Exciting Chicago Yacht Trip with UPportunity: Autistic Journeys

Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

It’s not exactly every day that you get a chance to travel with a friend, even less when it is with a large group on top of that. I was invited by my good buddy Ron Delhaye and Kevin McDonald to join and assist in taking photos of the Chicago trip for a non-profit organization called UPportunity Global.

Kevin began this organization with a goal to enlighten and show low-income, at-risk youth all the opportunities the world has to offer by way of travel and adventure. They are taught during their journeys the fundamentals of photography and photojournalism from Ron, along with how to write and document their journeys. Sounds similar to what I am doing right now with my blogs doesn’t it? Only natural that I would help out in documenting their adventures with this trip as well as my own.

I admittedly wasn’t sure what kind of experience this would be. The last time I was on a boat was years ago on a Carnival cruise ship for a family trip and it wasn’t exactly the greatest experience. Ended up on the receiving end of seasickness when the ship went through some rough seas and was worried that history was going to repeat itself again. Didn’t want to spoil anyone’s joy from constantly hurling into bags after all and was unable to find anything to help with seasickness at local stores either beforehand. Only thing I had with me were mints, which actually can help a little with nausea.

I only hoped it would be enough as I drove up to Ron’s place in order to carpool with him for the rest of the way. No point in both of us driving and using up gas unnecessarily. He was a busy worker bee as usual, which his current project was taking up a little more time than usual. Happens to me as well at times. It can be especially frustrating when I’m trying to upload a photo catalog or fine tune my website and blog, in which my internet connection decides it’s time to quit.

UPportunity teens split into their respective teams to create their presentations for viewing.

When he was finished we drove off and went on our merry way to the meeting spot at Indiana University. We had arrived in time to watch Kevin give a demonstration on how to tie a nautical knot, with the rest practicing on small ropes. Ron and I were given them as well to practice with and like the others, I had no idea how to make such a knot either. Ron had more experience at this when he was in Charleston and tried to teach me, but I kept messing up. Something I needed to improve upon in the future if I ever decided to travel around on yachts in the future, though I don’t know if I would ever want to own a boat. I prefer staying on solid ground.

Ron then turned his attention to making short video clips about the nonprofit group for his SnapChat followers (@rdelhaye) as transportation arrived outside the building. During all of this the group of teens in UPportunity were trying to finish their PowerPoint presentations in the computer lab to turn in for Kevin and the head of AAYC (African American Achievers Youth Corp) Dr. Vernon Smith, a professor at Indiana University and a state congressman. Afterwards the prepared lunch was being packed into the back of the vehicle while some of the kids were having a last-minute play of basketball in the gym.

Eventually everything was finally packed with all the students getting into the van, as Ron and I followed behind in his car. We had quite the conversation that ranged from different types of music to advice on keeping that positive energy going even in situations where we’re always surrounded by negativity. It was quite an enjoyable and enlightening discussion that already made this trip on its own worth it, and we have barely started!

Would love to have more trips like this in the future, though no doubt there will be times where I might feel like going alone at times. I enjoy my privacy a little more than normal considering, but that should be somewhat expected in a way. Sometimes one needs to recharge every now and then with some peace and quiet, and nothing speaks peace and quiet like going out and experiencing the outdoors in my opinion. Not just people within the autistic spectrum, but any person could benefit from being away from the typical tech-heavy and busy environment. Nature just has that kind of effect that no movie or video game could ever truly replicate in my opinion, despite how fun the latter two are.

As we drove over the bridge into Chicago, I began to realized one particular thing. I don't recall ever really exploring the windy city, despite living within decent driving distance. The only times I recall ever having been here was a theater with my father and sister, the Museum of Science and Industry, and also a high school trip to a CAD program convention. I have never been to Navy Pier, the Sears Tower, or any of the well known landmarks of the city itself.

