Slow, Slow, Fast
August 26, 2016

Steady winds of around 7mph from the Northwest is my sweet spot for sailing on the rivers. They blow up the river from the Newport Marina along the Ohio River to the Point. It makes for easy sailing against the current; and an easy return.

Just that had been forecast for several days leading up to today, Friday.

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By midday, the forecast was holding steady and the actual conditions matched. The river currents were down low enough: 13,400 cubic feet per second on the Ohio:

Not much on the Allegheny and the Mon.

I didn’t need to think twice: time to sail! I packed my sailing gear into a bicycle pannier bag and headed off for the river.

To jump the end of the story, the promised winds came. For most of the sail, I had roughly Northwesterly winds in the 7-10 mph range. Here's the later report:

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(This chart just plot the National Weather Service Report.)

There were, we shall see, slow parts of the sail, but it will end eventually in some quite fast sailing. All in all, that is a good mix. I like the leisureliness of slow sailing and I like the exhilaration of fast sailing. It's good to have both.

I know that I’m an odd sight riding my bicycle to the marina. An old guy pedaling along in the scruffy clothes I sail in, wearing a life jacket. I’ve no other choice. The life jacket doesn’t fit in the bag. It’s easiest just to wear it.

If there was any doubt of the oddity, that disappeared the last time I sailed. On my bicycle ride home, I’d been overtaken on the river trail by a Just Ducky tour amphibious boat. You know how they work. There’s a guide with a loudspeaker who has to keep up a continuous patter all the way through. My guess is that the guides get tired and eventually just blurt out whatever they are thinking. As the boat went past, the amplified voice said:

“Now there’s something: a guy on a bike wearing a life jacket!”

That had somehow annoyed me and I resolved the next time that happened, I’d catch up with the boat and explain. it would make me feel better, but I’d little doubt that it would only solidify the guide’s impression that I was some sort of maniac. Still, it was the best plan I had.

It was warm, in the 80s F, so I was hot. but the wind was there. I measured about 7 mph at the Del Monte pier overlooking the Point. The fountain at the Point was also showing some nice wind.

At the marina, the winds were a little lower, perhaps 4 mph. But the ripples on the river surface were steady and all moving upstream. Perfect!

I stepped the mast and rigged the boat. One messy job remained. On my last sail, I’d had real trouble hauling my Hobie Bravo up to the ledge on the river bank, out of the river. I needed some sort of ramp. So I set about collecting the biggest logs of driftwood that I could move to build a makeshift ramp. That, I thought, looked about right:

The first barge of the day motored past, before I could get any further:

Finally, the boat was tied up at the end of the dock and ready to go.

I put into the river at 1:49pm. Since I’d be on a run—that is, with the wind blowing over the stern of the boat—I decided to reef the sail. That means I roll a bit of it around the mast to reduce its area. I do this since otherwise the sail tends to fold over itself, which is a nuisance. The photo shows how the rolling system works. Of course I had more sail area unrolled than in the photo when I actually sailed.

For experts: the rig is “boomless,” which has other advantages. This is not one of them. To sail on a run, I kneel in the center of the boat and hold out the sail with one hand, while the other works the tiller. It’s not optimal, but it works well enough. It is tiring since I need to hold an awkward position for a long time.

It was a slow sail to the Point. Approaching the West End Bridge:

Someone fishing just upstream of the West End Bridge:

I passed the Point at around 2:05pm. It was around then that I was passed by quite a few Just Ducky boats. I wave and they quack back at me.

Then it happened. The guide in one of the boats saw me. It was this boat:

He put the pieces together. The amplified voice let the thought loose:

“Oh, it’s the guy on the bike with the life jacket. I thought that it was just some sort of hot dog.”

Or at least that is my best recollection of what he said. I shouted back:

“I need the lifejacket for sailing. How else can I carry it?!”

Or at least that is what I think I said.

Good! One item crossed off my to do list.

I like sailing up the Allegheny and so I kept going.

