Skip to main content

River Run

This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issueHalf 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

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.

Related

Rescue

Cruising: Safety Lessons Learned

It’s not often that sailors get a chance to put their rescue and MOB training to the test, rarer still that they do as quickly as newbie California sailor Khosrow “Koz” Khosravani did recently. If and when an emergency situation ever arises, though, it pays to be prepared. This ...read more

01-LEAD-'22.01.10_FALKEN-Maiden_Emma-Bow

At the Helm: Sailplans

The first thing you notice when you look at the sailplan for the Farr 65, Falken, which Mia and I recently added to the fleet here at 59-North, is the sheer number of headsails. Falken was built in 1999 as a racing boat to go around the world, and the crew would have carried the ...read more

01-PR-2-Throwing-it-Back-_©LaurensMorel

Racing Class Reunion

Where does an old VO70 go to retire? Right back to the racing circuit, apparently. This spring saw a remarkable contingent of Volvo Ocean Race one designs back on the water and duking it out on the Caribbean circuit. While it’s no surprise that some of the VO65 teams intending ...read more

05-Sailboats-moored-in-sheltered-waters-off-of-Kärrsön

Charter: Sweden

With 2,000 miles of coastline, 270,000 islands and seemingly countless bays and inlets, Sweden is truly a sailor’s paradise. One of the top sailing destinations here is the archipelago just outside the country’s second largest city Gothenburg (locally known as Göteborg), on the ...read more

fa70b13c-8eec-4c35-b30f-f89e497b469a

Crowdsourcing Age-of-Sail Weather Data

Although big, multi-million-dollar projects like the Large Hadron Collider and the human genome project with their legions of PHD’s tend to grab headlines, there’s still a part of play for the “citizen scientists” of the world. Amateur birders have long contributed to an ...read more

01-LEAD-Ultime-race-Yvan-Zedda,-OC-Sport-Pen-Duick

Ultims to Race Solo Around the World

For years now, maxi-trimarans, both solo-sailed and fully crewed, have been racing the clock on their own around the world in an effort to set ever faster records for the world’s fastest circumnavigation under sail. Back in 2000-01 there was also a no-holds-barred ...read more

P1-01-LEAD-018_CARYNBDAVIS_AMISTAD

Juneteenth on the Water

Discovering Amistad and Mystic Seaport Museum have partnered to organize their third annual Juneteenth festival, featuring concerts, speakers and a reflection on the lasting legacy of racial injustice in America. Declared a National Holiday in 2021, Juneteenth celebrates the end ...read more

Lead-2021-01-17-vue-03-34-av-tb-01

New Multihulls for 2022

Lagoon 51 In keeping with many of the more recently launched models created by French multihull builder Lagoon, the Lagoon 51 is all about comfort, “en plein air,” in particular, as the French might say. Topside, a whopping 80 percent of the boat’s flybridge is given over to ...read more