Southwesterly Woes
September 1, 2014

Each time sailing on the rivers around Pittsburgh's point is a gamble. The last two times I gambled and won. My payoff was wonderful winds and a day of fast sailing. This time I gambled and lost. I was reminded of something I knew, but suppressed: winds from the Southwest are trouble. They do not bring good sailing at the point.

It is the end of summer and few sailing days are left this season. Today is Labor Day and finally the river currents have dropped to modest levels. The flow on the Ohio is down to a slow 11,800 cubic feet per second, well under my ceiling of comfort of 20,000 cubic feet per second:

The flows on the Allegheny, Mon and Yough were correspondingly low.

The forecast was calling for Southwesterly winds, building in the afternoon to a steady 9 mph from 1pm through to or 6pm. That was my window.

click for larger
See National Weather Service forecast here.

I usually will not sail when there are Southwesterly winds. They are obstructed by the high ridge on the Southern bank of the Ohio and Mon rivers. But there is a gap at the West End Bridge and good winds can funnel in through the gap, as I have described elsewhere. Those Southwesterly winds will then blow strongly up the Allegheny, where fast, fun sailing should be found.

By early afternoon, the winds had stabilized to a steady 9 or 10 mph from the Southwest. So I decided to gamble and sail. It might be my last chance of the summer.

On the bicycle ride over I paused at the Seventh Street Bridge. The current was slow and the wind was gusting from calm up to 15 mph from the Southwest. That fitted with the few whitecaps I'd seen on the Allegheny's surface. We had Southwesterly winds blowing up the Allegheny.

At the Del Monte pier, the winds were a steady 9 mph from the Southwest. The plume of the fountain at the point also showed strong winds, but I was not quite sure of the direction from the plume.

It was busy on the river bank. Labor Day activities, including a rib fest at Heinz Field, had turned out people and boats.

By 3:05pm, I was in the water. I had initially seen 9 mph winds at the end of the dock, from the Northwest. That was promising. But they evaporated by the time I was in the water. I was destined to endure another agonizingly slow creep towards the point.

The winds were weak and erratic; so the water was often glassy, as shown here while I approached the West End Bridge.

From the dock, I could see that the current maintained a slow but definite drift among bits of debris in the water. That slight current meant that the occasional puffs of wind were not enough for me to make much progress. It took me nearly an hour--until 4pm--to make it just the few hundred yards to the West End Bridge.

By then, I could see the storm clouds building over the point. Here they are photographed over the glassy water.

There was no sign of lightning and I could see brighter sky behind the clouds to the Southwest. So I decided to stay in the water. It was warm, around 80F, so a little rain wouldn't hurt me.

The buildings of downtown disappeared into a fog of rain. Then around 4:30pm it started.

The only shelter was the West End Bridge. So I turned my bows back to sail the short distance to it. Once under the bridge, I was frustrated to find nothing to hold onto or attach to. There was just the sheer stones of the bridge piling. The wind slowly blew me downstream.

Before I had time to be annoyed, the rain stopped. There was very little rainfall, as later reports shows. A little wind now blew downstream with the current. So I could turn my bows back upstream and make some progress towards the Point.

Here's the moment when the sun struck my boat, while the Point was still under storm clouds.

Alas the winds did not last. Soon I was back to sitting in glassy, windless waters, waiting for the occasional puff to move me upstream.

At 5:25, I'd passed the submarine at the Carnegie Science Center.

I decided then that sitting for over two hours on the lifeless deck was enough. I took a last look at the Point and turned my bows back downstream for home.

It was a surprisingly quick trip home. I arrived at 5:50pm.

Here is the gps track, that shows just how slowly I sailed. My starting and ending point is the Newport Marina in the top left hand corner. My top speed was a meager 4.8 mph, realized in the last minutes of the sail, as I was about to arrive at the dock (shown as the purple portion of the track).

click for larger

What had happened? Later wind reports told the story. The wind had both dropped AND turned to the South. Here's the National Weather Service report:

At 4:51pm, the winds had turned fully to the South and were blowing at a limp 5 mph. Little of that was reaching the surface of the water. Those winds had strengthened to 12 mph by 5:51pm, when I ended my sail.

There is only one place on my sail where those winds can cut through the ridge on the Southern shore of the Ohio. That is the notch in the ridge at the West End Bridge. However that notch aligns roughly to the Southwesterly direction. Had the winds stayed Southwesterly, they would have blown straight through. But now the winds had turned Southerly. They needed to take bend to make it through to the river.
click for larger

That weakens the winds so that nothing appreciable passes through to the river, unless the winds are already strong. The Southerly winds strengthened just at the end of my sail. It was that redirected, stronger Southerly wind that had given me the final burst of speed as I neared the dock at the Newport Marina.

Here are some photos taken underway.

Barge traffic does not stop on Labor Day. The first barge of the day:

The second barge of the day:


The third barge of the day:

There was plenty of music on the water. The Casino was hosting a free, outdoor concert. I cannot judge whether the music was good or not, for nothing can sound good after it is amplified beyond reason and then allowed to drift over the water. There were moments of jazz and lots of random, pointless drumming.

Here's how it looked as I rode past later on my bicycle:

Here's the view over the stern during a brief moment of speed at the end of the sail, after passing the West End Bridge.

John D. Norton


Back to main