All Three Rivers
September 6, 2016

Today is likely my last sail on the rivers for this season. Next week I set off for a trip to the Antipodes and I'm not expecting another day on which I'm free to sail and the winds are good.

Today was a day of sailing to remember. The winds were as perfect as an imperfect world allows: westerly winds in the 4-12 mph range, roughly. They blow upstream along the Ohio and continue blowing steadily against the current on both the Mon and Allegheny Rivers.

With winds like this, I can have great sailing on all three rivers. Today I did. With this range of wind speeds, the strongest winds are not so strong that my little boat is overpowered. I can sail fast in them, comfortably. There are quieter, slower moments, in which my little boat bubbles along gently and I gaze serenely at the river, the canoes, the river boats, the bridges and the city skyline.

There were great moments today. There’s something awe inspiring about sailing under one of Pittsburgh’s magnificent steel bridges. Today, since I ventured to all three rivers, I sailed under six (and approached a seventh)! I saw this when I looked up while sailing under the 6th Street bridge:

A great day’s sailing can have a greatest moment. Today’s was an extraordinary confluence of river recreation and city living. I was sailing down the Mon towards the Point, approaching the Fort Pitt Bridge. The winds get funneled under the bridge, so the sailing always picks up a little as I approach to go under the bridge. The winds are strong. I am sailing close hauled to the wind.

On that point of sail, at speed, everything tightens and feels very solid. Hydrodynamic forces pull the hull into the water and hold it, while the bows slice like sharp knifes through the water. Your speed is added to the speed of the wind. That amplifies the sense of rapid motion.

You feel it in every sense. You see the water rushing past. You hear it. You sense it in the vibration of the hull. You become part of a machine. You can feel the tiller grow stiff, as the rushing water presses back on it. You gently nudge it to and fro to adjust course so that the airflow over the sails is kept in smooth streamlines. All the lines and supports are straining to hold the wind. And you have the mainsheet in your hand in case you are suddenly overpowered by an unexpected gust of wind and have to release the sail with a snap.

I say all this so you understand that sailing is a visceral, immersive experience. The great moment came with its amplification. There are railway tracks running along the Southern bank of the Mon. Just when I approached the Fort Pitt Bridge, a large locomotive came booming down the tracks. They make a lot of noise. You don’t just see them. You hear them and you feel them. The boat throbs and then you feel your body throb. The sense of power these huge machines project is awe inspiring.

All this happened at once. River, bridge, wind, water and a booming train. In front of me is river bank covered in green foilage. Behind me are the skyscrapers of downtown, just over my shoulder. This is what I would see if I had turned to look behind me. (This photos was taken only a few minutes earlier, while I sailed in the up the Mon.)

Where else can you sail and have that experience?

I did not expect that this would be a day for sailing. Labor Day held the forecast for good winds. But as Labor Day approached they faded. Labor Day Plus One looked better. By noon on Labor Day Plus One, the forecasts were as good as you can hope for. Steady winds coming roughly from the Northwest around 7-8 mph if you believed the National Weather Service:

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Or Westerly winds, if you believed the Windfinder superforecast:

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The CMU Breathe Cam gave me a view of the fountain at the Point. In the space a few minutes it showed, no wind...

and then good wind:

There was not much to speak of in the river currents. The flow on the Ohio was a meager 8300 cubic feet per second:

It was clearly a day to sail. I was a little late getting out. I wheeled my bicycle into street sometime between 1 and 2pm and checked the wind as I cycled over to the marina, downstream of the Point. At various places it looked good. I measured four to seven mph roughly from the Northwest as expected. The great plume on the fountain at the Point agreed:

My winds readings on the marina shuffled between 3 and 7 mph:

Soon I had my little boat rigged and I was gently guiding it out of the lagoon, where it launches, to the dock:

At 2:38pm, I put into the water and proceeded on a run to the Point. That is, I sailed with the wind behind me. This time I did not reef the sail (reduce its area). Instead I took a zig-zag course along the river, so the sail would not fold back onto itself. Approaching the West End Bridge.

I made excellent time and arrived at the Point at 2:52pm.

Where next? The winds looked good up the Mon, so that is where I headed. The sailing was comfortable and fast, still sailing on a run.

Approaching and passing the Fort Pitt Bridge:

Passing the moorings for the river boats and the smaller boats at Station Square:

By 3pm, I had ventured as far as seemed prudent. The ancient Smithfield Bridge became my goal and destination. As I approached it, I turned back and began sailing into the wind.

Now the sailing became very different. I was tacking into the wind, mostly close hauled, and making good time back to the Point. It was during this portion of the sail that I experienced the Great Moment described above.

Passing the Point at 3:30pm, I decided to try my luck sailing up the Allegheny. Northwesterly winds are not great for Allegheny River sailing. However things went very well. What I did not realize was that the winds had turned earlier to Westerlies, that would now blow directly up the Allegheny.

Sailing once again on a run, I approached and passed the Fort Duquesne Bridge.

Here are its immense stone piers, with iron rings for, I presume, docking.

I watched and waited as a river boat approached.

When it had passed, I thought it was time for a rest. I pulled up to the Northern bank and moored at a metal ring on the bank, at about 3:40pm. Time for a break. It was hot--87F according to the National Weather Service, So I drank my water and nibbled on the bag of nuts and dried fruit I’d stashed in the sailboat's locker.

When the motion of the boat calmed, the ants that had made their nest under the port mast cradle reappeared. I had not eradicated them after my last sail, after all:

I put back into the water at 3:45pm or 3:50pm and tested the winds. They were still blowing gently against the current up the Allegheny River. So I proceeded on a run, with the wind at my back, past my three favorite bridges, at 6th, 7th and 9th Streets. It was tempting to keep going. However sailing with the wind is faster than sailing against it. I estimated that it takes about twice as long to cover the same ground tacking into the wind. There was a long sail back to the marina into the wind ahead of me.

After passing the 9th Street Bridge and arriving at the Convention Center, I turned and headed for home. The winds were strong and steady. I swept towards the Point in a broad, satisfying pattern of zig-zags, passing where I'd docked by 4:15pm and arriving at the Point at about 4:25pm. Here's a still of the moment from the CMU Breathe Cam:

Then the wind just dropped. I sat there with glassy, windless water all around. The plume of the fountain at the Point looked quite magnificent, so put my little camera as close as I could to the water's surface to take a photo.

After about ten minutes, the winds came back. The slow tacking into the wind began. Having been on deck for two hours, I was getting tired and sore and I was ready for this little sailing venture to be over. Here I am on the final leg home, approaching the West End Bridge:

My bows bump up against the driftwood in the marina:

It took another 45 minutes for me make it back to this moment at the Newport Marina.

The whole voyage is captured in the plot of the GPS track. My starting point is at the Newport Marina in the top left hand corner:

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Here are the actual weather conditions as recorded:

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Finally, I have to set the record straight on one thing. For a while now, I have been promoting myself as Pittsburgh's only regular downtown sailor. That is definitely no longer the case. Twice now I've run into Rob and Olga Noll, sailing their tiny sunfish on the Allegheny. Here's a screen grab that shows them sailing on the Allegheny River from the CMU Breathe Cam, Saturday September 3, 2016:

John D. Norton


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