On a recent sunny afternoon, three long white sailboats cut through the wind on the Allegheny River. Four teenagers and three adult instructors aboard pull ropes and keep an eye out for obstacles on the water. White and green masts flutter against the Downtown Pittsburgh skyline as the vessels pick up speed and navigate around buoys.
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This is the Point of Pittsburgh Sailing League, a program for local students to try their hand at sailing. One of those students is Eva August, a rising junior at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 focusing on visual arts.
“I’d heard of sailing as an activity, but I didn’t really know that it was going on on the river,” August said. “I’d never really seen that.”
This is actually August’s second year in the program, and she’s getting really good. She said during her time with the league, she’s enjoyed the autonomy sailing’s brought her.
“You really get to learn how to do something and, like, actually go out and do it by yourself, without instruction,” August said. “It’s almost like a little form of independence.”
The program was started by Joe Kirk in 2021. Last year’s program was limited by COVID, but this year, it’s fully 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 sails at Lake Arthur in Butler County, he and the other instructors wanted a more accessible program to city teens.
“We have high school students almost exclusively from the Pittsburgh Public Schools system,” Kirk said.
This year, students are predominantly from Taylor Allderdice, Pittsburgh Obama and CAPA, but any area teen 14 and older can apply. He said it’s been nice to have CAPA students, like Eva August, because they can take the light rail or walk across a bridge to get to the docking site near the Carnegie Science Center. The program comes with a $200 registration fee, but Kirk said no student is turned away if they can’t afford it.
With an education grant from state Sen. Wayne Fontana, and an agreement with the Sports and Exhibition Authority for docking space, the nonprofit was able to purchase and maintain several boats.
Tack, jibe and learn the ropes
In Pittsburgh, Kirk said the sailing season typically runs from late May to early October, so the high school program begins in April in the classroom. There, trained 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’s working on that sail,” Kirk said. “We then use it to teach the rules of the road how when sailboats meet who has right of way.”
If the sailboats were on a lake, Kirk said they’d have to give way to canoes and kayaks, while power boats would give way to the sailboats. But because the city’s rivers have what’s called a regulated navigation area where commercial vessels are limited by depth of the water, sailboats have to give way to vessels like barges and the Gateway Clipper fleet. Kirk has a radio onboard to communicate with any passing boat.
Before each sailing session, Kirk brings out a white board leaning on an easel and draws a mockup of the route and any obstacles. He goes over the day’s maneuvers and where they’ll be sailing. On this day, the students stayed near the North Shore on the Allegheny River in front of the Mister Rogers statue.
“It’ll be just a couple hundred yards long, but that’s more than long enough for what they’ll need today,” Kirk said.
Students were practicing two specific skills: How to jibe and tack. Jibing, he said, is when the stern, or the back of the boat, crosses the wind; tacking is when the bow, or the front, crosses the wind. Both are necessary skills for sailing, Kirk said, especially when bigger boats come by.
When a Gateway Clipper boat floats up the Monongahela River, Kirk prepares to coordinate a safe location for his students’ boats. He fishes out an air horn from the powerboat he’s driving next to the sailboats and presses down twice, pauses, and honks twice again. A vertical red and white sign on the side of the powerboat has small horn images that dictate what the number of honks means. One honk for North Shore, two for closest shore, three for “all clear” and four for dock.
With another hand, he pulls out a small radio and contacts the Clipper.
“Sailing safety to Gateway Clipper, we are exiting the navigation area, over.”
Even if there were to be choppy waves or a strong wind, Kirk says the students are ready for it. Plus the boats they use are made for learning, with a masthead float that keeps the boat from turning over.
“The students practice capsize drills. They have to be able to bring the boat back up in a minute. And these boats are designed to be able to do that.”
These sailboats even have bright green pool noodles on the booms above the students’ heads that would lessen a blow if it happened to swing and hit them.
“Concussions, frankly, are one of the leading injuries in high school and college sailing,” he said.
With Pittsburgh’s hilly topography, Kirk says it can be challenging to keep up with weather reports, wind speed predictions and water levels.
“Sailing, you know, in an urban area like Pittsburgh, especially a navigable waterway, is really something that should be done in an organized way” Kirk said. “We’re not suggesting folks just come in here and drop a sailboat in the river and go sail around.”
But not a lot of people do, he says because it’s not as common to sail on these rivers as it would be on a larger lake or ocean. Kirk hopes some of the sailors he helps to train go on to continue to sail, or even compete.
All the students receive caps when they’re in the program, and once the new sailors are comfortable, they’re evaluated on their abilities.
“Can you sail without an instructor on board? And that means can you talk about can you drive a boat? Can you sail it away from dock? Can you sell it back to dock? Can you rig it?”
If they’re successful, students receive a small sailboat pin on their hat. Just after the visit with the league, Kirk said Eva August had just earned her first pin.