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

thumbnail_Jump-1

The Marblehead-to-Halifax Ocean Race Returns

It’s been four years since racers last sailed the cold North Atlantic in the venerable Marblehead-to-Halifax race—and finally, the wait is over. The Boston Yacht Club and the Royal Nova Scotia Yacht Squadron have announced the 39th Marblehead-to-Halifax Ocean Race set for this ...read more

Wendy-2048px

Meet Wendy Mitman Clarke, Editor-in-Chief of SAIL magazine

Learn more about how she and the magazine’s team are committed to building on SAIL’s legacy of more than 50 years as an authentic voice about the sport and the sailing life, delivering stories that educate, inspire and inform. ...read more

maintenance-02

Cruising: Old Sailors Never Die

“Old sailors never die, they just get a little dinghy.” It may be a hoary old joke, but one of my problems at age 79 is I can no longer get easily in and out of a little dinghy, and neither can my (several years younger than me) wife. For this, and various other reasons I will ...read more

01-LEAD-DSC_0953

The Mighty Compass

Here’s to the humble magnetic compass, without a doubt the sailor’s most reliable instrument onboard. It’s always there for you and with the rarest of exceptions, always operational. Yes, I love my chartplotter, autopilot, radar, and AIS. They help me be a safer and more ...read more

02-En-route-Jost-Van-D

Chartering: Swan Song in the BVI

Joseph Conrad once wrote, “The sea never changes.” And while this may or not be true, something most definitely not open for debate is the fact we sailors, “wrapped in mystery,” as Conrad put it, are continually changing—whether we like it or not. I found myself thinking these ...read more

220307FP51_1JML0332

Boat Review: Fountaine-Pajot Aura 51

If you can sell more than 150 catamarans off-plan before the resin has even hit the fiberglass, you must be doing something right. Despite costing around $1.1 million once fitted out and on the water, Fountaine-Pajot’s new 51 has done just that. The French yard has been at it ...read more

00LEAD-IMG-9035

Ready to Fly a New Sail

It’s a typical humid, southern Chesapeake Bay summer day when I show up on the doorstep of Latell & Ailsworth Sailmakers in the one-stoplight, one-lane-roadway, rural tidewater town of Deltaville, Virginia. I’m late getting here to work on a new jib for my 29-foot, Bill ...read more

m5702_RACE-AREA-6

Dates for the 2024 America’s Cup Announced

Ever since making the controversial decision to hold the next America’s Cup in Barcelona, Spain, instead of in home waters, Defender Emirates Team New Zealand has been hard at work organizing logistics for the event.  The Racing Area for the Challenger Selection Series and the ...read more