A little before noon last Saturday, a smattering of boats began chugging across Lake Michigan from various directions to a point about 200m offshore. Anyone driving by on Lake Shore Drive, which bends around miles of lakefront, would not have noticed anything unusual; just another summer scene. An hour or so later, though, what had been a random group of a dozen or so boats had turned into a sprawling armada.
Hundreds of boats, from million-dollar yachts to speedboats to fishing dinghies, had merged with rubber rafts, water trampolines and makeshift docks into roughly five connected chains bobbing across a no-wake zone unofficially known as the Playpen.
It was the annual summer boat party sponsored by Chicago Scene magazine, a larger and more promotional version of the smaller but no less bacchanal gatherings that have been taking place just north of the Navy Pier here most weekend days for the past several summers.
"Where else can you go and get a view like this and have a party on water?" asked Frank Montana, 34, a Playpen regular, as he waved his arm toward the skyline behind him from his 40-foot Sea Ray Express Cruiser.
In one undulating line of boats, several small to medium-size yachts were bound together in the center of one cluster. Banners spelling out the name of local clubs hung from their sides, and coordinated sound systems blared music from local DJs.
In the surrounding boats, bikini-clad women tried to stay upright as they danced on slippery runners or hopped from boat to boat looking for better drinks. Others tumbled onto giant floating trampolines or fired meter-long squirt guns at one another. On a few boats, grills were being fired up.
Fueled by wealthy boat owners and the young women they and their boats can attract, the daytime parties have become a magnet for local nightclub owners and promoters who use the scene to draw people to their clubs once the sun sets. Last year club owners upped the ante by ferrying DJs out to spin during the day.
"It's like maximum exposure," Jason Kalendr, 28, better known in the club scene as DJ Kalendr, said during a break from spinning tracks one recent Saturday, his baseball cap turned ever-so-slightly sideways.
"Everyone who is in this business is out on the lake," says.
He, like any well-known Chicago DJ, spins for free on the lake. And it's hard to imagine a more perfect confluence of money, skin and exhibitionism.
"I bought 11 bikinis for the summer alone," said Jamie Coates, 23, a model who took time from comparing breast sizes with a friend to talk to a reporter. She's been going to clubs since she was 18-years-old.
"Been there, done that. This is something new, something real," she says.
For boat owners it's a ticket to Girls Gone Wild come to life. Montana, a demolition and excavation contractor, plays host to 30 to 50 people every weekend (last Saturday he had 57) on his boat. He refers to his party as "Club Montana" and has already burned out one smoke machine this summer.
Joey Vartanian, an owner of the Chicago Crobar, said he has been a boater for 20 years but only started taking Loonacy, his 44-foot Sea Ray, to the Playpen to promote his club in the last two years. Though he thought last Saturday's blowout might put a damper on the evening's club scene.
"The Playpen scene mobilizes people to party all weekend long," he said.