September 9, 2012

Gateway fleet

It is time to take the bigger boat, the Hobie Getaway, out of the water. Tom, who helped me launch it this season, will help me retrieve it and put it into its winter hibernation. First we will have a little excursion on the rivers. Tom and Jean have sailed twice with me this summer. (Here and here.) Both times the winds forecast did not materialize. We had some good sailing, but also some rather slow times as well.

This day would prove to be different. The forecast called for winds of 9-12 mph turning from West to Northwest in the course of the early afternoon. (See the forecasts here: windfinder, National Weather Service). With an early exception, that is pretty much what we found on the rivers; and possibly more. (See later reports of actual conditions here: windfinder, windfinder for Allegheny County Airport, National Weather Service.) There were several periods in which whitecaps were just starting to form, which means that the winds had risen close to 15 mph.

That is a little more wind than my smaller Hobie Bravo likes, but it is well within the reach of the larger Hobie Getaway. We were in the right boat for the day.

All this meant that we were able to sail at some of the best speeds I've ever had on the rivers. My sense from sailing elsewhere, where the winds are steadier, is that the Hobie Getaway tops out in speed somewhere around 15 mph or perhaps a little more. Today, we managed to get the boat up over 12 mph according to the readings on the river from the handheld gps receiver. The gps tracks plotted later, shown below, record a maximum of 13.2 mph.

Need I say that this speed is exhilarating?

If you have not experienced the feeling, it is hard to describe. We are in a small boat inches from the water. Our power is coming from a huge sail, taut with wind. The rigging is stretched and the force on the lines that control the sails is so great that it is hard to pull them. The boat is listing. We hear the wind and the rush of the water past our hulls. They are slashing through the water surface like a sharp blade, leaving a foamy gash in our wake. We know that, with just a little more wind, one hull will start to lift out of the water. We are moving fast, but there is a sense of solidity. The hull is pulled down into the water by hydrodynamic forces and held firmly there. The wake gushes up at the stern. Any small wave in our path is shattered and sends a shower of spray into our faces. It it no match for us.

For completeness, I should note that the currents on the Allegheny, Mon and Ohio were too low to concern us when we have this much wind. The temperatures were in the high 60's F with the sky alternating between blue with puffy white clouds and ominously heavy dark storm clouds. The conditions were about as perfect as I can imagine in a real world.

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The tracks also show once again how the winds blow on the river, when the unobstructed winds are Northwesterly. We get steady winds blowing upstream on the Ohio and Mon. We get some winds on the Allegheny, but they are weak and erratic, since they are blocked by the buildings on the shore.

We put into the water at around 1:06 pm. Jean was unable to join us, but Eve decided she would come for the early part of the sail. She'd hitch a ride to the Point.

Here are Eve and Tom rigging the boat while it is tied up to the dock.


We've maneuvered the boat to the end of the dock, so that its bows point into the wind. Only then can we comfortably hoist the sail, which otherwise binds in its track and is a general nuisance flapping over the deck. While we were rigging the boat, the winds were raising whitecaps on the water. That meant that we had to be circumspect in how we put into the water. Once this strong a wind catches the sails, things happen quickly.

sail up

The plan was to let the winds push us back off the dock and to use the rudders to turn the stern to shore. Then the bows would point out into the river and, we hoped, the wind would catch in the sails and send us off.

Here's Tom during the backing. He's finding the mainsheet--the red line that controls the mainsail--unexpectedly tangled.


It didn't quite work as we expected. Just at that moment, the winds dropped and we were now in the "lee"--the shelter--of the dock. So there wasn't enough wind to move us out to the river as speedily as we'd expected. But there was enough wind to move us out slowly. Our elaborate planning now seemed just a little foolish.

There was a lot of barge traffic this Sunday. Two passed while we were rigging the boat. Here's one as seen from the dock before we set off.


Once we were in the river, Eve took the helm.

Eve at the helm

The wind was blowing gently along the river towards the Point, as expected with West to Northwest winds. So we were "on a run," powered by the wind blowing from the stern. There's not much to do on this point of sail, so Eve became restless and decided that she wanted my camera, so she could take photos me.

It's a thought I appreciate since there are so few photos of me. Here I am as we are approaching the West End Bridge.


