Two boats in the afternoon

A Wendella boat heads out to Lake Michigan as a boat owned by Mercury Skyline Yacht Charters, Inc., passes by. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune / July 20, 2010)

The Wendella glides beneath the Michigan Avenue Bridge, headed toward the lake. From where I stand on the top deck, we seem to be moving without a peep. The curve of the bridge's shadow passes across the boat, which is studded with people from elsewhere, everyone gaping upward; then the shadow unfolds, curling along the length of the 90-foot deck, down the stern, back across the water. The passengers shield their eyes from the sudden glare. This picture repeats every few minutes here, if not on a Wendella boat than on a boat from another local tour line, Shoreline, Seadog or Chicago Line. Only the chipperness of the tour guide and shine of the sun vary. Indeed, this day, the Wendella moves so smoothly that as it passes the Mercury boats, Wendella's most persistent competition, on the south bank of the river, I can't help notice Bob Borgstrom looking north. I doubt it's unintentional.

Borgstrom, 76, is CEO of Wendella; he is a brusque but cheerful, no-nonsense guy whose tan hints at a life well lived and whose youthful looks suggest a man in his late 50s. His father started Wendella Boats 75 years ago this summer. Which means, more or less, Wendella often being synonymous with sightseeing boats in Chicago, his father started the tour boat business here. That said, Mercury also started 75 summers ago, though at the beginning it offered speedboat tours. Borgstrom acknowledges this shared anniversary, but with agitation, partly because his father, Albert Borgstrom, and Art Agra, who started Mercury, were initially business partners. They were both immigrants — Albert Borgstrom a Swede, 6 feet 4 inches tall, and Agra from Portugal, much shorter.

They did not get along.

Borgstrom relates a bit of this, then quiets and listens to the tour guide, whose voice over the speakers is loud and breezy. We had settled on Wendella's most popular tour, the classic lake and river cruise, 90 minutes long. Without question, it's boilerplate Chicago tourism stuff — our river runs backward, the origin of "Windy City" and so forth — but the ride is pleasant and, as Borgstrom says, you'd be amazed how many locals have never heard these stories.

We launched from the old Wendella dock at the base of the Wrigley Building, headed down the south branch of the river, whipping around at Jackson and doubling back to the lake, the guide tossing random cultural facts, not reading from a script but sounding so clear and brisk, he's not winging it, either. "It's been said that you can be driven wacky driving Wacker!" he says, making a canned joke sound more canned. Even the guy across from me rolls his eyes.

"You know," Borgstrom says, not listening now, "this route, it hasn't changed in 75 years. What has" — he points to the skyline — "is everything else."

Friendly rivalry?

Another thing that hasn't changed: A nagging (if, these days, friendlier) annoyance between rivals.

When Mercury heard I was doing a story on Wendella's 75th, they groaned that Wendella gets all the attention. When Borgstrom heard I was talking to Mercury, he couldn't resist groaning that 75 years ago Wendella was alone in offering narrated tours of the Chicago River, which is correct.

"See, my father bought his tour boat, the first Wendella, from one of Al Capone's old attorneys," he said. "He did repair work for the guy, then the guy sold it to him. But he needed to do more repair work (before it became a tour boat). So he needed financial help. He went to Art, who was at Navy Pier running speedboats then. Art helped him out. They partnered. But, you know, the usual, they start arguing. So my father says he'll go to Michigan Avenue but says, 'Art, stay at Navy Pier.' They part ways. Next season, Art is across the river from him with his boats! Reneging on the agreement."

He continues, Navy Pier gliding past: "Look, my dad was an enterprising guy. He had a ton of patents going. Like pumps for boats and stuff like that. He was a good guy. A giant, cheap Swede. Just physically big. He would tower over everyone. He would shake your hand and put you on your knees he was so strong. Slap your back — I still have those bruises. And he was a carpenter. If we had a boat to finish, he would be out here, morning until late at night, finishing it."

Did you know Art Agra?

"Yeah, very well."

What was he like?

"He was a schmuck. What else you want to know?"

A life on the river

Bob Agra, 52, in naval whites and cargo shorts, rests his hands on the wheel of the Skyline Princess and stares across the river. The boat holds 105 passengers. It's one of six boats in the Mercury fleet; Wendella has nine. (Both are dwarfed by Shoreline, which operates 19.) Agra has a few minutes before the next tour shoves off. He's a quiet guy, the grandson of Art Agra. He took over the company from his father in 1976, though he still captains many of its tour boats. In fact, he drives almost daily. His wife, Holly, sells the tickets. Helming a boat, she says, "remains his favorite part of this business, I think." It's a weekday morning. I ask Agra if he always planned to be part of the family tour boats. He takes a long time before answering.

"I was supposed to be the first Agra to go to college," he says finally. "I was going to get a degree, lead a normal life, not a life on the river. Things didn't work out like that. Looking back, though, I'm glad I got thrust into it. But then? Well, my dad was a heavy smoker and fell into ill health. I was working here as a summer job when he died (of a heart attack). I was only 18 and I was the only child. Then I was running Mercury. You play the hand you're dealt."

He was running the company with his mother, who died five years later, Holly said. She and Bob were married at 20 years old. "It was very hard," she remembers. "He did not have many trained captains, but he had no choice. Bob had been trained as a captain but his father never offered him training in how to run a business. But what are you going to do? This was the only source of income for him and his mother. It was a much simpler business then — a lot of people still lacked air conditioning, and tourism wasn't what it is now, so a lot of people really just wanted to ride the boat to cool off in the summer."