Chasing the Majestic
June 22, 2011

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I've been watching the winds and current carefully over the last week, hoping for a chance to sail on the rivers before heading off for a trip to China. This Wednesday, June 22, was the last day. The storms forecast for the day were pushed later and later, as newer forecasts came in. By the morning, The forecast called for pleasantly warm weather and winds of 10-12 mph. That is perfect winds for my little boat.

Click here for forecast.

There was a catch. These are SSW winds. Those winds are blocked rather effectively by the towering heights of the ridge on the south west shore of the Mon and Ohio Rivers. I had some experience with winds from this direction, so I knew what I had to contend with.

At the marina on the Ohio, I'd likely have winds blowing with the current--the worst case. Then, as I approached the West End Bridge, I'd be approaching the place where the winds are funneled into the river valley through a break in the ridge on the south west banks. From there the winds spread out, blowing upstream and downstream. I'd plotted this out fairly carefully last year, on July 17, 2010, when I had similar winds.

The flow on the Ohio was higher than I like--15,300 cubic feet per second. I estimated that to amount to a current of about 0.3 mph. That is something to battle when the winds I'd likely see at the river's surface would be much less than the 10-12 mph forecast.

Here are the river flow charts for the Allegheny, Mon, Ohio and Yough, just before I set out to the marina.

All this made me somewhat apprehensive. These were perilously close to the conditions that had given me the worst sailing day of my life two years ago. I was determined to proceed slowly.

When I arrived at the marina, I peered into the river. The current was noticeable and the winds were light, varying from moments of calm to periods of 5-6 mph. And the winds were blowing down stream with the current. Here are few photos of ripples those winds raised. I'm flipping between them so you can see their movement.


When the boat was rigged, I set off when the winds seemed strong and steady.

The gps tracks show that I made it to the point and beyond. I'm a much better river sailor now than I was two years ago. I can read and react to changing wind much more effectively; and I know more. My experience of July 17, 2010 proved invaluable. The conditions were pretty much the same; and I expected them. The winds are funneled onto the river at the West End Bridge and spread up and down stream from there. I kept to the northern shore, hoping that the wind shadow of the ridge would be less there.

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As these tracks show, I managed to sail up both the Allegheny and Mon Rivers. However the tracks are irregular, reflecting my near constant battles with winds that changed direction, often unpredictably, and periods of calm. Curiously, the winds were best once I had sailed a little upstream on both the Allegheny and the Mon.

On the Allegheny, once I'd aligned with the ballpark, I found a steady wind blowing upstream, that is, roughly from the south west. These were the prevailing winds that had finally managed to touch down to the water after the deflection of the ridge on the south west shore of the Ohio.

On the Mon, once I passed the Fort Pitt Bridge, I faced a steady and strong wind blowing with the current, roughly from the south east. Somewhere further downstream, the winds were being funneled into this stretch of river valley.

Around the point itself, conditions were the worst. They would switch between periods of calm and winds that would blow almost from any direction. It was striking that in the early stretches of the Mon, I felt some steady gusts coming from the north east--the exact opposite of the direction of the prevailing winds.

All the while, I knew that higher up the winds were steady. I could track them by watching the steady movement of the clouds rising above the ridge at Mount Washington on the south west shore. All the confusion of the wind was due to that ridge.


But what is all this about "Chasing the Majestic"? The Majestic is a large riverboat, perhaps the largest of the local Pittsburgh fleet. It docks on the Mon near Stations Square. When I sailed into the Mon and approached its mooring, the Majestic was just ready to launch. It blasted its horn and took off, making a U turn into the main channel to head downstream. I prudently heaved to, holding the boat motionless in the water, pointing dead into the wind.

Heaving to in stronger winds is not comfortable. The sail flaps about in annoyance and the boat moves slowly backwards under the pressure of the wind. I was in a little alley between the Majestic's course and a weedy bank that I definitely did not want to get stuck to.

As soon as the Majestic had passed, I didn't wait a moment and set off as well for the point and further home. My course was also a U turn that set me directly behind the Majestic. At that moment, the winds strengthened and I found myself on a powerful run. That is I was sailing with the wind directly behind me. You can see that portion of the voyage in this snippet from the speed coded gps track.

chasing track

The blue codes for 6 mph, which is quite fast when your deck is inches above water. And there directly in front of my bows was the magnificent sight of the Majestic approaching the Fort Pitt Bridge. I pulled out my camera. The photo is a wide angle shot, so the Majestic is a lot closer than the image suggests. Or at least it felt that way:


It was wonderful. I had a long straight run at good speed. I felt something like a crazy cyclist who pedals behind a truck to grab a free ride.

Then I noticed that I was gaining on the Majestic! "Wow," I thought, "I'm going faster! I'm gaining on her!" So it continued. I trailed the Majestic for what seemed like ages, but was probably just a few minutes. She passed under the Fort Pitt Bridge with me close behind. Here's how it looked after the bridge.


And then it was over. Shortly after I passed the Fort Pitt Bridge and I entered the waters closer to the point, the winds died.


Here are some more photos taken on the way.This was taken when I was becalmed just upstream of the submarine at the Carnegie Science Center:


Here I'm approaching the ballpark and my favorite bridges at 6th, 7th and 9th Streets.


One of my favorite things is to sail under my favorite bridges. There's something about the motion of the bridges as they pass. I've tried to capture it with this sequence of flipped images.

I paused for lunch at the dock just upstream of the 6th Street Bridge. It was hot, so it was very refreshing to cool my feet in the water.

Here I am back at the marina, with the boat on its ramp, stowing my gear.

John D. Norton


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