On the Edge of the Hurricane
August 27, 2011

This weekend, Hurricane Irene is tearing up the East Coast. We have been watching in fearful awe as city after city goes under emergency conditions. Not even New York City escaped. Low lying areas in Manhattan, prone to flooding, were evacuated.


Here in Western Pennsylvania, we are just at the edge of the winds. We'd been watching the forecast avidly, feeling a little odd that the winds that wreak havoc a little way off may be good for sailing.

Here are the forecasts we saw, as given on the windfinder.com website. (Click here for the full forecast, which matched well with my usual weather.com forecast.) For Saturday:


and for Sunday:


Sunday was to be the most intense. It has up to 17 mph and gusts as high as 30 mph. That is too rich for my timid tastes. Saturday looked safer. The winds would build in the afternoon from 8-9 mph up to 12-14 mph later in the day.

However I could only assemble the sailing crew for early afternoon on Saturday. So we settled for those lighter winds. The forecast proved about right, as later records showed, for the time of our sail: 1pm - 4:40pm. As we rode our bikes over, we were in the brief calm recorded.

The crew today was Eve and Marina, who is real sailor. That means she spend last year sailing from Turkey across the Mediterranean and then across the Atlantic. Need I say how that compares to my boasts of having sailed all the way from the Northside to the Strip?

So we took off with her at the helm. The wind was a curiously light. We put into the water at 1pm. The winds were coming roughly from the North, so they were blowing erratically from our backs. It took a slow hour on a run to get to the Point. We then continued up the Allegheny. The roughly northerly winds now blew in our faces and we needed to tack slowly into the wind.

An hour and forty minutes later we turned at the Veterans' Bridge and made for home. All in all we had some good sailing on the Allegheny.

rudder in water

The gps tracks tells the story.

click for larger

click for larger

click for larger

It was difficult sailing most of the way. There is no place on the river where the northerly winds are unobstructed. They are always whipping around big things like stadia and buildings; or being blocked by rows of trees.

However the lesson is that we can still sail and eve sail quite enjoyably in these conditions. We did make it well up the river. The most curious moments, however, came in the stretch of the Allegheny blocked in between the Fort Duquesne and 6th Street Bridges. I often have trouble there, getting trapped by erratic winds or no winds at all. That happened in spades. We entered that section on our tacking upriver and seemed trapped, doomed to tack back and forth gaining nothing.

speed detail

We eventually broke free.

I don't think that we were battling strong currents. The river flows were low. On the Allegheny, we were at roughly 6,000 cubic feet per second. On my rather rough estimate, that is about 0.22mph=0.35 feet/sec. That means we are washed back by 20 feet each minute by the current. (For reference, here are the flows on the Ohio, Mon and Yough.)

This current is, presumably, a factor. Inexorably losing this distance to the current adds to our burden. But it cannot be the only factor. For once we passed the ballpark, we seemed to break free and have no trouble tacking upstream, still battling the same current.

I'm guessing that the northerly wind is deflecting around the ballpark and thus changing direction as we tacked across the river. We needed to change our course to compensate and then would have gained distance upstream. But we weren't sensitive enough to the wind change to do it. Or so I surmise.

Here are some photos.

Starting out, we've passed the West End Bridge.

West End Bridge

Here's the crew: Marina at the helm and Eve working the jib sheet.


We are about to sail under the Fort Duquesne Bridge. Before and after we sailed there, we passed river boats in many configurations:



riverboat through window


Looking up the Allegheny at around 3pm, we thought we saw clouds rising in the East that foreshadowed a weather change:


I took a photo, anticipating more to come. But, an hour later as we sailed back, the clouds were gone:

no clouds

Here we are just passing the Veterans' Bridge:

low to the water

Since Marina was handling the tiller, I could get some shots I cannot normally take. The rising, surging wake, raised around the rudders, looks to the eye like a white gush. The camera can freeze it and we find beautifully curved water scultpures, chaning moment by moment:



We're on our way home, passing the 6th Street Bridge.


John D. Norton


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