The rescue dinghy as seen in October 2019 Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Runners in Philly have been surprised to see something new this fall as they jog along the Schuylkill River Trail. Right around Chestnut Street, there’s a small motorboat hanging in mid-air.

Suspended by a rope coming off one of the bridges connecting Center City with West Philadelphia, the small boat hovers about 30 feet above the water. Its bow and stern slowly spin as they span the riverbank, making the whole scene look like an Indiana Jones set waiting for action.

After a Billy Penn reader sent a photo of the dangling dinghy, we decided to investigate.

City officials weren’t immediately familiar with why the boat might be positioned where it was, but turns out it’s there for safety’s sake. According to a PennDOT spokesperson, it’s part of standard OSHA procedures followed by the agency as it works on the rehabilitation of the Chestnut Street Bridge.

“The small watercraft is being used for safety purposes,” said Deputy Comms Director Brad Rudolph, “in case someone were to fall in the river during repair work.”

The reason it’s kept locked up high above ground? To protect it from vandalism, he said.

Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

No actual rescues have taken place at this project so far, per Rudolph, but if one was needed, there’s a trained “boat operator” on site who’s familiar with how the craft works and the Schuylkill tide cycles.

The boat itself was brought in by the project’s primary construction contractors, BCI, when demolition of the bridge deck started in August. Manufactured by Lund, which mostly makes fishing crafts, the 12-foot rescue dory is made of aluminum and is powered by an outboard motor. Purchased new, these cost around $3,000 and up.

Skiffs like this have been used before during PennDOT projects in Philly, Rudolph confirmed, such as the revamp of the Penrose Avenue Bridge (that road that goes past the PES Refinery and is taxi drivers’ favorite alternate route to the airport) and the I-95 overpass just south of it.

The Chestnut Street Bridge rehab is expected to last at least a year, so there’ll be plenty of opportunity to catch a glimpse of the airborne boat as it hangs there over the Schuylkill, biding its time until it’s called into action.

Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

Danya Henninger is director and editor of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the membership program. She is a former food...