Prove your humanity

This story was originally published on October 9, 2015.

There are a lot of facets to river life in Pittsburgh these days. But sailing is not generally something people are brave/curious enough to try. Generally sailors prefer big, open bodies of water like the ocean or inland lakes—you know, ones without a current or a steady barrage of barge traffic. But Pittsburgh’s John Norton has made it his personal mission to master the rivers in a sailboat. And he wants you to do it too.

“I’m actually the only one that sails regularly around the Point. I was born in Australia and grew up in Australia and moved to Pittsburgh when I was about 30. Sailing is a very popular sport in Australia so a lot of people just learn how to do it. It’s just part of growing up. So the idea that when you see an interesting piece of water that this would be a great place to sail—that’s just an automatic reaction. The question is: Can you do it?

“River sailing is a challenge. If you have a river current of one or two miles per hour, that’s going to be a trial for a sailboat to beat. So what I’ll do is start downstream and sail up to the Point. That’s not an accident, that’s by design. If the wind dies—and that can happen—I want the current to bring me home. If I start upstream and sail down towards the Point, then the current is not going to carry me home. But that’s what makes it immensely satisfying. You have to get all the pieces just right and when you get all the pieces just right, you have an amazing experience. Get some of the pieces wrong, and it won’t go well.”

“I’ve managed to avoid the worst situation that is every river boater’s nightmare and that is the barges. There are enormous barges here. When you just glance at them and you see them in the middle of the river, you don’t think much of them. Because they’re so enormous, you think they’re like elephants and they’re going to move very slowly. That’s not so. They move very quickly. So if you’re out in the middle of the river and you see a barge off in the distance, it’s going to be on top of you pretty quickly. You have to get out of the way. So if there’s wind, you can sail and get out of the way. If there’s no wind, you have a paddle.”

LISTEN: “What it’s like to sail the Three Rivers”

“My boat is a catamaran. I haven’t given it a name—maybe I should. It’s a beautiful design. The people here at Newport Marina have been very kind to me. I don’t think they had much of an idea of what they were agreeing to when they said, Yeah, sure, we’ll let you keep a sailboat here. The other boaters here don’t know what to do with me because Pittsburgh doesn’t have a sailing culture. So sailboats are mysterious things.”

“There’s a very different mindset between a sailor and a power boater. With a power boater, you open the throttle, you get there—it’s the raw sense of power and speed. For me, it’s the artistry. I don’t think there’s any great achievement in sailing from here to the Point in a powerboat. It just means you put gas in the tank and turned the engine on. But for me to get there, it can be quite an achievement. I have to have the right winds, the right current—and use them well. I succeed because I solve a continuous series of little problems.”

“Watching someone sail is a little like watching someone read a book. They just sit there and they just stare at the book. Sailing is like that. You don’t know what’s going on. Massive cerebral activity is going on. Especially when you’re sailing on the rivers.”

“It used to be that people would shake their heads over the thought of going down to the river. Local Pittsburghers, when I tell them I’m sailing, still ask me: Do you get wet? The have the obvious fear that there’s something so dangerous in the water that mere contact with it might well be fatal. So they’re pleased to see that I’m still alive.”

“When I started sailing, I thought it would be a fairly simple matter to write a blog, explain what I was doing, say how much fun it was, and in no time at all, there would be lots of other people doing it. It hasn’t gone that way. I set a metric for success, and we’re looking at the metric right here: Success will be when there is a second sailboat sitting next to this one on the riverbank. That was six or seven years ago, and I’m still the only one who has a sailboat here.”


The piece is part of a series of audio postcards called Our Three Rivers, which explores stories of the people that make up life on the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. Go here to listen to more stories in this series. You can read about John’s sailing adventures—and get tips for your own—at his blog