Failing into the Wind
August 17, 2013

speed track detail

This summer, the fifth of my summers sailing on the rivers around the Point, has afforded the fewest opportunities for sailing. Part of the problem is that I've been traveling. The next trip, after Western Ontario, was to Munich, Lund (Sweden) and Copenhagen. This time Eve came with me. We saw lots of lovely sailboats, but, alas, sailed none of them.

One day, we rode our rented Velorbis bicycles south from Copenhagen to the small, coastal village of Dragor. There we found a sprawling marina, packed with sailboats.

Dragor boat

On the ride back, we rode up the coast and passed the enormous Oeresund bridge that connects Denmark and Sweden. Here's a photo taken over the bicycle handlebars:

Oeresund bridge

That was the first reason there have been few opportunities to sail on the rivers. The second is that the river currents have been extraordinarily high, even this past week. The Mon is normally quiet late in the summer. However over the last week, after returning to Pittsburgh, I found unexpectedly high flows on the Mon. Here's the chart for the past week:

Mon flow

You'll see that in the middle of the week, around the 13th and 14th, the flows were over 30,000 cubic feet per second. That is fifteen times the median flow for this time of around 2,000 cubic feet per second. There were some good winds then and I would have sailed if the currents were lower. Finally by the weekend, the flows had dropped to something high but closer to normal.

Here's the combined flow on the Ohio.

Ohio flow

This Ohio flow is the one I worry most about. For this is the flow at the Newport Marina, where I put into the water. The marina is at a part of the river where the winds can be quite erratic. If there are sizeable currents, that erratic wind can cause a lot of trouble, when I try to sail up to the Point. The Allegheny and Yough flows were also high, but not at troublesome levels, and are linked here.

It was a little complicated getting started today. I usually ride my bike over to the marina to start the day's sailing. Eve, however, wanted to take one of her bikes for a tune up to Bicycle Heaven, which is near the marina. This provided a good opportunity for me to do the same with my bike. It hasn't seen a bike tech for years and reminds me of that fact every time I change gears.

We'd never visited, but we had been told that Bicycle Heaven is an amazing place. Even that advance publicity didn't quite prepare us for what we found.

Bicycle Heaven

If you haven't been and you have even only a slight interest in bicycles, it is well worth a visit.

All this meant that I didn't arrive at the marina until early afternoon. The boat was rigged and ready to put into the water by 2pm.

The flow on the Ohio was around 15,000 cubic feet per second. That translates into roughly 1/3 mph. That is a small flow and can be beaten readily if there is good, consistent wind. I'd assume that today would have them. The forecast was calling for steady winds of 9-10 mph roughly from the East, perhaps turning Southeasterly.

weather forecast

That is plenty of wind if it gets to the water's surface and I can easily beat a 1/3 mph current with it. On the ride over and at the marina, I noted steady winds from the East, somewhere around 6 mph on my wind gauge. That seemed safe enough.

The only worry is that an Easterly wind blows with the current. That is potentially a Bad Thing. Unless it blows a lot faster than the current, it can yield impossible conditions, as explained here ("the hard case").

At 2:05 pm, I put into the water. I expected that I'd have to work hard to make it to the Point. I'd need to sail into the wind, tacking to and fro, while working against the current at the same time. But with the steady wind forecast and already seen, what could go wrong?

What went wrong is that the wind almost immediately dropped and nearly died. No sooner had I put into the water than I found myself becalmed, slowly drifting downstream at 1/3 mph. That is slow, but it does move you when you are sitting, dead in the water. At first I thought it was hopeless and that I'd need to make my way back to the dock.

However, after a few minutes, a brisk breeze blew in from the East and I made some head way. Then it died and I drifted back. This cycle repeated over and over: a few moments of breeze that I'd harness to carry me upstream a little way; then I'd drift back in very light or no winds at all.

The weather records for the day don't quite show that. They have the winds dropping around 4pm (16:00):

weather actual

NOAA records here.

I found them to drop earlier and turn earlier to the Southeast than in the forecast.

What resulted was not so much sailing into the wind as failing into the wind. The GPS track at the head of this entry shows the travail:

track detail

I start roughly in the upper left hand corner--the big red blob at the Newport marina. I'm trying to make my way upstream, that is, to the bottom right. There were few moments of dead calm. Typically I could feel a very slight breeze. It's hard to get a sailboat set just right when the breeze is very slight. By the time I had discerned the direction of the breeze and set the course and sail appropriately, the wind direction had changed and I had gained little or no distance. If I am to use a light breeze like this to beat a small current, there is no room for error. Every favorable gasp of air must be used effectively. Just that is what I was failing to do.

It is a tangled mess. My course doubles back again and again over the same small stretch of river. It is quite unlike the triumphant zig-zags of the rest of the day's sailing, when I advance surely into the wind:

speed detail

What complicated matters was a larger amount of river traffic. There were lots of fast power boats, kicking up huge wakes. This stretch of river is just past the "no wake" zone. There was a lot of barge activity as well. At one point a large barge powered past, at a painfully slow speed. With erratic winds, I thought it safest to heave to and hang on to a pylon at the rivers edge as it went past.

barge passes

The gateway to the Point is the huge West End Bridge. It is my milestone. If I can make it to that bridge, I know I will get to the Point.

West End Bridge

At little after 3pm, the winds came back. A few strong breezes finally shot me towards the bridge and the Point.

