Smooth Sailing in Pittsburgh (or not)

With the 2016 Presidential election over and the long nights of winter setting in, it’s always a dangerous time for reflective thoughts, perhaps more so for a singlehanded sailor. This one in particular, lured hither and yon by external forces, not the least of which is a tantalizing job offer in the burgh of Pitt, 250 miles to the west, over a mountain range and into the very beginning of the valley of the Ohio. 

It’s a tempting proposition. Life changes, a marriage ending, a kid going off to college soon, and a chance to start over someplace new under a boss well known for treating his people with unflagging respect and dignity. Pittsburgh is a great town of exciting renaissance, once a smoky steel town so sullen that office workers once needed two white shirts a day to outlast smog so thick it hid the sun at midday. Now, the steel is gone, as are regrettably those jobs. The Burgh is now home to artists priced out of Austin, a booming healthcare service industry, a knowledge-based economy behind Carnegie Mellon, University of Pittsburgh, and other powerhouse institutions, and a downtown collection of office building architecture so impressive that it helped earn the town the unofficial title, “Paris of Appalachia.” She hosts three major league sports franchises: the Steelers, the Pens, and the Pirates in order of passion if not success. Pittsburgh might be the luckiest and smartest comeback town of the rust belt. 

For me, the clarion call was finding out that Wammo moved there. From Austin. Wammo (not his real name of course) was one of the founding members of the Asylum Street Spankers, an Austin band so brilliantly eclectic but woefully unmarketable that they foundered because of their own success at being spectacular live performers with multiple talented members who could not possibly replicate their eminence in the studio. They were like the Harlem Globetrotters—you had to be there to see them live. Buying their albums, not so much. Anyway, in my mind, Wammo’s move north gave Pittsburgh the credibility of cool I needed to consider for leaving the special wackiness of Baltimore behind. 

Besides all that, I just like Pittsburgh. It’s small enough to be friendly, but big enough to be vibrant. The architecture, in the setting of the plain formed by the confluence of the Three Rivers, is stunning. PPG Place looks like an elaborate child’s glass castle, while the former U.S. Steel building scrapes the sky at 64 stories, still the tallest between Manhattan and Chicago. Who could tire of that? I could move there, right? 

No, I couldn’t. Because I couldn’t sail there. Not as I can on the Chesapeake. And the weather is less than favorable. But I steeled myself to make it a workable proposition. 

I found one guy, a professor at Pitt who, I swear to God, must be the only hardy soul brave enough to sail in Pittsburgh regularly. He told me in glowing terms how he needed to get out there on the Allegheny River, that lumbering cesspool of brown cold muddy water running fast under all those bridges to the climatic confluence with the Monongahela at Point State Park where, as every Pennsylvania schoolchild knows, the mighty Ohio is formed. I tried to imagine myself running down that river, with the current but against the wind, dodging all manner of power craft and debris in the form of logs and branches and refrigerators swept downstream by the latest storm, and trying to sail with the wind but against the current back to the slip. I imagined the disapproving looks of powerboaters, and anyone, pretty much, thinking it strange for a pocket cruiser of modest size to even be here trying to sail. I couldn’t get past it. I woke up in a cold sweat, rubbing my eyes, wondering how this dream unfolded.  Then clarity set in. 

Nothing beats sailing on the Chesapeake Bay. It is, to me anyway, the greatest sailing and cruising ground anywhere in North America, maybe even the world. We are blessed, if not humbled, with an estuary of untold wonders, countless anchorages, a plethora of marina slips and attendant boatyards, moorings, chandleries and sailing-centric businesses catering to a sailor’s every need and desire, all right here in Maryland and Virginia. I’ll put up with whatever I have to do here. The Bay has wonderments yet unexplored, but beckoning. I’ll spend the rest of my days looking for them, happily ever after.  

By Steve Allan