Big Yellow Duck
September 29, 2013

big yellow duck pittsburgh sailboat

It didn't seem like such at good idea to sail today. The weather forecast was calling for 8-9 mph winds from the South. That is on the edge of what works. Winds of 8-9 mph, if unobstructed, are perfect. But Southerly winds are obstructed by the ridge on the Southern bank of the Mon and Ohio. This might not be good. All it would take is for the winds to drop to, say, 5mph and there'd be little or no wind making it to river surface.

I knew that. But then this was an unexpectedly warm day in early fall. The temperatures would rise into the lower 70s. That's just perfect. And there was the duck. The big yellow duck had been brought to Pittsburgh. I'd gone on the previous Friday night, into the crowds, to see it on the Allegheny.

duck at night

This would be my one chance to sail up to it. I cannot now account for its appeal. It, after all, just a big, yellow, inflated duck. There's no subtlety. No deep meaning. No hidden message wrestled in pain by a starving artist in a freezing garret from an unforgiving medium. It's just a duck.

There's something so joyfully preposterous about the whole thing that... well... if you have a sailboat, you have to sail past.

For better or worse, the decision was taken. I rode over with Eve to the Newport marina. She helped me step the mast and, by 12:30, I was in the water.

It was definitely a decision for the worse. I'd been scanning the water, looking for wind. There was very little. There were periods of calm; and then little puffs of wind would blow in. They were blowing roughly from the Point, as expected with Southerly winds. The currents were reported to be low. On the Ohio, the report was a mere 5,000 cubic feet per second. That should be imperceptible. But, when I walked to the end of the dock, it was perceptible. Detritus in the water moved at a slow, but definite crawl. (Here are the flows on the Ohio, Allegheny, Mon and Yough.)

These are not good conditions for sailing. There's a slow current and a very gentle wind blowing with the current. That is a tough combination to beat, as I must since I planned to sail upstream to the Point, into both wind and current. Often enough, I've had the happy experience of a slow start, followed a little later by freshening winds and great time sailing.

It would not be so today. The winds dropped below the 8-9 mph forecast to a slow 5 mph, from the South and an even worse direction, Southwest, for a little while. Here's the National Weather Service record (and a graphical display):

wearther record

The result was one of the most painfully slow sails of my life. The gps track records the details:

speed gps track pittsburgh sailiboat
click for larger

The marina is in the upper left and the Point in the lower right. The tangled track traces my course as I weaved to and fro, making little headway. There was a lot of time spent stalled in the water, drifting back slowly with the current. (The red spots.) If I moved at all, the motions were slow, typically 0.5-1 mph. (Orange, yellow.) The short bursts of speed on the track were enthralling but rare.

It took 1 hour and 50 minutes to sail the few hundred yards to the West End Bridge. It then took over two hours more to make it to the duck at the Point. That sums to four hours to sail the 1.25 miles from the marina to the Point. I suppose it was a pleasant enough experience. I spent most of the time just sitting watching the power boats go by. There are worse places than a river to spend a warm, sunny afternoon. It was, however, far from my hopes of a fast sailboat, with wind pressing hard on the sail as the hull sliced through the water.

After ten minutes at the Point, I turned the bows back home. With the wind behind me, it was a comfortable, easy sail home. That's when I noted that there had probably been some little wind over the water all the time. But it was just too little to get the steady streamlines of wind flowing over the sail that can lift the boat into the wind and the current.

It had taken fours hours of sailing into the wind and the current to arrive at the Point. The return journey took a mere 35 minutes.

At least it was easy to take photos. Starting at the marina, this is an early glimpse of the duck.

duck from far away Pittsburgh sailboat

For a long time, I wondered if this would be as close as I would get to it. Finally I pass under the West End Bridge.

West End Bridge Pittsburgh sailboat

A barge powers past. I'm on the Northern side of the river, far from the channel the barges use, and have every intention of staying there.

barge Pittsburgh sailboat

Getting closer:

duck Pittsburgh sailboat

duck Pittsburgh sailboat

duck pittsburgh sailboat

duck Pittsburgh sailboat

I put my camera over the side, just above the water's surface:

duck hull Pittsburgh sailboat

Turning for home:

duck Pittsburgh sailboat

After four hours on the small deck, I'm quite sore. With the wind behind me, the sailing is now very easy and gentle. I stretch out on the deck. It's not the most nimble position, but it is too much comfort to resist.

stretching out Pittsburgh sailboat

One last look back, over water that has become glassy for lack of wind:

duck Pittsburgh sailboat

Ducky Tours come past.



Here's the second barge of the day.

barge Pittsburgh sailboat

As I near the West End Bridge, there's a little bit more speed, but I am still reclining.

reclining Pittsburgh sailboat

wake Pittsburgh sailboat

This is the last sail of the season. So I need to haul the sailboat off its ramp onto the trailer for the winter.

boat on trailer Pittsburgh sailboat

John D. Norton


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