Three Rivers
July 8, 2009

Finding the next sailing day was not so easy. On July 3, just before the July 4th weekend, I had set off on my bike, laden with sailing gear. When I got to the Allegheny River, the winds were gusting up to 12 mph. I crossed the 7th Street Bridge and rode down the river, stopping to measure windspeed and watch for current. It was complicated since the July 4th preparations were blocking access in many places. All this time, I was peering so closely at the dark and raging water that I didn't notice that there were no ordinary pleasure crafts to be seen. Then I noticed. The rivers were closed for the July 4th weekend to make space for the races and other events. No sailing this weekend.

The next hospitable day was Tuesday July 7th. I left the office early to be able to get to the water. Alas, by the time I arrived downtown, the winds were picking up just too much. I walked over to the 9th Street Bridge just to look. No forecast or number ever quite replaces just seeing the river. It was windy and they were forecasting higher winds of 15-16 mph. I can sail in those winds. I'd probably reef the sail (reduce its area) and take extra care while tacking. But as I thought through what that would mean, it all seemed less appealing. In high winds, there's no room for error. Slip up and your boat tips; and you are in the water. Sailing is meant to be fun. This sounded like hard work. No sailing.


The next day, July 8, it all came together. It was a glorious, sunny afternoon with winds forecast at a gentle 5 mph, WNW. The river currents, I noted, were down. The flow on the Allegheny was around 12,000 cubic feet per second. That seems to translate to something like a quarter to half a mile per hour (on the basis of my highly inaccurate pacings on other days on the riverbank). There was virtually no current on the Mon; the flow at Elizabeth was down to 1,000-1,500 cubic feet per second.

So I set off for a very leisurely and enjoyable afternoon's sailing. This was the day on which I would sail for the first time on all three rivers: the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Mon. While the forecast was for 5 mph winds, the reality was wind anywhere from 0 to 5 mph. In course of the afternoon, I found myself sitting becalmed in glassy waters wondering if a barge would lumber down upon me and how I would ever get back home. But then the winds would pick up to a gentle breeze. I would be off, sometimes quickly, sometimes very slowly, with a bubbling wake behind me.


It was a little gentler than I wanted. However it was restful and enjoyable. There was plenty of time just to sit and look at the city at it passed by and to wave and chat for a moment with the kayakers. I also like sailing in very light winds since everything happens much more slowly. I can sail precisely. I can choose a narrow channel under a bridge, notice a gentle breeze flowing through it, and tack to and fro to get through.

small GPS track

This time I had a new toy. I was carrying a GPS system, which was dutifully logging my track (shown above). Click HERE to see it in greater detail.

(Update: The mystery of the slight mislocations of the track on the map is now solved. For corrected maps see here (satellite) and here (street).)

I put into the water at the Newport Marina at the leftmost (western) edge of the map. You'll see that I made it up the Allegheny, as far as the Convention Center, and up the Mon, as far as the Smithfield Street Bridge. The placing of the track on the map by Google Earth is not entirely accurate. I not did sail over the land! But otherwise it is pretty good. The interesting feature is to see the two types of courses. When my course is relatively straight, I am sailing with the wind behind me. Then I am sailing roughly eastward. When my course zig-zags, I am tacking into the wind. Then I am sailing westward.

In the top left hand corner of the map, you will see some very tight zig zags on my return journey. While I was nearing home, a tugboat pushing two large barges appeared. On earlier sails, I would have pulled over and stopped sailing ("hove to"). In gentle winds, very precise movements are possible. So I tacked to and fro in a tight zig zag, keeping over to the side of the river farthest from the barges.


The time on the water was about 4 hours and 25 minutes. That time reflects a lot of periods of slow sailing and of sitting becalmed. I also docked at the point and took a nice stroll around Point State Park. You get stiff and little sore in places sitting on a small deck for hours.

The GPS device confirmed the accuracy of the trick for computing speeds by counting the seconds needed for debris to pass (in the June 27 entry: 1mph = 8.2 seconds). In modest winds of 3-5 mph, I tended to sail comfortably at 3-4 mph. When the winds stiffened for brief gusts, my speed would rise to 5 mph, peaking at 6 mph. On a windier day, I was sure the boat would go faster.

Here are some more photos, most taken from the deck. It was tricky taking them since, when the wind blows, I have no free hands to work a camera. I waited until the wind dropped so I could take my hands off the tiller and mainsheet to fiddle with the camera. Some are taken by holding out the camera and pointing blindly back at me. Sometimes photos like that work. More often...

I've just dropped my bike and I am about to take the boat off its trailer and rig it.

Made it past the bridges at 6th, 7th and 9th Streets!

This is the bubbling wake rising against calmer water. It is the sign that tells you that, at last, you are moving.


The blue cord wound round the mast is the one to pull when you want to furl the sail. Pull it, and the sail winds up like a blind. Easy!

This railway bridge at the Convention Center is as far up the Allegheny as I could get. The wind just died in this little pocket. There were one or two lackluster puffs, but they were not enough to overcome the slight current. I seemed to spend a long time looking at this bridge, waiting for the wind to draw me under it. The GPS track shows me sailing under this bridge. That exaggerates. My track turns just before the bridge.

On the return, I'm approaching the Duquesne Bridge. In the distance, one of the big riverboats approaches. I'll keep well away from it.

John D. Norton

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