West End Bridge

It was with the greatest relief that the huge span finally passed over my head at 3:10 pm, over an hour after I'd put into the water. In all that time, for all the tacking and turning, I'd gained a mere 500 yards towards my destination.

These difficult conditions were similar to those I had encountered long ago in May 2009 (here and here) when I had first tried to sail on the rivers from this spot. Then I had a new sailboat, whose likes and dislikes I had to learn, and a stretch of the river with difficult winds that I could not read. Then I had failed and needed to return on a day when the winds blew in a more favorable direction. This time, however, I won. I'll admit to feeling smug, although I knew that part of the win came from the fact that the currents weren't quite as high as they'd been in that May long ago.

West End Bridge

Disclosure: usually the photos here are taken at the time of the events described. These last three were taken on my way home, later in the day. Earlier, I was having so much trouble dealing with the erratic winds that I dared not try to add a camera to everything I was juggling.

From there on, it all changed. "Failing" became "sailing." And it was really quite wonderful sailing. Now that the winds were back, I spent the rest of the afternoon gliding over the water and sometimes, when the winds were strong, flying over the water.

There were some quite strong winds just after I passed the West End Bridge. If the wind is strong enough, the pressure on the sail will tip the boat so much that the windward keel of my catamaran will lift out of the water ("flying a hull"). All I know when this happens is that the boat is moving very fast and it is heeled over. I am looking down at the water, while I throw my weight into the wind. (A catamaran like the Hobie Bravo is very stable and only heels when the wind is strong.) I realize that I was flying a hull when I release the mainsheet a little to reduce the wind pressure on the sail and the hull drops back onto the water with a thud.

From there I sailed to the Point, arriving around 3:30 pm. I then headed up the Allegheny. I had a special reason for going there, even though it held the lesser winds. At 4:10 pm, I docked for ten minutes at the dock near Kayak Pittsburgh at the Seventh St. Bridge. At 4:30 pm I headed back to the Point and took a turn a little way up the Mon. I was back at the Newport Marina at 5:35pm.

The GPS tracks give a fuller history:

track street
click for larger

track satellite
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track speed
click for larger

Here are some photos and details.

A riverboat encountered just after passing the West End Bridge:


I've arrived at the Point. I'm using the newly opened fountain to reveal the winds. It's telling me that they are roughly Easterly winds. The deflection of the plume is large, so the winds are strong. Good!


There is a Pirates' baseball game underway. I pass lots of boats on the river at the baseball park.

boat on river

baseball park

boats at PNC park

The winds up the Allegheny were erratic. I suspect that the turn of the wind direction towards the South had already happened, so that this stretch of river was shielded from the winds by the buildings of downtown on the Allegheny's Southern shore.

I persevered, however, since I had a deeper purpose. The Seventh Street Bridge had been "yarn bombed" and I wanted to see it from the river. I'd ridden over the yarn bombed bridge on the way to the marina and paused for a photo.

yarned bombed bridge

Now I was approaching it from the water.

yarn bombed bridge

yarn bombed bridge

I docked just downstream of the bridge for ten minutes to stretch my legs. I'd been sailing, confined to the small deck, for over two hours.



While I was docked, a small river ferry pulled up and discharged its passengers, who were heading for the ball park.

river ferry

I felt a little awkward since I think that I wasn't supposed to dock there. (The "no docking" sign is visible in the photo.) However the ferry didn't seem to mind a small sailboat that would and could leave on a moment's notice.

A little while later, shortly before 5pm, I rounded the Point to find much steadier and stronger winds on the Mon. The winds had now turned to the South East and were blowing strongly, straight along the Mon. Here's the view looking back to the fountain at the Point.

Point fountain

It was great sailing and I could span the width of the river in broad, fast tacks. I was sorely tempted to keep going. But then I'd been on rivers for nearly three hours. Although it doesn't look like you are doing much, it is tiring. You need to hold awkward positions on the small deck to keep everything in balance. You need to move around fluidly on the deck. And this is a hard deck to sit on. So I was sorely tempted, but sorer in other ways and knew it was time to head home.

After sailing up the Mon and back to the Point, I am heading down the Ohio back to the marina. I am on a run with the wind behind me. It's fast sailing and it is easy sailing on a run, so I can free a hand to take a photo of my gushing wake.

Bravo wake

When a sailboat goes fast, you feel the speed most in the contact of the hull and rushing water. It makes an unique sound, all sailors know and love. You also see the speed in the wake. It rises and gushes as you approach the top speed that your boat's hull will allow. It is the speedometer you can read at a glance.

Here the speedometer is telling me that I've slowed down.

Bravo wake Point

My course takes me close to some docked barges. I turn in very close.


Just few minutes later, I am back at the marina. I pack up my sailing kit, put on my running shoes and run over to Bicycle Heaven to pick up my newly tuned bicycle. As arranged, Even meets me there with her bicycle. We stop for dinner at the Casino's outdoor restaurant that abuts the river trail. We sit and watch the walkers and cyclists pass as the light fades.

People sometimes ask me what it is like living in downtown Pittsburgh. They expect tales of busy urban life; and I have plenty of them. What they don't expect is that all this outdoor activity is a big part of it. I do need to drive a car to the grocery store. But I didn't need to drive a car for any of the cycling, running or sailing. The river and its trails are the backyard playground of people who live downtown.

John D. Norton


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