Downtown Sailing
September 11, 2016

It’s hard to convey fully the experience of sailing the rivers around Pittsburgh’s Point. There’s the wind, the water, the sun and a sailboat that carries you, skimming over the waves. You can reach down and touch the water. It's warm in the summer and kicks back against your fingers, when your speed is good. There is also the commotion of downtown. There are great bridges that carry honking traffic and skyscrapers that loom over you, all close to the water. I think this photos captures at least a little of all these pieces. I took it while sailing upstream on the Mon and passing under the Fort Pitt Bridge on a course towards downtown.

This was a visually memorable moment in today's sail. There would also be some drama for my sailing voyage in exactly this spot, as I did my best to stay out of the gaping jaws of a huge barge. The story is told later below.

Today was not supposed to be a sailing day. I reconciled myself that my sail on September 6 would be last of the season. (It would have been a spectacular way to end the season.) But then all the conditions aligned today for a great day of sailing. The winds were forecast to be roughly 8 mph from the Northwest, which gives me good sailing on the Ohio and the Mon. The river currents are down low enough not to worry me (11,300 cubic feet per second on the Ohio.) Click for the Ohio flow, Allegheny flow and Mon flow.

After my last couple of sails, a welcome change was that the temperatures would be in the low 70sF. I would not sweat my way through this sail! Here are the forecasts I saw before setting off: National Weather Service, Windfinder.

During my ride over to the Newport Marine, a mile or so downstream of the Point, I measured winds of 4-8 mph, roughly Northwesterly. Here's how things looked at the end of the dock of the marina.

The photo looks downstream and there's a wind blowing upstream towards the Point of 7.1 mph.

I had the boat rigged quite quickly and in the water. As the season progresses, I get surer and faster with minutiae of sailing. I put into the water at 2:35 pm and sailed under steady breezes on a run to the Point. Here I look back to the marina:

Approaching the West End Bridge:

Approaching downtown, the view from the water:

To get this shot, I had to hold the camera over the side and shoot blind, while sailing. That's why the horizon is not where it should be!

I made very good time to the Point, arriving at 2:48pm. The winds seemed favorable for a sail up the Allegheny. Sailing on a run now seemed to give way to a broad reach, with the wind coming diagonally across my stern. Approaching the Fort Duquesne Bridge:

Looking up as I pass under the bridge:

After I passed the Fort Duquesne Bridge, I lost the wind. That is what is expected with Northwesterly winds. They would blow across the river and be blocked by the buildings on the Northern shore. Here is a moment of calm as I approached the Pirates' stadium.

You can see in glassiness of the water that there is no wind at this moment. The sailing here was slow. I joined a collection of boats in the river, watching the Pirates' game underway in the stadium. Or perhaps they were just listening to the roar of the crowd.

The winds had become so erratic here that there seemed little point in continuing. So at 3:00pm I turned back and headed for the Point. Here's a river boat I'd see several times later, sharing the river with me:

You can see my course in the GPS plot below. I started at the marina in the top left hand corner. The reds and yellows show slow sailing. You'll see how the sailing stalled on the Allegheny before I turned back.

I docked at the Point at 3:15pm.

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I had my customary sailor's snack of dried fruit and nuts and drank a little water. It was warm but not hot, so I needed only a little.

It was then that I noticed oddities in the wind. The fountain was showing winds blowing from the Northeast. That was not reflected in the later weather reports that showed steady winds only from the Northwest:

click for larger

The National Weather Service reports, however, recorded Northerly winds around this time.

At 3:30pm, I set off again and sailed past the Point:

I came in close enough to talk with people as I sailed past. A man shouted "Makes me miss my boat!"

With Northwesterly winds, I'd expect good sailing on the Mon, so I set off up the river. Approaching and passing under the Fort Pitt Bridge:

I steered towards the Northern side of the river, since the river boat I'd seen earlier was returning to its dock on the Southern shore:

At 3:45pm, I was nearing the Smithfield Street Bridge. It was time to turn back, since I knew I had a long series of tacks into the wind ahead of me, to return home.

Here I tack over towards the docked river boats on the Southern shore.

Initially, I enjoyed good steady winds as I tacked back towards the Fort Pitt Bridge. But then the winds dropped and I could sail only in little spurts. It was about then that I noticed a huge barge in the distance upstream, heading my way.

If the winds had been steady, I'd have kept tacking to and fro across the full width of the river. But with erratic winds, I'd never know when I'd stop moving. Worse, the sailing line for the barges ran almost exactly along the middle of the river. I'd remembered it as crossing diagonally in this stretch from the Northern to the Southern side, for boats traveling downstream. However the map I consulted later showed otherwise:

The sailing line is in purple.

In any case, I tried to keep to the Northern side of the river. A second factor was that one of the docked river boats blasted its horn to warn that it was also putting into the river. There was now a lot of traffic to content with. So I did my best to keep out of its way, taking small tacks to and fro close to the Northern bank of the river.

Barges normally move quickly, but this one was taking ages, painful ages, to reach my section of the river. By the time it finally arrived, the wind had picked up and was blowing with some strength.

I decided the best way to keep out of trouble was to try to tack into the wind through the short span of the Fort Pitt Bridge on the Northern side. Here's the span, in a photo taken shortly before I arrived there:

I tacked to and from, homing in on the narrow span. Passing through meant sailing directly against the now stronger wind. And I made it--almost. I'd passed through almost completely, when my last tack would have required me to sail through the Southern pier. Of course I couldn't and my sailing stalled. The strong winds then blew me back upstream.

The sorry, failed maneuver can be seen in this detail of the gps track:

The track is misplaced down (South) by the width of the bridge. To locate it correctly, move up everything around the bridge North until the last fatal tack just clips the downstream edge of the pier.

With the winds now blowing me quickly upstream, I emerged to see the barge approach and pass under the bridge:

Things were now happening quickly. Some power boats had just also zoomed by, leaving large wakes that rocked my little boat. On top of all this, a train was booming past on the tracks on the Southern bank.

It was followed immediately by the river boat:

which was chasing the barge as it disappeared downstream:

Phew! All the juggling was over. I had the river to myself again and the winds were back. I returned to the business of tacking into the wind on my course home.

This part of the sail had taken a long time. I didn't pass the Point until 4:25 pm. Then I noticed another huge barge ahead of me downstream. Fortunately it was sailing away from me.

Where had it come from? I'd somehow overlooked it. It hadn't come down the Mon. It must have sailed down the Allegheny.

Now the excitement was over. All that was left was tack into the wind, down the Ohio River to the marina and home. The GPS track above shows that I made steady progress all the way, with a few welcome spurts of speed and only a few moments of calm.

It was a restful end to my summer's sailing. While I have internalized the moves needed to sail a small boat, the memory fades over the winter. It comes back the more I sail each summer. I was now reading the wind and changing tacks with a fluidity of movement that befits a ballet dancer. Or so was the illusion that crept over me. I have little doubt that the reality of it looked quite otherwise.

At 5:00pm, I arrived at the marina, weary from the hours on deck, and began the work on unrigging and storing the boat. The biggest job remained hauling the boat out of the water onto the bank. I'd piled up driftwood into a makeshift ramp, but it still needed all my strength to shove the boat from its stern onto the bank.

John D. Norton


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