River Run

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This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue

Half a century ago, sailing a full-sized boat up a tidal river was all in a day’s work. Today we rely on our diesel engines instead, but there is no gain without pain. Firing up an engine as a matter of course on entering a river is easy, but is hardly sporting. The skills needed to work up a narrow waterway under sail alone are fun to master, and the sense of fulfillment is priceless.

I learned to sail in tidal rivers in my early teens, so much of what I do is instinctive. That’s not good enough for an instructor, however, so not long ago a couple of pals and I cruised up a local waterway with the idea of analyzing some of the techniques. The river in question runs first to the west then largely north, and the wind was northerly. The tide was well up, but we had enough flood left to help us sail the three and a half miles to the pub. Jeff is a dinghy sailor, unfazed by close-quarters stuff, but Dan freely admits he usually douses his sails before things start getting tight.

The river rises in a forest, then meanders through a woodland before finally emptying into open water. Once in sight of the sea, it runs east/west inside a half-tide island for a mile before turning abruptly southward to its mouth. Coming in from seaward, the short leg over the bar and the long, straight “sea reach” that follows are marked clearly with beacons. Thereafter, the marks fade out and you’re left with common sense and moorings to follow.

Coming in across the bar and tacking up the first short leg north presents no problems to anyone who believes it can be done. All Jeff, our helmsman, had to do was keep way on at the end of his two easy tacks and come about before reaching the invisible line between the big posts marking the limits of deep water. The fair tide helped, and suddenly we were easing sheets on the long westward leg.

Sailing free up a straight stretch of a river, it pays to keep to windward. Allowing the boat to sag away to the lee side usually ends in tears; if the wind can possibly head her, you can be sure it will. Then you’ll be faced with an unnecessary tack. In our case, following this policy placed us on the correct side of the waterway for COLREG purposes. Often it doesn’t. Then you have to make a judgment call, but other sailors generally will respect your situation. A wave of acknowledgment lets folks know you haven’t taken them for granted and that you appreciate them giving way.

If you’re confronted with a fleet of powerboats all plowing down the “correct” side of the river when you need that same piece of water to keep up to weather, you’re best advised to drop to leeward and take it on the chin. Those guys may not understand what you are doing, and it takes a thick skin to muscle it out when the verbal abuse starts flying.

Once around the turn at the end of the sea reach, Jeff was faced with an extended dead beat up to the last bend before the village. The river is studded with moored boats, and as Dan and I spat on our hands and stood by the sheet winches, Jeff considered the implications of tacking past other people’s yachts. Here are some of the tricks of the trade we discussed as we weaved our way upstream:

Take no chances with the lee shore: When you’re beating in a river, one tack is generally favored. Unfortunately, this often is the one that leads you to the lee shore. Near the top of the tide, as we were, it goes without saying you want to avoid any risk of running aground. Special care must be taken on the long tack, because if you touch bottom at the end and lose way, then by definition you cannot sail off. You are reduced to the sorry options of either starting the engine or launching the dinghy to lay out a kedge anchor.

Touch and go: If you do touch near the end of a tack (1), the secret is to turn hard to weather immediately with the headsail sheet made fast. If you have enough residual way on for the boat’s head to pass through the wind, the jib will back and help the boat around (2). She will also begin heeling again, which reduces her draft, giving you every chance of sailing off into deep water (3). If you fail to react instantly, you’re stuck.

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