Chesney’s Navy Rendezvousing on Pittsburgh’s North Shore

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
1 July 2016
By Haley Nelson

As it usually does whenever country music star Kenny Chesney plays Pittsburgh, Chesney’s Navy is quickly forming along the North Shore in advance of his concert Saturday at Heinz Field.

But the flotilla, which in some years has had rows of boats tied up together 15 deep into the Allegheny River, poses safety risks that city officials have been slow to address since Mr. Chesney began playing Pittsburgh in 2005. An ordinance that remains in draft form and has not yet reached City Council would prevent boats from mooring more than 100 feet from the water’s edge and would require that a boat’s legal operator not leave the vessel for more than 24 hours at a stretch.

Until the proposal passes, country music fans and boaters alike can enjoy a relatively unstructured environment down by the riverside. In addition to the Chesney concert, this weekend’s festivities include a Billy Joel concert at PNC Park on Friday, a Weezer concert at Stage AE on Sunday and Fourth of July fireworks Monday.

“It’s a big tailgating party for a month,” said Trey Miller, 40, of Carnegie. This year marks the seventh that Mr. Miller has tied his boat up along the North Shore and, like many, he comes for the party atmosphere, not to see Kenny Chesney in concert.

Mr. Miller said he believes river-safety concerns are often exaggerated. A fire or an accident on the water is no different than one on land, he said, adding that boat owners usually have the sense to keep out of danger.

Yet an incident on the North Shore during the Chesney concert several years ago suggests that the practice of linking boats together, called “rafting,” can be dangerous. Todd Rosa, 51, of South Fayette, recounted that a boat in the middle of a “raft” became untied from its neighbor, pulling away with it a six-boat-long line that slammed into other boats tied up behind them, causing havoc.

Control of Pittsburgh’s rivers crosses many government agencies. While the U.S. Coast Guard has ultimate oversight, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission has the authority to stop boaters for moving violations and for boating under the influence.

In an emergency, a city river rescue facility beneath the Clemente Bridge can respond immediately. The Sports and Exhibition Authority has control of the large metal cleats to which boats can be tied along parts of the the riverfront.

SEA executive director Mary Conturo said she knew of no plan to limit the length of time a boat can stay tied up to the cleats.

Although the proposed ordinance is still being revised, Pittsburgh’s chief operations officer, Guy Costa, said the ultimate goal is to keep boaters safe at all times, not just during large celebrations.

He expressed particular concern for rafting, when lines of between 12 and 15 boats protrude into the river, close to the paths of commercial boat and barge traffic. To reach the shore, people must hop from stern to stern.

“If you start walking from boat to boat, you have to be very careful,” Mr. Costa said. “You could slip through between boats.”

The Coast Guard recommends that boaters limit the length of “raft” lines, and the Pittsburgh Safe Boating Council secretary Nicole Moga said the limited space between rafted boats can make it difficult for people who fall overboard to climb to safety.

Shawn Love watched from his boat Thursday as a second vessel pulled alongside. Mr. Love, 50, said boaters must find spots on a first-come, first-serve basis. Some Chesney fans arrived as early as Memorial Day to claim a spot. Boaters watch over friends’ vessels while the owners are away.

While the city originally considered imposing a 24-hour time limit on docking, Mr. Costa said the proposed ordinance was revised after officials spoke to boat owners who said they stay in Pittsburgh for long periods during the summer.

“Most people do stay on the boats. A lot of people make a week of it,” Mr. Costa added.

On Thursday, dozens of boats sat empty along the North Shore. The proposed ordinance in its current form could require that any boat that doesn’t have a legal operator on board in a 24-hour period could be towed and the owner fined.

Mr. Costa added that the ordinance could be amended such that permits, distributed by a central agency, could be made available allowing boats to remain unattended for longer periods without being towed away.

But for now, boat owners are free to moor for as long as they like.

“You could be here indefinitely, if you wanted,” said Mr. Miller.

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