Hearing this, Ron stated that we should plan a trip to Chicago in order for him to show me all of these sights in the near future. I am certainly looking forward to that. No doubt he’ll bring me to a bar at some point for that trip for some beer. I don’t really drink much though for personal reasons. Never drank enough to the point where I forget what happened that evening. If I am going to do something stupid while drunk, I would prefer to remember it. Would also like to have my liver alive and kicking for the remaining years of my life.

UPportunity arrives at the Chicago harbor
UPportunity group waiting by the dock entrance for their captain to arrive.

It took a while with all the construction at the time, but we were finally approaching the parking spots that sat nearby the harbor. Dark clouds loomed over most of Chicago as I got worried about whether I would be able to take my camera out for photos of the trip or not. My gear was not weather proof after all and couldn’t spare the money for new gear if they break. Checking the weather radar on my phone, I was relieved to see that the storms seem to be sticking north thus far. There was always that small amount of chance to change on a dime however, as the weather here in the Midwest can be crazy at times.

Taking a short walk past a small beach and a playground area, I could finally see the place in full view. We were greeted at the entrance by a long metal staircase that lead down to endless rows of docks that stretched along the shore. I was beginning to wonder which we needed to head towards as everyone continued walking past one after another. Each dock had a metal gate entrance with a keypad attached, with closed stalls lined up. A number of people were there walking along the area, some of which went through the gates and to their own yachts preparing to set sail as soon as the weather improved. Our group eventually halted and stayed at a couple of seats and tables by a particular gate as we met our captain for this afternoon’s trip, Captain David.

Captain David starts giving lessons on managing a boat

I kept my focus on capturing the moments playing out in front of me as David gave instructions, from how to tie a knot to information on boating terms and safety over and over until everyone memorized them. At the beginning they were paying more attention to their phones, but one shout from the captain stating his name and that today they were part of his crew snapped them out of it. Their full attention was on him now.

Afterwards they had a trial run of tying knots on a nearby railing when a light shower started to occur, which gave me no choice but to put the camera away. Pulling the rain-resistant cover over the camera bag, I resorted to using my smartphone for a couple of shots during the demonstration whenever I thought I would get a shot in, hoping that it didn’t get soaked.

Lucky for us all, the rain passed just as quickly as it came and the trip continued as planned. I still kept my camera in the bag for a little while though just in case it came back. Ron also eventually returned the camera in his own carrying case, switching to his phone as well until he was sure that the weather was clear. Sometimes one has to make use of what they got in whatever situation comes along, even if it isn’t the most optimal. At least there wasn’t any rain for the rest of the day. One check with the weather radar on my phone confirmed to me that we would be staying out on deck instead of taking shelter inside the whole trip.

UPportunity youth start practicing tying knots at the harbor
Kevin and David helping the teens learn on tying knots for anchoring boats
UPportunity youth mastering how to tie a knot

After some demonstrations and practice runs, it was finally time to head out and board the yacht. Captain David unlocked to gate for us as we walked along the dock past several moored boats of various sizes, carrying the food we brought along. The waters of Lake Michigan looked rather calm, considering the storms that were still nearby. Before sailing out, we had our lunch on-board after another few rounds of instructions from the captain. There were a number of food items to choose, from Subway sandwiches to a variety of chips with a couple choices of dips. Drinks were either water bottles or different soda drinks. I stuck with water bottles and only two sandwiches with some extra mustard and mayonnaise. Certainly was a delicious lunch!

The yacht itself had a few floors, from the top deck up steep stairs where the controls were to the lower quarters with a few bedrooms and a bath. It was more cozy than I expected it to be and a nice hint of what it’s like owning a nice yacht. I ate at the covered top deck with a couple of others, including Kevin and Ron, snacking on the sandwiches. I could feel the boat rocking just a little, but never got to the point where I ended up with seasickness.

