One Minus One
August 7, 2014

Summer came; then June came; and then July; and I still did not manage to sail on the rivers. Part of the problem was that I've been busy. I have a day job and it sends me off traveling in the summers. This summer it was Rome and Vienna. I know. It could be worse. But there's not much sailing in either city.

In any case, sailing was not really possible on the rivers through June and July. The river currents have been abnormally high. It is a repeat of last year's abnormally high currents. See my grumbling from last year here and even here.

Here's a chart showing the flows on the Ohio River this summer.

Ohio flow history

The orange triangles show the 8o year averages (median). The jagged line in blue reports what happened this summer. It is well above average, again. (Note the chart is non-linear, so that going up a small way can correspond to doubling the flow.)

Finally today, all the pieces came together. The river currents seemed just low enough and the winds promising. The reported flow of 20,000 cubic feet per second on the Ohio is the upper end of my comfort zone.

Ohio flow

I'd run past the marina the evening before and noticed that, with this flow, there was only a slight current visible.

The more worrisome flow was on the Allegheny. It had spiked up to 20,000 cubic feet per second by itself. That, I expected, would make sailing hard on the Allegheny. There 20,000 cubic feet per second of volumetric flow corresponds to a higher linear speed.

Allegheny flow

There was one item of good news. The flow on the Mon was low.

Mon flow

The winds were forecast to blow from the northwest or north. That works best for me, since then the wind blows against the current flowing from the Point. It means I sail into the current with the wind behind me.

weather actual
click for larger

I watched the winds from home in the morning. The forecast dip did happen and even late in the morning the air was calm. The flag on the courthouse is visible from my front window. It hung limply. It did not look like this would be a good sailing day. But then in the early afternoon the forecast winds finally arrived.

Around 3pm I wheeled my bicycle onto the street and headed over to the marina. I paused on the Seventh Street Bridge to peer down into the waters of the Allegheny. I could see a quite noticeable current. It was expected from the flows reported. There would be trouble beating that, I thought. When I arrived at the Newport marina, downstream of the Point on the Ohio River, I was eager to check the currents again. A hurried to the end of the dock and peered into the water at the debris. It was drifting by at a slow crawl.

The winds, however, were blowing steadily against the current, as forecast. I could feel them and see them in the water's surface and in a wind sock on a docked boat.

I had no wind gauge. In my haste packing, I'd packed my old, broken gauge and not the new one. I guessed the winds were around 5 mph, however. With that steady wind at my back, I'd have no trouble beating this slight current.

Two weekends before I had finally taken the boat from winter storage and set it up on its launch ramp. It greeted me like an old friend, pleased that I'd finally come to visit. Once my old friend was in the water, he needed a good scrubbing with a sponge to wash off the accumulated dirt of the winter.

A few minutes after 4pm, I put into the water. Here I am at the dock, about to set forth.

I had a modest breeze behind me, so I sailed on a run to the point. I reefed the sail--that is, only partially unrolled it--since it tends to fold over itself when I sail on a run with the wind behind me.

Here I am passing under the West End Bridge. I made it there quite quickly, unlike my voyages of last year.

Here's a burst of speed just after passing the casino. The foaming wake rising behind the boat is the sure sign that I'm reaching the limits of the hull's speed.

Short after, I unreefed the sail; that is, I unrolled it fully. The first sail after winter storage is when you see problems. Now, with the sail fully unrolled for the first time, I saw it.

There's a hole in the sail! It's at the front of the sail, at the part the sailors call the "luff." Something had happened during winter storage. Had insects eaten away it? That seemed unlikely since there was no sign of debris or other damage. The fabric around the hole seemed in good shape.

I made it to the Point in 20 minutes, which is a good time. The fountain is showing me the direction of the wind.

I also look up to the flag on Heinz field. Both are telling me that the wind is coming from the Northwest.

I then turned up the Allegheny. The wind started to stutter and stall. What I did not know was that the wind was turning to the North, so whatever wind I found on the river surface has made its way around the buildings on the Northern bank of the Ohio and Allegheny. That's why they were erratic. Here's the record of the actual winds:

weather actual
click for larger

They were blowing in the 5 to 10 mph range. That makes for good sailing, if the winds arrive at the river surface.

This report is not entirely correct for conditions downtown. It does not show the periods of dead calm around 10-11am in the morning. Here's the conditions as logged by the National Weather Service:

They have the calm air at 10:51am, but not the Northwesterly winds I'd seen at 4:30pm (=16:30). However their "Vrbl" = variable matches what I soon felt.

I continued on a run up the Allegheny in fits and starts. The flags at the ballpark were telling me that little wind was making it to the river's surface.

