A Gamble Lost
August 11, 2015

Sailing under a bridge

The hard work was done. I'd recovered my sailboat from its winter hibernation and cleaned it up as well as I could. All that was needed was the familiar ritual of rigging the boat and I would have my reward, a sail on the rivers.

That is when I ended up taking a gamble and losing. What should have been an energizing sail turned into a strenuous stuggle with the wind. I won, but at some cost. As I sit here typing, I seem to ache in every place in my body, starting in my calves and working up. It is the ache of a strenuous workout. It is actually a feeling I rather like.

It should not have been that way. Today had promised to be a perfect day for sailing. The flows on rivers had finally come down to levels that are easily beaten in even light winds. The flow on the Ohio river was down to a mere dribble, 4,600 cubic feet per second.

Ohio flow

Since the Ohio is fed by the Allegheny and Mon, their flows are less and not even worth checking.

Better, the winds forecast were perfect: roughly 10 mph blowing from the Northwest. That is my sweetspot, both in speed and direction. At 10 mph, the little Hobie Bravo flies over the water, but is still easy to control. When the winds blow from the Northwest, they blow unobstructed up the Ohio River and carry me effortlessly against the current to the Point.

Here is the windfinder forecast:

windfinder forecast
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Here is the National Weather Service forecast:

NWS forecast
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What can go wrong? They promise the 10 mph wind speed I like so much. I'd noticed on the bicycle ride over to the marina that the fountain at the Point was showing an unusual amount of wind for 10mph. They'd reduced its height to compensate and prevent water loss.


Worse, I could see whitecaps on the Ohio River once I reached the part of the river system that felt the unobstructed winds blowing from the Northwest. Whitecaps form at about 15mph and these did not look like they had just formed. The wind was blowing harder.

Once I had the boat set up by about 1:30pm, I started to look more closely at the water on Ohio River at the Newport Marina downstream of the Point. It was still covered with whitecaps and I knew from past sails that these were not winds I'd like to tackle. My windgauge showed over 10mph in the sheltered dock. They would be much stronger where the whitecaps were forming.


But then I'd done all the hard work. What about a nice sail?!

So I resolved to watch and wait. I gave myself half an hour and spent the time staring at the whitecaps (and trying to figure out how to photograph them).

Ohio River

whitecaps on the Ohio

The time was up, the whitecaps stayed and I gave up. I rigged a tarpaulin over the boat, bagged the mast/sail and was ready to leave. Then I saw it. The whitecaps had gone. The wind had dropped. They were in my sweetspot of 10 mph from the Northwest. This was too good to be true. So I resolved to wait ten minutes to see if this would hold. After ten minutes, the winds were still down.

Time to sail! I hauled the boat off its trailer and rigged it. I was pleased to find that the new arrangement without a ramp made stepping the mast much easier.

Here I am about to set off at 2:56pm.

setting off

Alas, the winds were playing with me. Looking later at the actual records, the winds had indeed dropped to 10 mph at around 3pm. But is was not to last. Soon the winds were high again.

Windfinder report of actual winds:

windfinder actual
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National Weather Service report:


With the winds blowing at a steady 10 mph, I made good time to the Point, arriving around 3:15 pm.

at the Point

I turned up the Allegheny to sail under my favorite bridges at 6th, 7th and 9th Streets. Here I've just passed the 6th Street Bridge.

passing 6th St bridge

My destination was the dock at the Convention Center. I arrived there just before 3:30pm and docked, taking the chance to stretch my legs a little.

docked at the Convention Center

There was no sign on the water of the trouble to come. There were patches of calmer air and slight breezes. After a short break, I set off. The winds were erratic in these higher reaches of the Allegheny. The Northwest winds are blocked by buildings on the Northern bank of the Allegheny. I get whatever winds are able to make their way round the obstructions and also turn the corner at the Point, after blowing up the Ohio River.

Here's the GPS plot, coded for speed. I started at the Newport Marina in the top left hand corner. My course up the rivers is the straight line, sailing "on a run" with the wind at my back.

GPS track
click for larger

Another version

You can see the erratic return from the Convention Center in the top right. I'm generally tacking into the wind, taking the zig-zag path it needs. The winds are not really stable all the way past the three bridges at 6th, 7th and 9th Street. Then they become steadier and I make my way down the Allegheny towards the Fort Duquesne Bridge in a broad zig-zag.

What I did not realize was that the Northwesterly winds had now freshened considerably and were blowing at 20mph up the Ohio. Enough of these were turning the corner at the Point to give me a good, fast sail towards the Fort Duqesne Bridge.