Ron Delhaye of Ron Delhaye Studios standing on the docks.
Captain David and Kevin McDonald standing next to each other on the docks
Captain David gives some last minute lessons before everyone boarded the yacht.
Kevin McDonald eating lunch on the top deck
Christopher Casson sitting in the captain's chair
Dr. Vernon Smith with UPportunity on board the yacht
Everyone boarding the yacht after releasing the ropes
Dr. Vernon Smith having a fun chat with one of the teens.
Ron Delhaye enjoying the yacht trip
Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

After our hunger for food was satisfied, it was time to set sail and satiate our hunger for adventure. Captain David had them all in teams untying knots, drill runs of shouting “CLEAR!” when they were finished with their specific tasks, and came back on board one by one as the boat eventually moved out of it’s spot by the docks. I stayed around the living room area as we were passing the jagged rocks that bordered the harbor and out to the open waters of Lake Michigan. A couple people, including Kevin and Ron, decided to move out towards the bow of the boat to get a better view of the city landscape and the surrounding waters of Lake Michigan.

I was hesitant at first, thinking on how I could stumble and fall overboard or possibly have my items dropped out of my pockets. It may sound silly, but considering I’m not really any good at swimming it was a concern for me. Didn’t help that I had a great fear of heights and the water was looking very, very deep to me. Eventually I shuffled my way towards the front regardless of such fears and joined everyone else at the front. I wasn’t going to get the shots I wanted by sitting in the back after all. After a while of getting myself comfortable and bracing myself just in case the boat got rocky, I was not disappointed at all with what awaited us.

UPportunity sitting at the bow of the yacht enjoying the trip.
Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

Kevin McDonald enjoying the yacht trip

Describing how much of a joy it was from traveling while sitting at the bow of the boat was something that, at least for me, is difficult to truly give it proper justice. That great sense of speed going across the open waters of Lake Michigan and the few small bumps from the small waves had me a little tense at first, with me checking my pockets every now and then in case anything fell out. Eventually the feeling of the breeze and the excitement that everyone was feeling eventually had me in complete relaxation and enjoyed the positive atmosphere.

It kind of reminded me of when I was riding roller coasters a while back. Riding up the lift hill was terrifying for me due to the fear of heights or something happening that would leave people stranded on it, but after going over the adrenaline rush takes over and the sense of fun and excitement takes over. The small gusts of wind had a small chill, yet also so soothing like a warm embrace combined with the sun’s rays now peeking through the cloud cover above the city. I was getting the same sense of excitement as I did with thrill rides at theme parks, which I hadn't experience for quite a while.

The clouds were finally clearing up at this exact moment as I could feel the warmth of the sunlight on my face. The ball of light in the sky also gave the Chicago Skyline a warm glow that had Ron and I bring out our cameras, repeatedly pressing the shutter buttons while looking all around us. A few of the teens had their phones out and taking a few shots of their own as well to document their journeys.

The famous Chicago skyline after a storm
The Chicago city landscape and distant Navy Pier

The yacht passed quite a number of locations along the shore, from the Shedd Aquarium to the Museum of Science and Industry. There were also a lot of other yachts out sailing as well, no doubt taking advantage of the warm weather. Some people on board waved at us as we passed by each other, with us returning the gesture by waving back and cheering. Another new experience after another for me. To think that at first I wasn't sure I should go on the adventure at all. I would have missed out on such a special trip.

A few boats out on Lake Michigan seemed to remind one of them of pirate ships and kept pointing them out in an open discussion. Was beginning to wonder if he was a huge fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Never bothered to ask though. Since the clouds were parting away, Ron had them move further towards the front one at a time to create some portrait photos of them having great fun. I took this as a chance to get some behind-the-scenes shots for him to use for promotion purposes, along with capturing those special moments of the guys having the time of their lives.

They were quite a fun-loving bunch from my observations and to me were just normal kids having great joy in seeing the world outside of their typical environment. Might have been a first for some of them really. Guess you could say I was able to relate a little in a way, as I have rarely been to Chicago in my life from what I remember. I had never rode on a yacht before either and after this could see why some people love to go out traveling on one.

