August 11, 2012


The weather this past week, just like the rest of the summer, had been hot. There were one or two days with some fairly attractive winds for sailing. But the heat had made it much too easy to convince myself that I was too far behind in my work to take a day sailing. I've been trapped in an especially tenacious book chapter from which I must break free.

Then came this Saturday, August 11. Winds were forecast to be in the perfect window for sailing the bigger Hobie Getaway: somewhere between 10 and 15 mph. The important numbers, however, were the temperatures forecast: 60's and low 70's F. What a wonderful relief after all the heat!

weather forecast

Here's the National Weather Service forecast.

Currents on the rivers were low enough. The Ohio Flow was around 15,000 cubic feet per second. That's not enough to bother with if there is any wind. But if there is no wind and we sit becalmed too long, it could be problem. If the forecast held, being becalmed would not be a problem.

Ohio Flow

Here's the flow on the Allegheny and the Mon.

Nonetheless, this might not be a sailing weekend. My son Jonathan and his girlfriend Ola are spending a few days with us. Jonathan--now Sergeant Jonathan--has just finished his tour in Afghanistan. So the weekend would be his. He and I had sailed a lot together at Lake Arthur and Lake Erie. We'd tried the river once or twice. Alas the endless little complications of river sailing are not to his taste. He likes to set a course, trim the sails and go.

When he arrived on Friday, I was going to suggest sailing, but I delayed bringing it up. Then he said "Can we sail?" Ola also seemed interested. Our plan was set.

The good forecast was holding. I had been running earlier in the day along the river and noted good winds over the water. So, early on Saturday afternoon, we were down at the dock at the Newport marina, rigging the big Hobie Getaway. It is moored there for the rest of summer, which means that little effort is needed to take it out on the rivers.


Jonathan found a loose cleat used to secure the mainsail downhaul (=the rope that hauls down the big sail to keep it smooth). Jonathan is a techie and will not venture forth unless everything is functioning perfectly. So I hurried off to find a screwdriver and soon the offending cleat was locked solidly to the mast.


At that moment, the obligatory barge powered past. This one had higher freeboard than any I could remember.


At 2:30pm, we put into the water. We could see the wind on the water in small ripples. There was much less than forecast. It was a bad combination: weak and erratic puffs of wind. If they would blow steadily, we could use them to make our way to the Point, even though they are weak. But their erratic direction meant that we could never quite get the sails set long enough to catch them. Whatever distance we gained was being lost to the slight current.

It was slow progress. Since the temperatures were in the higher 60's, sitting on a calm deck was quite pleasant. Somehow, by accumulating little puffs of favorable wind and paddling a few strokes when we were near wind, we managed to make our way to the Point.

Eve looked at me over deck. "Shall I take picture of you?" She did.


My hope was that the Southwesterly winds of the forecast were just blocked by the ridges on the southern bank of the Ohio. If that was right, then the winds would pick up when we passed the West End Bridge. There is valley there through which the winds blow. They should speed us to the Point.

Shortly after we passed the West End Bridge, we found those winds. This photo was taken at that moment. The bridge is in the background and the start of our good sailing is visible in the bubbling wake.

Passing the West End Bridge

From here on, we had much better winds. We arrived at the Point at 3:15pm. It had taken 45 minutes to make the trip, which is much slower than normal. Now we could enjoy the fuller force of the Southwesterly winds, since they were no longer obstructed. The blew us "on a run" up the Allegheny. That means they blew from behind us, filling the sail. It is easy, fast sailing.

Here's the Point over our bows as we approached it. The sky is heavily overcast and the light is the dreary gray you see here:


We passed under the Fort Duquesne Bridge:

Ft Duquesne Bridge

...towards the three bridges at 6th, 7th and 9th Street:


We soon passed PNC Park

PNC Park


PNC Park

Wind and wind direction is everything when sailing on the river. So I am used to keeping a close eye on all the flags. Here are the flags at PNC Park, assuring me that the winds really are blowing straight upstream:


Shortly after passing the 7th Street Bridge, we turned back. Now the sailing became more interesting. We were tacking into a head wind. We sailed down past the Point and then back up the Allegheny again.


Jonathan and Ola

For the rest of the sail, we took our turns at the tiller. Eve, now more comfortable with tiller and mainsheet in hand, took us back under the Fort Duquesne Bridge. It was Ola's first time out. She did a creditable job of handling the jib sheets (the ropes that control the small sail at the front). Here she is working them, with Eve advising her on the condition of the sails.

Eve and Ola

Always time to pick up a phone call from our daughter Josephine:

Eve on cell

The last part of the sail proved difficult again. There was wind, but its direction changed continually, so we needed to chase it all over the river. The problems can be seen in the gps tracks below. The first is color coded for distance. The bluish-purple portion on the Ohio Rive tracks our efforts to sail Northwest up to the marina. We repeated had to turn back towards the Point to keep our sails filled with wind. It was a little frustrating until we accepted that this was how the winds would be on this sail.

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click for larger

click for larger

The last plot is color coded for speed. When we were powered, we did manage some good speeds. Our maximum was around 8.5 mph. That is enough to have fun, but well short of the boat's top speed.

Once we'd passed the West End Bridge, we sailed straight into freshening Northwesterly winds. They were not in the forecast, but they were welcome.

By now, the cooler temperatures on deck were taking their toll. Eve was feeling chilled and it was starting to drizzle. Our final moments were spent in a brief shower of light rain. The rain brought good winds. It took only a few fast tacks to bring us home.We bumped up against the dock at 5:30pm, only moments after this photo was taken.


After the sail, I checked the weather records to see if there had been any recording of the Northwest winds we found. Neither windfinder nor the National Weather Service showed any trace of them (or any rain). They had seen only Southwesterly winds averaging less than the 10-15 mph forecast.

John D. Norton


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