First Sail of the Summer
June 17, 2010

My little sailboat has been set up at the water's edge for nearly a month now. In a burst of optimism sometime in May, I ignored the stormy weather and strong river currents and brought my boat to the marina. It was soon hauled off its trailer and onto its launch ramp, where it sat, protected by a tarpaulin.

boat on launch

It sat so for many weeks. My optimism had been misplaced. Over the next month, the weather stayed stormy and the currents strong. During my runs along the Allegheny I'd peer into river and notice debris carried along at a walking pace, just a little too daunting for me to beat in a sailboat. The thunderstorms continued. There is something uninviting about sitting in the middle of a river, attached to a twenty foot Aluminum post in the middle of thunderstorm.

I'd hoped for good weather on the June 3 weekend of the Paddle at the Point. Even then the Weather Gods did not oblige, as we who went out on the river that day in our kayaks and canoes found.

paddle the point
Paddle the Point
Me at Paddle the Point

Then finally this Thursday, the conditions aligned. It was none too soon. I was about to head off for a week of lectures in Germany, so this was my last chance. (It was not all bad. I am putting the finishing touches on this piece in a hotel room in Hamburg. Earlier in the day, I enjoyed a restful sail in a lovely, small wooden sailboat--about 18'--on the Alster. A photo. Another photo.)

We finally had NNW winds at 10 mph forecast and the river currents were dropping. They were a faster 16,000 cubic feet per second on the Ohio River when I set out, but falling fast; and they fell to 12,000 by the time my sail was over. The wind at the water was less, as I expected, roaming about in 3-8 mph range.

That was enough: roughly Westerly winds blowing against a weaker current. Standing on the marina dock, I could see no current at all revealed in debris floating there.

The Hobie Bravo is a fast boat to rig and launch. Even though this was the first rigging of the season, I had sufficient muscle memory from last year to proceed smoothing. Soon the boat was in the water and ready to sail. All that was needed was for me to unroll the sail from the mast and point the bows upstream.

rigged and ready

Once I was in the river, there was less wind than I wanted. My progress was slow. Sometimes a comfortable 3 mph, but then dropping to an altogether lazy 1 mph. The wind was behind me, so there wasn't much to do. The sail just catches the wind like a bag and the boat is blown along.

Soon the great span of the West End Bridge neared. That has always been my gateway. When I pass it, I know that I am going to arrive at the Point. It is huge span that towers over me, dwarfing my little boat. It seems to grow impossibly large as I near it and the sounds of traffic on the road deck get louder. Since the winds are light, I can take out my camera and snap some photos as the span passes overhead. It is a view that can only be had from the water.

West End Bridge
West End Bridge

Within 20 minutes I was abreast the Point. I continued at that leisurely pace up the Allegheny towards my favorite spot where the bridges at 6th, 7th and 9th street cross the river. The river takes a Northeasterly turn at the Point so that the buildings on the Northern shore start to block the NNW winds. I am all but becalmed once again in a familiar spot just upstream of the Duquesne Bridge.

At this most awkward of moments, I can see a large barge, with a foamy bow wave, approaching from downstream. It is moving fast, straight at me and I know it could not stop even if it wanted to. In my earlier sails, that would have been alarming. However I now know that there's time. Even with very little wind, not much is needed to move the boat out of the barge's course. It all happens in a few moments. Even in the very light air, I am out the way of the barge. I let the sail flap while I take out my camera to photograph the monster as it powers past.


The rest of the sail takes me up the Allegheny, just passed the 9th Street Bridge. It has taken an hour to get there with the wind behind me and, for the return, I budget 2 hours tacking into the wind for every hour blown ahead of the wind. Here are the GPS tracks of my little voyage:

GPS street
Click here for bigger map.

Satellite map
Click here for bigger view.

On the way back, I briefly beach at Kayak Pittsburgh. The lady there had avoided looking at me, as I'd rounded the bridge pier. That's hard to do when I'm approaching quickly in a boat with a twenty foot, brightly colored sail. As I hopped out of the boat on the ramp, I announced, "I just want to say hi!" That didn't seem to relax her at all and I began to wonder if there was something frightening about me. "I'm trying to convince Eric to rent sailboats here," I explained. That seemed to do it. My presence now might just be professionally relevant. She relaxed a little. The remark moved me from "possibly dangerous nut" to "well-meaning crank." I chatted a few moments more. There was no point in dragging out an awkward moment, so I set off, having first to free the rudder from the mud at the river's bed.

I take a turn around the Point and sail just passed the Fort Pitt Bridge. Where the wind on the Allegheny had been erratic, the wind was strong under the Fort Pitt Bridge. I've noticed that now often enough to want to declare it an expectation. There's something about the river banks that seems to funnel wind here. So the sailing is faster and more energetic. At the turnaround, I pause, furl the sail and take some more photos. I get a good view under the Fort Pitt Bridge to the West End Bridge.

Fort Pitt BridgeFort Pitt Bridge and West End BridgeMon Wharf

It is still an hour's sail from there back to the Newport Marina, my home and starting point. So it was definitely time to head home. There was a lot of laborious tacking still to come. However the winds were not so strong that I had trouble making my tacks.

About three hours after I left, I returned, feeling stiff and tired. Even though I had mostly just sat in the boat, there is something quite energetic about sailing. I hauled my boat up onto its launch ramp and unrigged it. Then I was on my bicycle riding home. I now take for granted the intensity of activity on the river front. This day, there was a baseball game warming up at PNC Park. The lights were on; the music was playing; there was a smell of grilled sausage; and the people were crowding towards the gates.

baseball game

John D. Norton

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