A couple of times during the trip, Ron and I kept switching places in order to take photos of the group in various poses. A few times I was still getting nervous since there were a few occasions where we went through choppy waters, but it was never threatening enough to possibly knock us off the boat. I was even crawling on all fours like a dog to keep my balance during those short events, funny enough. I admit I can be a klutz at times.

When I returned in place, I went back to that sense of peace I’ve felt when I wasn’t moving around to take group photos. Kevin and Ron were pointing out different buildings in the skyline and quizzing us all on what they were called. The only one I recognized was the Sears Tower. That should tell you how little I know of the city itself. Sure I have heard of several places, but I have never bothered to really look into them even with the powers of Google at my fingertips.

Ron Delhaye and Kevin McDonald having fun in Chicago
Kevin McDonald quizzing everyone on Chicago landmarks
Teen enjoying himself while viewing Chicago from afar
Ron Delhaye standing in front of the Chicago skyline
Yachts out on Lake Michigan at the Chicago harbor

It was then that we approached the very well known Navy Pier. Heard a lot about it but never even approach it this close, much less have actually entered. The Tall Ship Windy was out sailing nearby, as I pointed it out to one of them stating “There’s your pirate ship!” He immediately turned his head asking where it was and then saw it, shouting out loud “PIRATE SHIP!” I had a good chuckle from this as the discussion turned to pirates. The ship itself was docking by Navy Pier as we were passing alongside.

We were presented with a great view of the Ferris wheel, in which one of the guys inquired if that was the one he heard about breaking down on the news recently. I don't recall when it happened, but if it was today then they seemed to have fixed it rather fast as it was running fine while we gaze at the sight. I was busy aiming my camera at the location, peering at all the small details such as the large screen taking up the space where the Ferris wheel axle was. The LCD panel on the axle was showing images of multi-colored sparks shooting around. Not something I've seen every day. I just assumed they usually just have a bunch of colored light bulbs for all of them.

Everyone started commenting on the variety of stores that lined Navy Pier. I was beginning to think that visiting that margarita place I saw sounded very good at the moment, especially as of this blog post due to the ninety-degree heat currently going on. Ron laid back and started taking a couple of shots of Navy Pier with the approaching sunset behind it as I took a few shots of my own, including him in action.

Passengers waving at UPportunity while passing by.
Navy Pier's Ferris wheel
The ship Monroe passing by Navy Pier
The grand view of Navy Pier
Ron Delhaye taking photos of Chicago
Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

At this point we were approaching the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse that stood on the small island of jagged rocks. More boats passed by with their passengers waving at us as Ron and I took some shots of the lighthouse itself, with a few colors from the approaching sunset starting to form behind it. This would be the third lighthouse I’ve had the pleasure of photographing, and was lucky enough to get such a close shot considering the distance offshore. A step up from the last lighthouse that had all that construction happening at the time at St. Joseph, Michigan.

Before creating those photos, Ron and I have also been given a wonderful opportunity to photograph the very back of Navy Pier as well, with all flags up and swaying in the wind. It was at this moment that I lost any bit of nervousness and was having the time of my life with the sailing trip itself in its entirety.

UPportunity group photo with Ron Delhaye
Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

Kevin McDonald enjoying the Chicago view from Lake Michigan

The yacht started to speed up a little as everyone was retreating inside one-by-one from the small chill in the air. One stayed on the bow however to enjoy that one last look at the Chicago Skyline, with the sunset beginning to come in full force behind it. I raised my camera and adjusted my position to start capturing this great moment as the wind passed by, trying my best to not have my feet in the shot as well while I was laying down on my back. I knew this was one opportunity I couldn't miss and glad I did stay behind to capture the moment.

Once again, it was proof that it’s the simple things in life that we end up remembering the most. I could only imagine that the young teen’s most memorable moment that day was staring off at the Chicago’s golden sunset view happening behind the skyline with the cold breeze swiftly moving past us. Wouldn’t blame him if true. There was one last moment that came before the day’s end for me however.