The winds can be poor on the Allegheny when there’s Northwesterly winds. They are blocked by the buildings on the northern bank. But I seemed to have enough winds. I sailed under the Fort Duquesne Bridge at 2:10pm. And then onward, upstream, but slower and slower. It would have made more sense to turn back and enjoy the good winds at the Point, but I was determined to get at least to the 6th Street Bridge. By about 2:20pm, I passed under the 6th Street Bridge. That was enough, I made my way over the dock on the Northern bank just upstream and docked there.

It was still hot and I was both hungry and dehydrated. Time to open the bag of nuts and dried fruit I’d packed and to drink. Here are some photos taken while docked. I would have walked a little down the dock for a better photo. Alas, the dock has been rebuilt not with wooden planks but with some composite material. Whatever other virtues this material may have, it heats up noticeably in the sun, much more than wood. So I wasn’t game to walk on it in bare feet.


It was then I found the ants nest that had take up residence in the mast cradle. I made a mental note: hose it out thoroughly back at the marina.

At about 2:30 I put back into the river. I one again regretted sailing this far up the Allegheny. The wind came in little puffs from all sorts of directions. I spent most the time sitting in the center of the boat waiting to see where the next puff would come from. Then I’d quickly set the sail to catch it and make progress.

Eventually I reached the Fort Duquesne Bridge. There the winds returned. If you are not a sailor, you will not quite understand the sense of relieve a sailor has on a hot day when the winds return. You were drifting before, your fate out of your control. Now you are back in control. The boat skims over the water, as you steer your course.

The GPS tracks shows the difference. Downstream of the Fort Duquesne Bridge, the sailing is fast and straight.

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I sailed past the Point with steady strong winds at good speed. Here's the view of the fountain as I approach:

I could now see straight up the Mon. There it was: a huge barge making its way to the Point. Barges moves quickly. So the moment I see one, I sail out of the main channel. These barges sometimes go up the Allegheny, so, to be sure I was clear, I had to sail over the Northern bank. I beached at Heinz Field around 3:15 pm and waited.

Here's a CMU Breath Cam image capture of the approach:

It was hot, so I drank more water and cooled my feet in the river, waiting for the barge to pass.

Something was wrong. The barge should have powered past by now. I had already zig-zagged once waiting for it to appear, before beaching. Now I could see it, but it was going slower and slower. Was it avoiding the bright yellow kayaks?

No—now I saw what was happening. it was docking right in line with the Point, on the Southern river bank. I stretched out on the deck and watched.

That meant I could put back into the water. I did and once again reveled in the fast sailing under the steady Northwesterly winds at the Point. That’s when I saw the second barge, this one pounding up the Ohio towards the Point. Once again, I sailed over to the Northern bank. There was no need to beach, since the barge would pass quickly. I took two shorts tacks to keep clear of the barge. Here you see them as teh "M" shape in the GPS track:

Then I could sail on: my course will align with the wake of the barge. Here I am sailing towards the barge:

I crossed the barge’s wake somewhere in line with the Science Center submarine. It was striking just how little a bow wave is generated by the huge barge. I noticed essentially none. The wake was also minor. The water looked a little turbulent, but I felt no unexpected motions while I crossed it.

From that last event is was just a short sail back to the marina. The distance was great, but I was tacking into a steady wind at good speed. Here I pass under the West End Bridge:

At 3:52pm, my bows bumped into the driftwood in the little lagoon at the marina. I set about unrigging the boat. The big job of hauling the boat of the water now faced me. I shoved and lifted the boat up my makeshift ramp. Then I went to the stern, lifted it straight up and pushed it with all my strength. It was heavy and hard to lift and push, but it worked. The boat was on the bank; and I was panting and covered in sweat from the exertion. That’s what happens when it is hot!

Soon the mast was unstepped andthe ants’ nests hosed out as best I could. The boat was covered, ready to sleep until the next day that the winds are favorable.

Sailing a small boat is a lot of exercise. I cycle perhaps five miles in all, work hard rigging and unrigging. Then the activity of sailing is a lot of isometric exercise holding yourself for hours in awkward positions. So I was tired and sore when I finally arrived home. But I do like exercise and I didn’t want it to stop. I did the only thing I could think of: I went for a 40 minute run up the river trail along the Allegheny. Hours later, sitting here typing, I’m now thinking that is a little obsessive. Or is it just living life, while you can?

John D. Norton


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