Downtown Sailing Club
August 18, 2018

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Our little downtown sailing club is less than most clubs. We have no officers and no constitution. There are no scheduled meeting, no agendas and no minutes written. We have only three members, me, Rob and Olga, and only two boats regularly in use. Our meetings happen when each of us decides individually that this is a good day to sail on the rivers and each of our good days happens to coincide.

That is how today's meeting happened. It was the longest meeting we'd ever had.

Neither of us weather watchers expected that we would sail this Saturday. As late as Friday night, the forecast was calling for thunderstorms. Imagine what it would be like to sit exposed to the elements in the middle of a river, next to a twenty foot Aluminum pole. That's why we don't sail in thunderstorms!

By Saturday morning, the forecasts had changed and for the better. Here's Windfinder's:

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The National Weather Service presented a slightly different forecast:

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Both showed no chance of thunderstorms and winds from the West, Northwest and North through the afternoon. Those are my preferred winds. The NWS forecast had more variability in the winds, but it was still favorable. The actual conditions around noon showed winds from the West and Northwest. The forecasts were proving correct.

Now let's check the river currents. The flow on the Ohio was low enough for comfortable sailing at 17,400 cubic feet per second.

The Allegheny and Mon were also low.

(The upward trend in the Allegheny flow reversed in the course of the afternoon.)

So it was time to sail. I packed my sailing gear in the early afternoon and headed off on my bicycle towards the marina. As I crossed the Seventh St. Bridge over the Allegheny River, I had a clear view of the flags on the baseball park. They were showing good winds, perhaps Westerly or Northwesterly.

I measured the wind on the northern shore in two places and found them to be blowing at 6-7 mph. Perfect.

Well before this, I'd already see Rob and Olga's sail off in the distance around the Fort Duquesne Bridge. I was now close enough to the Point to see them more clearly.

I positioned myself on the river bank somewhere close to where I expected their next tack would take them. We met and I promised that I would be out on the rivers shortly. That was likely something they already knew. Why else would I be riding my bicycle on a warm day, wearing a lifejacket and dangling pieces of sailing equipment?!

Off I went. There's always seems to be something interesting to look at on the river banks.

Soon enough I was at the Newport marina and getting ready to rig and launch my sailboat. A large riverboat passed by.

The winds were strong, perhaps 7-8 mph, and blowing towards the Point. (Here I'm guessing--I didn't measure them.) By 3:15pm, the boat was rigged, in the water and I set off.

Because the winds were stronger, I set off with a reefed sail (wrapped partially around the mast).

However the winds almost immediately dropped and I unfurled the sail fully.

Now that I was in the water, where, I wondered were Rob and Olga? As I approached the huge span of the West End Bridge, I could see their sail off in the distance near the Point.

They were tacking into the winds towards the West End Bridge. I was running before the wind (with the wind at my back towards them). We met soon enough a little upstream of the West End Bridge.

The winds were now quite weak, so the sailing for both of us was slow. I'd managed speeds of only 1-3 mph. That is usually a nuisance. But today it was helpful since it meant that it was easy for us stop and chat.

We didn't chat for long. There was sailing to be done. "How far down the river are you sailing?" I asked. It had been a long sail for them to the present position, so there was a long sail waiting for them to get home. Rob and Olga decided to turn at the Bridge.

We then sailed together towards the Point. It was the path back home for them and outward bound for me. I happily clicked away with my camera.

Alas, there was a spot of something on the lens that I didn't notice. So, to my annoyance, these photos have a fuzzy spot near the middle. They are still fun.

"What sort of boat do you have?" I asked. "A Sailfish?" "No, a minifish." Then I saw it, printed on the hull.

The sailing was slow as we made our way to the Point. We started with speeds of 3-4 mph. As we neared the Point, the winds dropped and our progress slowed.

You can see that in the gps plot. Here it is color coded for speed. The marina is in the red circle at the top left.

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It's a little hard to separate the outward track from the return track. Here's a version color coded for time:

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The outward track, tracing where I sailed with Rob and Olga, shows up as the red-orange-yellow portion of the track.

When we neared the Point, Olga kindly called out: Would I like her to take some photos of me? Oh yes! I never of photos of me!

It's not so easy to exchange something between two sailboats under way. My camera is also tied firmly to me. We managed. The exchange happened with the little loop in track.

At last--there are photos of me sailing! How kind and thoughtful of Olga!

We were now closer to the Point. Olga handed back the camera.

Rob and Olga took a turn across the full width of Mon river and then headed up the Allegheny. I took the same course and passed the Point at 4 pm.

The winds had weakened considerably. As we both headed up the Allegheny, our passage was slow, with frequent calm spots where we'd sit motionless in the water. However there were enough times with wind for us to make our way.

Here's Rob and Olga passing the fountain.

They kept close to the bank, while I ventured out more into the middle of river. Approaching the Fort Duquesne Bridge:

After I passed the bridge, I kept my eyes on the place where Rob and Olga would emerge from behind the pylons. There they are!

Perhaps this photo gives a sense of how immense the bridge is and how small our sailboats are.