Young man sitting at the stern of the yacht
Returning to the Chicago docks
Chicago Harbor at sunset

While all of us eventually went back inside, a few of us headed towards the bow again to take some shots of the yacht-filled harbor with the oncoming sunset shining gloriously in the background. The more turbulent waters gave off a golden sheen while splashing against the boats and docks as we sailed past the rocky border of the small area. Ron then asked if I could take a few last shots of him standing by the railing with the wonderful view right behind. I complied with this opportunity to practice more on taking portraits as I raised my camera, waiting for him to be positioned at the spot with his pose.

Ended up taking a few photos in both landscape and portrait views, with him showing off what I considered is his signature smile. He then suggested that I go stand in the same spot for him to get a couple of portrait photos of me as well. I walked over carefully to make sure I kept my balance as he aimed his camera in my direction. I made a smile of my own, but never one wide enough to start showing teeth. Ron was the exact opposite, always showing those bright white canines.

He always tries to get me to show teeth in the smile like he does, but with little success thus far. I am that stubborn, as I consider my toothy grin to look silly and was better off with something simple. Good luck trying to find a photo of me with an open smile!

Ron Delhaye at the Chicago harbor
Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

Photo courtesy of Ron Delhaye

The yacht was heading back in its designated spot as the group got ready to fulfill their roles for the last time. One by one they got off and began to tie the boat down with much more confidence than when they first started out. Kevin and Dr. Smith were quite proud of them as they gathered around the captain once more on the docks for a final pep talk. Ron and myself were busy making sure that everyone got their things along with packing in our camera gear.

We managed to take a couple more final shots of the group before they dispersed and left the harbor. Kevin, Ron and I were the last to leave as I saw yet another photo opportunity with the two and grasped at it while the timing was good. I showed Ron what I was considering the final shot of the day and seemed very pleased of it.

Of course I found another opportunity for that final shot of the day as I lagged behind in order to get a photo of the group walking off towards the Chicago skyline in the distance. Most decided to walk across the grass to make time while a few refused because they didn’t want to get their sneakers dirty and stuck to the sidewalk. I focused my attention with peering at the shots I had created throughout the day while Ron and Kevin had a lengthy discussion on the trip and the future of UPportunity. Was rather happy with the shots I took and was feeling great excitement to edit them all in time for UPportunity’s blog. We eventually returned to the parked vehicles and went our separate ways home to rest from their latest adventure.

Captain David giving one last talk to UPportunity group before they head back home.
Captain David and his yacht
Ron Delhaye and Kevin McDonald leaving the docks
UPportunity heading out towards Chicago

Of all the trips I have attended in my life, this was one of the more memorable ones for me. From being on a boat without feeling seasickness at all to the incredible once-in-a-lifetime view of the great city of Chicago that I have mainly seen in photos and videos, It was something I will not forget for a very long time. It was also great to see the group see something outside of their typical environment with eyes filled with wonder. Just one event can change a person’s viewpoint and even their entire life for the better, with the possibility of inspiring them to make more of their lives instead of thinking it will never go beyond their neighborhood.

Just as cycling across the landscape inspired me to take up landscape and nature photography, maybe this little adventure could be a changing point in their lives as well with whatever career they decide to explore. We’ll just have to wait and see, but I can see all of them having the potential to become something great. Everyone has the potential to change the world for the better after all. It’s just a matter of having that drive and keeping up with persistence to make it happen.


I hope all of you have enjoyed reading and viewing the photos as much as I did typing and reflecting on the whole experience. My head is brimming with ideas on how to move forward and cannot wait to implement them. Once again the next topic will have to be a surprise. Until that day, see you next time!

To learn more about UPportunity Global and donate to their cause, please visit their website here!

Do you like the photos Ron Delhaye took and looking for a photographer for portraits and weddings? Visit his website to view more of his work and send him a message here!

Chicago skyline