Local teens learn to navigate Pittsburgh’s rivers
On a recent sunny afternoon, three long white sailboats cut the wind on the Allegheny River. Four teenagers and three adult instructors on board pull ropes and watch for obstacles in the water. White and green masts flutter against the downtown Pittsburgh skyline as ships pick up speed and sail around buoys.
It’s the Point of Pittsburgh Sailing League, a program allowing local students to try their hand at sailing. One such student is Eva August, a rising junior at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 who focuses on the visual arts.
“I had heard of sailing as an activity, but didn’t really know it was on the river,” August said. “I had never really seen that.”
It’s actually August’s second year in the program, and she’s getting really good. She said that during her time with the league, she enjoyed the independence sailing gave her.
“You really learn how to do something and, like, go out and do it on your own, without instruction,” August said. “It’s almost like a little form of independence.”
The program was launched by Joe Kirk in 2021. Last year’s program was limited by COVID, but this year it’s afloat. Kirk, a sailor himself since the 1970s, created the program as a way to introduce the sport to local high school students. While he said he often cruised Lake Arthur in Butler County, he and the other instructors wanted a program that was more accessible to city teens.
“We have high school students almost exclusively from the Pittsburgh public school system,” Kirk said.
This year, students are primarily from Taylor Allderdice, Pittsburgh Obama, and CAPA, but any teenager 14 and older can apply. He said it’s good to have CAPA students, like Eva August, because they can take the light rail or cross a bridge to get to the docking site near the Carnegie Science Center. The program comes with a $200 application fee, but Kirk said no student is turned away if they can’t afford it.
Thanks to a scholarship from State Senator Wayne Fontana and an agreement with the Sports and Exhibition Authority for mooring space, the nonprofit was able to purchase and maintain several boats.
Tack, jibe and learn the tricks of the trade
In Pittsburgh, Kirk said the boating season typically runs from late May to early October, so the high school program begins in April in the classroom. There, qualified sailing instructors emphasize the physics of the sport to the students.
“We have them build little paper sailboats and they walk around with the sailboats and we talk about how the wind works on that sail,” Kirk said. “We then use it to teach the rules of the road when sailboats meet who has priority.”
If sailboats were on a lake, Kirk said they would have to yield to canoes and kayaks, while powerboats would yield to sailboats. But because the city’s rivers have what’s called a restricted navigation zone where commercial vessels are restricted by water depth, sailboats must yield to ships like barges and the Gateway Clipper fleet. Kirk has a radio on board to communicate with any passing boat.
Before each navigation session, Kirk takes out a whiteboard leaning on an easel and draws a model of the course and any obstacles. He goes over the day’s maneuvers and where they’ll be sailing. That day, the students stood near the north bank on the Allegheny River in front of the statue of Mister Rogers.
“It’ll only be a few hundred yards long, but it’s more than enough for what they’ll need today,” Kirk said.
The students practiced two specific skills: how to gybe and tack. Jibing, he says, is when the stern, or back of the boat, crosses the wind; Tacking is when the bow, or front, crosses the wind. Both are necessary skills for sailing, Kirk said, especially when bigger boats pass.
When a Gateway Clipper boat floats down the Monongahela River, Kirk prepares to coordinate a safe location for his students’ boats. He pulls out an air horn from the motorboat he drives alongside the sailboats and presses it twice, pauses, and honks twice again. A vertical red and white panel on the side of the motorboat features small horn images that dictate the meaning of the number of horns. One honk for the north shore, two for the nearest shore, three for “everything is clear” and four for the wharf.
With another hand, he pulls out a small radio and contacts the Clipper.
“Navigation safety to Gateway Clipper, we are leaving the navigation area, done.”
Even if there were to be choppy waves or a strong wind, Kirk says the students are ready for it. Additionally, the boats they use are made for learning, with a masthead float that prevents the boat from flipping over.
“Students practice capsizing exercises. They must be able to reassemble the boat in one minute. And these boats are designed to be able to do that.
These sailboats even have bright green pool noodles on the arrows above the students’ heads that would soften a blow if it swung around and hit them.
“Concussions, frankly, are one of the biggest injuries in high school and college sailing,” he said.
With Pittsburgh’s hilly topography, Kirk says it can be difficult to keep up with weather reports, wind speed forecasts and water levels.
“Sailing, you know, in an urban area like Pittsburgh, especially a waterway, is really something that should be done in an organized way,” Kirk said. “We’re not suggesting people come here and drop a sailboat in the river and sail.”
But not many people do, he says, because it’s not as common to navigate these rivers as a large lake or ocean. Kirk hopes that some of the sailors he helps train will continue to sail, or even compete.
All students are issued caps while in the program, and once new sailors are comfortable they are assessed on their abilities.
“Can we sail without a monitor on board? And that means what can you talk about knowing how to drive a boat? Can you sail it away from the dock? Can you resell it at the dock? Can you rig it? »
If successful, students receive a small sailboat pin on their hat. Right after the visit with the league, Kirk said that Eva August had just won her first pin.