We were now upstream of the Fort Duquesne Bridge and there was no wind. We sit becalmed waiting for the wind.

It was time to plan. If the weather forecast was right and our winds were Northwesterly, then they would not make it through to this stretch of the river. The winds would remain calm or light. The farther I ventured up the Allegheny, the longer I'd have to spend trying to sail back in weak winds.

So I called out that I was turning back. I'd try my luck on the Mon, where Northwesterly winds usually blow with strength. Here's our farewell.

Rob and Olga sailing off upstream, with the ball park in the background.

I turned my bows to the Point at 4:15 pm. That did not mean that I moved towards the Point. There was no wind to drive me there. Here you see the glassy water of dead air over my stern, looking up the river.

Here's a photo shot blind over the side towards my bows and the Fort Duquesne bridge.

As I crept toward the bridge, the winds crept up. Shortly after passing the bridge, the winds were stronger, but I was sore from sitting on the small deck of my boat. So I docked briefly at around 4:30 pm close to the Point.

It was hot and I was thirsty. I drank some water and ate some trail mix I'd taken in the boat's locker.

I would see stronger winds on the water, so I didn't stay for long. I headed off toward the Point and headed up the Mon river. The winds were blowing steadily straight up the Mon. You can see that in the direction of the fountain's plume:

And in the direction of the flag at Point State Park. Both point up the Mon.

Approaching the Fort Pitt Bridge:

Passing under it:

I was proceeding easily at 4-5 mph on a run with the wind behind me. That meant I had strong and steady winds and that it would take roughly twice as long to sail back. I'd have to tack into that same wind.

So I decided not to be too adventurous. I'd sail as far as the Wabash Railroad Bridge pier and then turn back.

This was the farthest I'd go upstream on the Mon. Farther up I could see the charming old span of the Smithfield Street Bridge.

Tempting as it was, it would be imprudent to sail any closer. At 4:45 pm, I turned to sail across the wind and then into the wind. This is the sailing I like best. I tacked to and fro across the wind, gaining distance with each iteration. The sense of speed is acute since my speed adds to the wind speed to give a strong apparent wind. I maintain steady speeds in the 5-6 mph range.

The boat feels secure and steady in the water. I feel strong. The bows kick up bursts of spray as they plow over the little waves that were kicked up by the wind.

I have no photos of this most pleasurable experience since I need both hands to sail the boat. I have to keep a gentle touch on the rudder so my bows stay close to the wind. The other hand is on the "main sheet," the rope that controls the sail. If a sudden gust comes and threatens to tip the boat, that hand must instantly release the main sheet, or over I will go.

In sailing up the Mon, I passed the place where the riverboats dock.

While I was passing, one let out a blast on its horn. I took that to mean that it was putting into the water. I'd need to keep an eye on it. Soon enough it was pulling out from the dock, but it was heading upstream, away from me. I knew that the respite was temporary. It would eventually come my way.

By the time I'd passed back under the Fort Pitt Bridge, I could see the river boat approaching.

I would not normally worry much about this boat. Unlike the barges, it is maneuverable enough that it will only run me down if its skipper positively aims for me. Still, it seemed both prudent and polite to keep out of its way. These skippers have enough to worry about. There are powerboaters dropping anchor in the middle of the river and swimming, sometimes with their beer cans held high in the water.

Now I do worry, since I have lots of wind and am tacking back and forth across the full width of the river in rapid sweeps. Our paths will cross. I keep my eye on the boat and make an extra wide pass over the river. Turning I see that if just sail directly at the boat, even though I can sail quite fast, I must end up passing behind the riverboat's stern.

And that is what happens.

I pass the Point at 5 pm and begin the long series of tacks into the wind that will take me home. After one or two tacks, I lose the wind and sit becalmed. I'm wondering if the wind directions are changing wildly. What do the weather records say?

Checking later I find this from the National Weather Service:

And this from Windfinder:

They agree that the winds had stayed strong and steady through the afternoon, blowing at 8-10 mph, but they had started to shift to the North, just as had been forecast. That meant that they might be shielded at the Point by the massive hulk of the football stadium.

Soon enough the winds were back and I could tack home.

Here I sail towards the casino.

On turning I now sail towards some barges moored on the other side of the river:

(This photo was taken moments later after I'd turned away from the barges.)

There I see a deck hand hauling a salvage barge manually along the side of a larger barge. I have sailed in close enough to be in hailing distance.

"That's impressive!" I shout to him.

And it was. That is a big barge he is moving.

The day's sailing is nearly at an end. I get lighter winds as I approach the West End Bridge. When I'm nearing the dock, the winds seem to have turned towards the West. I sensed it on the water and it is reflected in the geometry of my last few tacks. My guess is that the Northerly winds were blocked by the trees on the Northern bank of the Ohio and swirled round them to approach me from the East.

Now finally at 5:40 pm, I point my bows into the marina.

Soon enough I will be beached on the ramp and taking down my mast. It's been over two hours on deck and I am quite sore from it all. It will be a welcome moment.

John D. Norton


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