Groundhog Day
May 13, 2009

The day has finally come. The sailboat is sitting waiting by the riverside. The weather is warm, a comfy 65F, and the winds are blowing. The forecast calls for 15 mph winds from SSE.

Eve and I gather our bits and pieces of sailing gear and carry them down to her office where we keep our bicycles. We get the gear loaded into saddlebags and head off from our place on Liberty Ave., over the Ninth Street Bridge and along the North shore of the river. It is not an easy ride. What should be clear rivertrail is broken by the looming mass of the new casino under construction. They have made a provision for cars to drive past, but no provision at all for cyclists to pass. Everything is blocked all the way to the freeway. Clearly no one has given any thought to the problems a cyclist or pedestrian might face. We wind our way past hostile signs and building clutter. We hope it will be over soon and that the river trail is restored. We need it.

Then we are at the marina. We begin to lay out our gear and haul the boat off its trailer at the water's edge. One of the trickiest moments in rigging a boat is "stepping the mast." This is the moment when the mast is hauled up to a vertical position and locked in place. The Hobie Bravo's mast has been billed as very easy to step; it is all done by one person in a simple movement. I hoped so. Stepping the mast on our big Getaway is a sweaty job for two and best done with more hands helping. One hauls mightily on a rope; the other puts real back into lifting.

I align the base of the Bravo's mast with its ball socket and start to push up. The mast wobbles a little precariously and it goes up; but it does go up easily. Ahh--relief.

Boat at marina

We slide the rigged boat into the water, tie it to the dock and attach the rudder and mainsheet. Soon we've maneuvered the boat out to the end of the dock and start checking lines and fittings. There's really no reason not to cast off and take to the waters. Well, there is one reason.

We are nervous, sitting for the first time in our new boat. Every sailboat has a personality that you have learn. They don't like to be ordered. They like to be persuaded and cajoled. This boat is still a stranger to us. We need to get to know it.

There's a second reason. I'd been keeping an eye on the current. Standing at the end of the dock, I could gauge the current by watching the little bits of debris it carried. What I saw was worrying me. I'd guess the motion was a slow walk. Our boat could easily sail faster than that. Or at least it could when the winds are blowing. But could we average a greater speed than that? The average is what matters if the current is to be beaten. We did have a lot of wind. I measured gusts over 10 mph.

We had a new boat and a new river to learn. There's only one way to do it. Off we go.

The winds are blowing quite strongly. They seem to be coming from upstream, our South East. We head off in that direction into the wind. To make headway against the wind in a sailboat, you have to tack. That is, you have to zig-zag, to and fro, with each turn gaining more distance into the wind.

The first impressions are good. I'm hesitantly adjusting the rudder and main sheet. (The main sheet is the rope, to use the landlubber's term, that controls the mainsail.) I note that the rudder is very sensitive. Quite slight movement send the boat wiggling.

There is ample wind, pulling the sail taut and urging the boat forward. It slices through the water. The feeling is exhilarating. We are flying over the water. At we tack to and fro, we are starting to gain against the joint forces of wind and current and perhaps even come close to the West End Bridge, our gateway to the Point.

We are flying. We are moving fast. We have to be gaining, I am telling myself. But we never quite seem to get there. I start to gauge our progress, not against the water but against landmarks on the shore. They tell a quite a different story. We are making very slow progress. In fact, we are lucky to advance at all.

Then it happens. The wind drops. We've lost our power and we start to drift back. By the time we are aligned with the marina, our starting point, it is time to break out the paddle. That is the only way we will avoid being swept further downstream. Eve did the work. She paddled us into the marina so we can take stock.

This episode played out several times in the course of the afternoon. We put back into the water when the wind rises. We gain a little distance. The wind dies and we lose it. Eventually, we sat on the shore watching the wind come and go. I began to see the pattern. The coming and going of the wind was coordinated with the little puffy clouds as they covered and revealed the sun. That told us that it was hopeless. We were never going to get enough, consistent wind to sail past the West End Bridge to the Point.

I noted for future reference that the forecast had called for 15 mph winds from SSE and that the flows at the dams were Natrona--17,000 cubic feet per second and Elizabeth--20,000 cubic feet per second. These numbers and directions, I now know, guarantee trouble.

Ground Hog Day

As the afternoon's failure became evident to me and the clouds obscured the sun, my mood grew dark and sullen. Eve did her best to be cheerful and tell me that she was having a good time. She recounted this as the day we lived the movie "Groundhog Day." In it, the lead character was forced to relive the same day in Punxatawny over and over, just as we sailed the same stretch of river, without escape.

John D. Norton

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