Then it happened. I'm not quite sure what I did wrong. As the Hobie went over I have a clear image of the quick release cleat on the mainsheet block not releasing. The mainsheet is the rope that holds the sail taut. It was not releasing from the clamp that holds it. When a capsize threatens, you have a half second to release the mainsheet and spill the wind from the sail; or over you go.

Here's a distant image of the downed boat from the CMU Breathe Cam.

breathe cam

Reconstructing what happened I must have gotten a big blast of wind from the opposite direction. I was sitting on the windward hull and that is the hull that ended up in the water.

So there I was with a tipped boat in the river. The drill is standard. I swam round the capsized hull to its underside. There are ropes there that let you haul yourself and the hull upright. Using them I stood on the lower hull and leaned my weight back to bring up the mast. A catamaran has no centerboard, so it is harder to get the leverage needed to righten the boat. But it can be done, as I'd found once or twice before when I've tipped the boat.

I leant out. Nothing happened. The sail was in in the water and glued to it, it seemed. What to do? The sail was pointing into the wind and, I noticed, if I rocked the hull, the tip of the mast would lift out of the water a little and some wind would catch underneath it.

So I rocked to and fro until enough wind had caught under the sail to lift it. The mast and sail rose majestically out of the water, like Neptune from the deep. I hauled myself onto the deck and quickly reset the mainsheet and sail. I sailed directly to the Northern bank and beached there.

Here's the detail from the GPS plot. The tipping is in the middle of the red circle. I'm pleased to see that I lost very little ground while the boat was tipped. It felt like it took ages, but the rightening must have happened quite quickly.

track detail

As I lay on the deck of the beached boat, I realized that this simple operation had taken a toll. I was panting and my heart pounding. I shouldn't be so bothered, I thought. It's no big deal. But then, what if I hadn't been able to righten the boat ... ? Here I am dripping, looking out at the spot where the boat tipped.


Here's the beached boat on the CMU Breathe Cam:

breathe cam

It was now about 4:15pm. Once I had recovered my equilibrium I set off back towards the Point. It was getting hard to sail since I was now getting the fuller force of the high winds.

Tacking a Hobie Bravo in high winds is hard and I had some trouble doing it, so I decided to stop under the Fort Duquesne Bridge and reassess things. I docked there at about 4:30pm and sat on the bank watching.

Docked at Ft. Duquesne Bridge

The winds were now much stronger than when I'd started. There were whitecaps all over the water towards the Point. That means that the winds were blowing at over 15 mph. They kicked up waves of about 6-9 inches, possibly more. My hull bucked up and down in the wind. I tried to capture this in a photo. It doesn't do justice to the violence of the waves as they come in, pounding my hull.


I hoped that these winds would subside and that I could wait them out. After ten or so minutes I realized that was not likely. I'd have to set off and deal with the winds as best I could.

After some difficulty disengaging from the bank, I set off. You can trace my zig-zag path against the wind in the GPS plot.

It was a long and difficult sail home. The wind kicks up small waves that are large in relation to my hull. Whatever speed into the wind I can gain is reduced by the constant battering into the waves, as they move against me with the wind.

The wind speed had moved from my favorite of 10 mph to a decidedly hostile 20 mph. Twice the sought speed sounds bad enough. What makes it much worse is that the force generated by the wind increases, loosely speaking, with the square of the speed. (If it helps, think of the kinetic energy in the wind: "half em vee squared.")

That means that doubling the wind speed multiplies the forces by a factor of four. When the winds are this strong, it makes sense to "reef" the sail. That is, I don't fully unroll the sail, so that its area is diminished. That reduces the wind force on the sail so I can control the boat better and am less likely to tip. However it also impairs the boats performance.

One problem in these winds is that I can no longer easily tack by passing my bows through the eye of the wind. The moment I turn up to the wind, all speed bleeds off and the boat stall before turning the corner. The solution is to "jibe." That is an inelegant maneuver in which the stern passes the eye of the wind and the boat does a full 270 degree turn. I resorted to jibing time and again and slowly beat my way through the wind and pounding waves back to the marina. You can see the jibes as little loops on the corners of the tacking.

I finally made it back to the marina at 5:56pm. With great relief I furled the sail, hauled the boat out of the water and unrigged it.

While I knew that the winds were strong, I measured the speed on the marina dock anyway. The winds were blowing in the 10-15 mph range.

wind gauge

This was in the relatively sheltered dock, so I knew that they were blowing much more strongly in the open water. The weather records I checked later confirmed this.

Here are some more photos.

Approaching the West End Bridge:

West End Bridge

The submarine at the Science Center:


Under the 6th Street Bridge:

6th Street Bridge

Docked at the Convention Center:


Approaching the 7th Street Bridge:

7th Street Bridge

Looking back upstream:

Up the Allegheny

John D. Norton


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