Labor Day Weekend
September 5, 2010

When the Labor Day weekend comes, we know summer is nearly over. I'm searching more anxiously for the last few sailing days of the season. The Friday and Saturday were not good. On Friday there was a brief but intense storm blowing though. On Saturday, the winds rose to around 20 mph. It is manageable, but more work than fun.

On the Sunday, at last, conditions were perfect. The river currents were very low at 5,000 to 6,000 cubic feet per second on the Ohio Rivers. That is a mere trickle. The winds were forecast to be around 10 mph WSW. Temperatures would be a pleasant 68-70F. That is hard to beat!

On my ride over, everything fitted the forecast. I found winds in various places in the 0 -10 mph range, with good steady periods around 6 mph. It was 70F. There were white fluffy clouds moving fast with the wind against a beautiful blue sky.

This scene overhead is what gripped my attention. But in that I was nearly alone. There was a baseball game underway at PNC Park. People were streaming into the Park from all directions as the loud voice of the announcer boomed over the riverfront. The major attraction, however, was "LST 325," docked on the Northern shore of the last few feet of the Allegheny River, between Heinz Field and PNC Park. It is a World War Two era "Landing Ship, Tank," used for transporting tanks on D-Day. Its bow would open like a huge mouth and disgorge the tanks onto the beachhead.


That same gaping mouth was now opened to swallow the great throngs of people who had come to see it. The line stretched as far as I could see, at least up to the statue of Mr. Rodgers.


And they were coming in throngs. Adept as I am at weaving through a crowd, I needed to dismount and walk my bicycle past the crush.


This was exciting. Soon enough I'd be in the water next to this behemouth, carried past by gentle breezes.

The rigging and the launching of my Hobie were familiar enough to proceed smoothly. However, once I was in the water, I found that the winds were weak. I could see from the clouds overhead that there was plenty of wind; the clouds kept moving steadily and quite quickly. But they had a Southwesterly component. That meant that they were obstructed by the long ridge of Hills on the Southern shore of the Ohio and Mon Rivers.

In the summer of 2009, I'd devoted my efforts to figuring out the river currents. This summer, I'd been thinking more of the winds. My plan for today would be to watch the winds and see what patterns can be discerned.

The winds that blew me to the point came from my stern, so I ran easily with the wind behind me, through periods of ligher and heavier winds. Eventually, after about 20 minutes, I arrived at the LST. Then the wind died. I drifted along for a while watching the crowds on the LST deck. It seemed prudent to make the best of things. So I furled the sail and lay on my back on the deck to take some photos. The spot in which I now rested was just upstream of the LST mooring. It is the patch of water visible in this photo, taken during my ride over:

LST water

Here's the view from the deck looking back:

LST from river

The waves and gentle air then slowly turned me. Soon I was facing the Fort Duquesne Bridge:

Fort Duquesne Bridge

All the while, I was watching the winds in the upper air. I can see the clouds speeding in a West South Westerly direction, while the air is dead at the river surface. Here's view from this spot on the river looking exactly WSW into the wind:


It is quite clear that this ridge of hills is blocking the wind enough to create the periods of calm. All that was left to do was to sail round the Point to see where the air is most deadened.

In a few moments, the wind returned and I headed off. The gps tracks tell the story. First I sailed up the Allegheny to the dock near Kayak Pittsburgh. Then I returned, rounded the Point and sailed about halfway along the Mon Wharf. I tacked back to the point, took one more pass at the LST and sailed home.

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This map is color coded for distance and makes it easier to disentangle the overlapping parts of the voyage:

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Finally, here is the track color coded for speed. As before, the metric 10 km/hr corresponds to 6 mph.

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I sailed in various directions in the hope that some clear pattern might emerge concerning the wind. However there seemed to be little to learn beyond this. A 10 mph WSW wind will be deflected by the ridge of hills in a way that leaves a few moments of dead air and longer periods of intermediate speed. The winds were definitely steadier on the Allegheny. They were much deader on the Mon and it took me a lot longer to tack back.

That is to be expected since the Mon is more sheltered by the ridge of hills than the Allegheny. A WSW wind will blow pretty much along the Allegheny if it can touch down. WSW wind is most likely to reach the Mon by being deflected around the ridge; that makes it harder for strong winds to arrive there.

One curious anomaly was that, from time to time, a Northwesterly wind blew over the water. That was clearest at the farthest point of my sail up the Mon, where my return sailing track points directly Westward. There were also similar moments on the Allegheny.

The sailing on the Allegheny was most entertaining because of the pleasure boats clustered aroung the LST and PNC Park. But the sailing on the Mon was most interesting, for that is where the wind anomalies presented little puzzles to solve. You need to sense when a wind anomaly like this is taking place, as it was on the Mon, and how to respond to it. While I was decoding the winds, three of the Gatewayclipper fleet set sail, looping around the river, while I used whatever wind I could grab to keep out of their way. That made the sailing even more interesting.

It was during this period of sailing that I saw something in the distance. It was a white triangle much further up the Mon. It was another sailboat. IT WAS ANOTHER SAILBOAT! I'd resigned myself to being the ony leisure sailor on the river, aside from a few highly-organized regatta type events. But here was another sailor, just taking a sail.

Robinson Crusoe, walking the beach and finding a human footprint, could not have been more delighted.


My instant urge was to sail up to join them. However, I knew that would be folly. They were about a mile away. In this this light, erratic air, it would add an hour or two to my voyage if I tried. And they might not be there by the time I arrived. So reluctantly, I turned my bows for the Point and home.

If that was you sailing on the river today, please drop me a line!

Finally, there was a quite delightful moment earlier in the voyage. I'd moored at the dock near Kayak Pittsburgh, between the 6th and 7th Street Bridges. One of the Pittsburgh River taxis was moored a few yards away. They'd brought people to the game and were waiting for their return. I'd just taken a photo of my docked boat. It's nothing especially interesting; it just records that I was there:


One of the crew had been sitting on the river taxi deck and called out. He asked me if I'd like him to take photos. I told him I'd be delighted since I can never get photos of myself under sail; I can only get the view from the deck.

It turns out that Ron was retired from the Coast Guard and himself a sailor, who sails at Lake Arthur. We spent a few relaxed minutes chatting, while I ate my lunch of cranberries and walnuts.His son had been to Australia (Queensland) with the US Army. Ron taught river safety classes and knew all the rules governing powerboats and sailboats. An hour or so later, while sailing on the Mon, a powerboat and I came on a collision course. The powerboat just kept his course, missing my bow by inches and, I'm assuming from the cheery hallos, the boat occupants were wondering why I hadn't turned away. How I wish they'd taken Ron's class!

Here are the photos Ron took as I awkwardly sailed to and fro, trying to stay close enough in for a good photo, while navigating around an awkwardly anchored powerboat. Thanks again, Ron!

Under sail


It had been a near perfect day of sailing. Not too hot; not too cold. Enough wind to keep moving. The periods of dead air did not last long enough to be bothersome. There were a few strong gusts that would send me shooting across the water. And it was interesting. There was lots going on: plenty to see and plenty of boats to navigate around. I came home a lot later than I promised Eve.

John D. Norton

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