From the East
August 26, 2012

Starting out

Figuring out how the winds work has been an engaging part of sailing the rivers around Pittsburgh's Point. We are in a Y shaped valley, with natural walls from hills and unnatural walls from the tall buildings of downtown and more. All this deflects the winds. They are complicated by the many bridges thrust right over the rivers. A wind that blows one way when unobstructed is likely to blow differently on the rivers.

So far, I've managed pretty well figuring out the winds. It turns out to be not that complicated. They blow and get redirected pretty much as you would expect. This summary tells you just about everything you need to know about the winds for sailing on the rivers around the Point. There is a gap, however. I have very little experience with winds from the East. The summary had little to say about them. That is not so bad. It is self-correcting. I have little experience of them since they rarely arise, which means that river sailors will rarely need to know about them!

Today was the exception. The forecasts for several days had been calling for East winds of 7-8 mph around midday, then turning to the South East later in the afternoon. This is pretty much what happened as far as the direction of wind was concerned. However on the river's surface, for the first two hours of our sail, we had much less wind and struggled to make any headway at all.

Here's the windfinder superforecast.


The National weather service's forecast was a little different, predicting more Southeasterly or Eastsoutheasterly winds.

NWS Weather forecast

In any case, the currents on the Ohio, Allegheny and Mon were low--all below 10,000 cubic feet per second. The temperatures where around 80F. It was initially overcast, but then turned to picture perfect conditions of a sunny blue sky with white puffy clouds. Let's start the day.

The plan was to take the bigger Hobie Getaway. I would be sailing with Tom and Jean, who had helped me launch the boat on August 1. They would cycle over to meet me downtown, where I could give them their lifejackets. Here I am at home waiting for them.


We rode over to Newport Marina and got down to work. Rigging the boat was pretty easy since both Tom and Jean are sailors.

Tom and Jean

We put into the water about 11 am. We had a little wind blowing downstream, roughly from downtown, and that was enough to get us well underway. That was the direction of the wind expected. My hope was that Easterly winds would turn the slight corner at the Point and blow along the Ohio with the current.

Here's our boat's wake as we sail up the Ohio River away from our dock in the background.


So far--so good. It did not last. A few hundred yards out, the wind died and we found ourself becalmed. Sailors are used to that. We wait and winds eventually come and move us along. That did happen today, but not until we suffered a rather long and confusing wait.

Here's Tom at the tiller. I've reached out behind the boat with my camera and I am shooting blind. My contortions provided an amusing diversion from the calm.

West End Bridge

At first we had some good puffs of wind that took us under the West End Bridge. We had to sail close to the Southern shore to make it.

Under the west end bridge

Then the winds died again and we drifted into the bridge pylon. They are impressive edifices when you inspect them close up.


Looking upstream to downtown, we could see flags on the Point in the distance indicating wind. They were mostly Easterly as forecast, but with some moments of Westerly wind. We assumed this was from turbulence due to the deflections by buildings downtown. However little of this wind was making it up to our section of the river. To get to us, it would have to turn the corner with the river and run up to us in a Northwesterly direction.

By the time we were aligned with Carnegie Science Center, we were getting some long puffs of wind and were able to tack to and fro across the river. However we were unable to make any headway into those gente puffs, blowing roughly from downtown. Here's a detail from the speed coded gps track below.

speed detail

The tangle of track reflects our frustration. We could see wind at the Point, yet we were in a wind trap that we could not escape. I spent sometime staring that the clouds to see if I could discern in their movement which way the wind was really blowing. They seemed to be rising directly over downtown. That would decode, I thought, to a Southeasterly wind.


At one moment, both Jean and Tom took their turns at the paddle to move us along. If only we could get to the winds at the Point...

Jean paddling

Tom paddling

Then finally we broke free. By this time, Jean had taken the tiller from Tom and proved herself a quite adept helmsperson.

Jean at the helm.

All told, it took us nearly two hours of sailing to reach the Point. That is the longest I can remember it taking. I still do not fully understand what went wrong. It might have been that the winds were just changing their direction so often that we could never plot a good course. Or it might have been that they were never strong enough to get our sails set for a good tack into the wind; but they were blowing just hard enough to press us slowly back downstream. (The current itself would also have moved us, but it was so weak that I discount it as a significant problem.)

It was almost 1pm before we finally stepped ashore on the Point. Tom took this photo of me at the boat. (It is always interesting to see pictures of yourself. Whatever the appearance, I don't feel like a crotchety old guy. I'm actually quite friendly and have few undesirable personal habits.)

John at the Point

The rest of the day's sailing was much easier. The winds were clearly blowing straight down the Allegheny. Presumably the Easterly winds were deflected along the river course. We managed to tack up just past the railway bridge at the Convention Center. Around the convention Center, we seemed to lose the wind and our progress became slow and difficult. Looking at wind records later, what I'm guessing happened is that the winds finally turned from the East to the Southeast.

After sitting becalmed for a while, we decided at around 2:45pm to head home.

Once we turned, however, there was wind again. (How? Where did it come from?) It was now at our backs and we took a fast run home. By the time we were back on the Ohio, the winds seemed so steady that I wanted to see if there was any reason we couldn't turn and tack back to the Point. So Tom, once again at the helm, turned us. He found that he could easily set a course back to the Point.

We were docked at the Newport Marina by about 3:20pm.

I didn't think the wind records at Pittsburgh International Airport (here and here) reflected what we'd seen on the rivers. The conditions recorded at Allegheny County Airport matched better. Here they are from the National Weather Service (also here):

Allegheny County Airport winds

They show variable winds for the first two perplexing hours of our sail. They then have good Easterly winds while we tacked up the Allegheny; and then have them turning to the SourthEast. I'm guessing the Southeast turn came a little earlier at the Point, so that it coincided with our losing the wind at around 2:30pm. I cannot explain, however, how we had wind for the run home along the Allegheny. I thought that the wind had turned Southeasterly, which was the steady wind we then found on the Ohio River.

Here are the gps tracks, color coded for distance and speed:

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click for larger

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Here are a few more photos taken underway.

Passing PNC Park:

PNC Park

The flags are telling us that the wind is blowing with the current towards the Point:


A riverboat was blasting its horn as a warning to boats farther downstream from us. So we gave it wide berth, pulling over to on one side of the river and waiting for it to pass.


riverboat passing

Here's the view back to downtown under the rail bridge at the Convention Center.


We have turned and are heading home.

heading home

A lot of boats at PNC Park to watch the game:

PNC Park

Our bubbling wake as we sail past the buildings of downtown:


The Point recedes:


When we arrive at the Newport Marina, Sam of had just arrived. That's Sam-on-a-river. He had reversed a trailer onto the launch ramp. It was laden with a canoe and much more. From all the parts he would assemble a canoe with outriggers and some sort of deck with a canopy. There would be enough space on it for him to sleep. I saw lots of electrical equipment. Yes, he did have a generator. The plan was to take to the river at mile 0 of the Ohio and make his way down to the Mississipi and New Orleans.

Sam on a river

I asked the question foremost in my mind. "Do you have a sail?" Not wanting to disappoint, he thought for a moment. He had a sheet of some sort that he could use to catch the wind. We left thinking that you do meet some characters on the rivers; and I'm guessing he had the same thought.

Sam will be blogging his adventure at the website above. Sam--we wish you good wind, good weather and good forturne. However, as a professor of philosophy of science, I am duty bound to alert you that wishing something so does not make it so. The order of things takes no notice of our wishes.

John D. Norton


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