Then, when I peered at the water around a buoy, I could see the current was strong enough to form ripples and small wake. (It's flowing from right to left.)

My progress grew slower and slower. As I neared the Sixth Street Bridge, what was happening became quite clear. There was just enough wind behind me to push me up the river at perhaps 1-2 mph. But the river current was flowing back at an almost matching speed.

For long minutes, I'd notice that I was making no progress upstream at all, if I mark my position against the shore. But if I looked down at the water, I'd see debris flowing past.

It was intriguing to watch. I tried to gauge the speed of the current. Debris was taking roughly 4 seconds to pass from bow to stern. I'd figured out long ago (in July 2009) how to convert those times into a speed: 8.2/4 = (roughly) 2 mph.

It didn't seem possible that all this 2 mph was just current. The 20,000 cubic feet per second reported converts to roughly 0.7 mph using conversion factors here. Perhaps in places that could rise to 1 mph if the river was constricted. Then if my boat is moved by the wind at 1 mph, the two speed would cancel perfectly.

It is just arithmetic. My speed upstream with respect to the water, minus the current speed downstream with respect to the bank equals zero speed for me with respect to the bank.


But if I just looked at the water streaming past, I'd not notice this. I'd see myself gaining at 1 mph with respect to the water surface.

By 4:50pm I was losing interest in the odd effect of being frozen in place while the water flowed past. So upstream of the Sixth Street Bridge, just before the Seventh Street Bridge, I turned my bows downstream.

This now yielded more interesting sailing. I was now tacking across and into the wind. That is much more fun. Perhaps coincidentally, the winds seemed to pick up and I enjoyed some fast sailing. Here's the gps track, color coded for speed:

speed track small
click for larger

There are a few exhilarating stretches at 6.9 mph. I stopped at the Point for a break at 5:05.

Here's an impressive view of the fountain:

It's hard to read the plume in the photo, but it might be showing a Northerly wind.

Then, at 5:20, I put back into the water for a fast sail home. The winds were blowing steadily up the Ohio. The elongated tacks shown in the gps tracks indicates that the winds were at times blowing over the Northern bank of the river. However they were funneled mostly along the river course, so I was tacking mostly straight into them.

They blew steadily enough to raise a good chop for a while. I battered my way through waves that now and again seemed to be a foot high. The Hobie Bravo is designed for surf, so that is not a problem. But battering through a wave does bleed off speed.

Here's the wonderful view of the Point taken during a calmer moment.

I arrived at the Newport marina with a sudden burst of speed at 5:50pm. I'd made very good time.

I was tempted to continue sailing down the Ohio. That is something I normally do not do. It is just good river sailing prudence. If I get becalmed downstream, I've no way to get home. If it happens upstream, perhaps the current will carry me home. What tempted me was that I had good wind blowing against the current. That was my ticket home, I thought.

Prudence prevailed and I sailed into the lagoon, where my bows bumped against the ramp from which the boat is launched.

It turned out to be a wise decision. What I did not know was that the current on the Ohio river had just lurched upwards. This I found when I checked the river current reports later in the evening.

At the end of the sail, I joined Eve who was out riding her bicycle. We rode to the end of the trail at the jail downstream on the Ohio River. Eve's saddle needed adjustment, so we stopped at bicycle heaven.

Then we were quite hungry. The Casino is right on the trail and we ride past it. They have a nice outdoor cafe that overlooks the bicycle trail and the river. But alas, they'd set up a sound stage that beamed its music straight into the cafe. I was trying to discern the words, distorted by distance from a loud amplifier. Was it "night hours" or "night owls," I wondered.

We rode on, peering into various eateries. A game at the baseball stadium was turning out a crowd that seemed more inclined to drink than eat.

We ended up in Market Square, where we ate the best that fast food can offer: Chipotle.

Here are few more photos taken underway.

I'm preparing to step the mast. That is always the worst part since the boat's hull sits on an inclined ramp and I have to shove the mast uphill.

I've now developed a technique that works well enough. I get the mast half way up and then slowly shake it to and fro, until the resonances build enough to aid my final shove up to the vertical.

Here I am approaching the Point on a run. It is easy to take photos on a run, so I do.

Docked at the Point:

Here's the metal ring to which I tied the boat. As the chop rolled in, the boat swayed to and fro. I sat on the dock with my legs on the deck, stabilizing the boat to stop the hull scraping on the concrete dock.

My tacks brought me close to some docked barges. Here I am turning away from one after tacking up to it. I love the mix of a spectacular downtown and gritty industry.

Downstream of the West End Bridge, looking back. Nearly home.


John D. Norton


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