I'm looking a little nervous since I'm noticing that Eve cannot deal well with both the camera and the tiller. I have the same problem when I try to work both and now I realize the alarm I raise in my passengers when I try.

She wasn't happy with the first efforts, so, after we passed the bridge, she tried again. I took off my hat and sunglasses for the moment.

me again

I must say that I approve of the change. I look less demented without them. I now even look like the sort of person I'd sit next to comfortably on the bus.

She also wanted one of me looking forward towards the Point.

towards the Point

Here's another barge behind Tom.


The sailing was slower to the Point. The winds that had earlier raised whitecaps were gone. But there was enough to get us to the Point at a comfortable 3 mph, give or take a little. We grazed past it on the Allegheny River side. In one leap, Eve hopped off. I had taken a position at the bow with a docking line, but she was so nimble there was no need for me to tie us up.

We two--Tom and me--took off to round the Point to the Mon. We rounded it as two riverboats turned the other way. There's a lot of traffic on the river today!


It was at this moment that the winds returned. We now found ourselves on a good run up the Mon. Here we've passed the Fort Pitt Bridge.

Fort Pitt Bridge

Now we are passing the docked riverboats of the Gateway Clipper fleet.

riverboats docked

Since Tom has the helm, I can reach over and take a photo of our wake with the cityscape behind.


We see a barge coming towards us under the Liberty Bridge. What should we do? It's too far away to discern its intended course.

barge coming

"We're OK," I said, "as long as we can see the side of the barge..." "I don't see the side...." It was here, in exactly these condition, in 2007, trying to avoid a barge, that we'd first run into the low span of the PA Transit Authority Bridge. I took a photo now of it. Taking the photo was a talisman that would protect us from another meeting with it. Or it somehow seemed that way.

low span

We headed for the central span, under which we would fit. We kept a keen eye on the barge. Quite soon, we had a safe, clear view of its side.

barge arrived

This barge came with an unexpected decoration on its bow.

pirate flag

We passed under the Liberty Bridge.

Liberty Bridge

Then we turned to sail back downstream, into the wind. This is where the interesting sailing began. We would now be tacking to and fro into the wind. The sense of speed is increased by sailing into the wind, which now feels stronger on the moving deck than if you are resting in the water.

I put the camera over the side to snap a photo of the Smithfield Street Bridge.

Smithfield St Bridge

It was fast, satisfying sailing. We reached the Point and rounded it.


The winds were clearly blowing straight up the Mon. How might they be on the Allegheny? We'd have to go there to find out. Tom agreed to let me try the experiment. I expected them to be weaker and a little erratic. They were. We managed a slow run up past the Ninth St. Bridge. Then we sailed back, almost on a single tack, with the wind coming ahead of our starboard (right) side. The meant the direction was still roughly Northwesterly.

Here's PNC Park with an especially ominous collection of clouds (that never gave us rain).

PNC Park

There's a baseball game on and we could even watch it, if we wanted, on the huge illuminated screen, visible from the river.

PNC Park again

We are passing the Point again. Notice the flag shows no wind. I'm wondering how much of the slow sailing up the Allegheny came from a temporary drop in the wind.

Point again

Once we aligned with the Ohio and Mon, after one trip across and back, the winds picked up. We sailed to the Science Center's submarine and there met some of the best winds of the day. We didn't want to advance too much upstream and took a few wonderful laps across the river all in line the with submarine.

speed detail

However, I kept looking at the dark clouds massing in the Northwest. These were now worrying me, since they were massing in the direction from which the winds were blowing. "Keep an eye out for lightning," I said, "if we see any, we'll sail over to the ramp at Heinz Field and beach the boat, so we can get away from the mast."

Nothing seemed to be changing too quickly, so we sailed on. Here we are approaching the West End Bridge. You can see the clouds behind it. The slight lean in the deck comes from the press of wind; we are moving at around 9 mph.

West End Bridge

Shortly after, at around 4:20, we were at the dock of the Newport Marina. Tom stayed with the boat, while I went off to hook up the trailer. I managed pretty well backing it down the ramp, damaging one small light only.

Here we are ready to haul the boat out of the water.


The boat is sitting unevenly on the trailer since, as far as we can tell, the trailer has landed on something uneven under the water.


Tom's two earlier days sailing with me had been mixed: some good winds and some calm. "You are cursed," I'd quipped. After today, we can say that the curse has been broken.

John D. Norton


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