June 27, 2010

Some of my sailing adventures are sheer fun from start to finish. Others? Well, the best that can be said is that they are mixed experiences. That was the case on this day.

It started out with a lot of promise. The river currents were low: a gentle 11,000 cubic feet per second on the Ohio. The winds were favorable. At noon they were forecasting 10-12 mph winds from the WSW through the afternoon. Later in the afternoon, starting around 4pm there was a small chance (30%) of a thunderstorm.

This was also a good day to sail since Venture Outdoors were hosting a "come see our new facilities" at Kayak Pittsburgh, under the 6th Street Bridge. The plan was to sail up and join in the fun. This was also the day that Eve decided she'd join me. She's not a big fan of little sailboats, so I was eager for her to have a good time. The last time she'd tried to sail with me up the river, it had been a novice failure.

This was my chance to show Eve just how far I'd come since those early days. I could now read the river and knew just which conditions were conducive to a good day's sailing. The WSW winds should push us up the river to the Kayak Pittsburgh site comfortably, with little current to impede us. And I planned to impress her with how fluidly I can now rig the little boat and launch it. Oh, the best laid plans of mice, men and amateur sailors...


The only obvious complications was that it was quite hot--around 90 degrees--and humid. By the time we had taken our leisurely bicycle ride over to the marina, we were very hot. And that did not improve as we hurried about rigging the boat. Generally, sailing on hot days can be quite comfortable. The sun may be hot, but the wind keeps you cool. That was my hope.

Around 1:15pm, we were on the river. I'd measured steady 5 and 6 mph winds on the ride over, but it was something less that started to move us towards the Point. It quickly became something even less and then next to nothing at all. We sat in the water, a few hundred yards upstream of the marina. There was very little wind and the sun was very hot. The sweat was still pouring down my face. We were very uncomfortable.

What was going on? Where were the 10-12 mph winds? They were forecast to blow out of the WSW, so I was assuming that they were blocked by the large hill on the south side of the river. We sat, cooking, as the very slight breeze slowly carried us upstream.

When we passed the West End Bridge and aligned with the Casino, I assumed that we'd feel the WSW winds blowing through a valley on the southern shore of the river. There would be our relief. Alas no, the little breeze had then strengthened only slightly. I assured Eve is would be much more fun on the way back. Then we'd be tacking into the wind and cooled by the wind in our faces.

Around 50 minutes after setting out, we arrived at the 6th Street Bridge and docked. The winds were now finally freshening a little and we'd sailed the last stretch at a worthy pace.


We went up to the Kayak Pittsburgh event and joined in on the fun. Hot or not, sailing makes you hungry and there was quite a spread of food to be enjoyed.

Kayak Pittsburgh

Did anyone want to try sailing? Sean Sebastian of Venture Outdoors agreed. So we took off under good breezes. I'm guessing 7 or 8 mph. I didn't pause to measure it. I sailed to and fro across the river, explaining just how the sailboat works and how it can do its magic. (What did you expect? Professors profess. It is their nature.) You can see our zigs and zags on the GPS tracks.

Street map
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satellite map
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The tracks are incomplete. The GPS recorder did not switch on properly for the return sail to the marina, so that last leg is not recorded.

Did Sean want to try the helm? I felt I needed to offer. Fortunately he declined. That was for the better, because I could see a purple grey storm cloud massing quickly in the west. This was not good. It was coming hours earlier than forecast. As the storm approached, the winds grew stronger. At least that meant that our return to shore could be quite fast. We made it to the dock just as the first big drops came down. It was torrential and, in the few seconds it took to run to the bridge, we were quite soaked.

We waited out the storm, which passed quickly. The air stayed warm and humid. Eve was still very hot and eager to get home. She found her way down to the boat and stretched out on the deck, more from tiredness than leisure.

Eve on the deck

We put back into he river. I'd promised Eve a great sail back to the marina, tacking to and fro into the wind, cooled by the breezes blowing in our faces. But that was not to be. The air was calm--dead calm. Where were the forcecast winds? The early storm had clearly changed everything. There was now no wind at all. The water was glassy, as it only is when there is no wind. I've been becalmed on the rivers before. It rarely lasts more than ten or fifteen minutes. Then a gentle breeze rises and I'm off again. As the minutes passed and we crept slowly along the river, that became a more desperate hope.

glassy water

The wind did not come and we got hotter and hotter as the sun blazed down on us. It was an unhappy experience. Eventually we broke out the paddle and took turns paddling to aid our progress. Eve was wilting and I began to urge her to hop off and walk. She'd get to the marina well ahead of our slow progress. She refused. She was in it all the way. In all it took us two hours to get back. We paddled part of the way. We even tried going ashore and pulling the boat along. That worked for very short stretches. Most of our progress, however, came in the few moments when a slight breeze would rise and carry us forward. If I don't look happy in this photo Eve took, it's because I was not happy.

Me very hot

It was a long, hot sail and had the sad consequence that I'm unlikely to get Eve out on the river again. After we had landed, beached the boat, set it on its ramp and stowed the gear, we took a slow bike ride home. I went for a short run afterwards and noticed that the winds were picking up already. In retrospect, a better plan might have been to moor the boat and go home for a few hours. Then when these winds returned, it would have been an easy sail back.

There was one final lesson. I have found the weather forecasts to be pretty reliable. My rule of thumb has been that they are quite reliable about 24 hours ahead and very reliable a few hours ahead. I'd now learned first hand that they are not infallible even a few hours ahead. The forecast at noon had been for good winds at 3 and 4 o'clock. Instead the air was dead calm.

John D. Norton

PS Eve read this report and emailed "Add a PS that I'm an easy mark and have already agreed to try it again." I'm touched!

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