a fixed structure. It's definitely a concern.
"As it is, when boats fly through there, they're rocking the Isle of Capri docks, too."
He said the Coast Guard last season indicated they might close the main channel near the bridge and divert boat traffic toward the Illinois side and into the old lock. The old structure still is apparent from its narrow passageway with crumbling concrete walls.
Using the old lock would be fine, Clements said, but the Coast Guard should go one step further: "The whole area, from upstream of the bridge and through the old lock, should be flagged as no wake. It should be flagged from the rock pile to below the bridge. No-wake buoys would be a good start.
"It's not that there's bad water at the old lock. But any kind of wake gets amplified against those walls. I've seen inexperienced pilots try to follow the big boats like the Channel Cats through there, and they can get into trouble real quick."
No-wake zone a no, for now
So far, the plan is twofold: Put up signs to notify boaters of the work in the water and light up the construction sites.
"Signing and buoys will be installed this spring on both sides of the lateral dam as well as between the new and old bridges," said Danielle Mulholland, I-74 project manager for the Iowa DOT. "We also use lighting to provide visual identification of the added barges and equipment during nighttime hours within the construction area."
For now, at least, the primary contractor for the bridge is not asking for a no-wake zone.
"From the way I understand it, the request has been dropped," said Pete Sambor, bridge management specialist in the Coast Guard's St. Louis office.
The main bridge contractor, Lunda Construction, initially inquired about a no-wake zone, Sambor said, adding he thinks they abandoned the request after becoming aware of all the paperwork that's needed to get such a request approved by the Coast Guard.
"I will say, there's the possibility the state (DOT), using the DNR (Department of Natural Resources), could request a navigation review for issuance of a state-level no-wake zone," he said.
Last year, he said, Lunda also asked about the possibility of closing off portions of the river along the Illinois shore to accommodate a "slick line.' The term refers to the flow of concrete from the shore into the water, using barges to keep the concrete path above water and eliminating the need for concrete trucks for especially big jobs.
Again, the necessary paperwork was so daunting, Sambor said, the contractor backed off the request for now. Plus, he said, the Coast Guard would be hesitant to restrict use of the old lock, because many boaters prefer it over the main channel.
The contractor could elect to pursue restrictions as the work proceeds, he said, and there's plenty of time for that to happen, given the multi-year construction.
At Sambor's office, the Coast Guard manages projects for 22 states, he said. From end to end, he said, the I-74 bridge will be 5,668 feet, which is more than a mile. But bridges over the Lower Mississippi can be twice as long, because the river is so much wider.
During the Celebration Belle's 90-minute lunch cruise last week, workers at the bridge made radio contact several times with boats that were coming upstream from Lock & Dam 15.
"They're letting them know they're out here; as a courtesy," Capt. Kroeger said. "In our case, we just stay out of each other's way."
And Sambor said boating courtesy, along with the signage and buoys, should do the trick this season.
"Floating work plants usually give plenty of navigation space," he said. "At the discretion of the applicant, a no-wake zone could be pursued again. It's a pretty long project."