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High-Level Sailing

An affinity for thin air turned a local ski-and-sail weekend regatta into a nationally known event.

November 22, 2016
lake dillon open
Since 2005, Colorado’s Lake Dillon Open has been a fundraiser for the yacht club’s junior sailing program, which was established in the same year as the regatta. Swift Griggs

Arriving at my first mountain-lake regatta was nothing out of the ordinary: the hustle and bustle of boat launching and rigging, friends reconnecting, and competitors scoping out venue conditions. What was out of the ordinary, however, were the 14,000-foot peaks looming above the lake, creating some of the most challenging sailing conditions these traveling sailors had experienced. They’d made the pilgrimage into the mountains of Colorado for the Lake Dillon Open, an annual mountain-lake sailing institution.

The Lake Dillon YC, in Dillon, Colorado, 70 miles west of Denver, is the highest operating yacht club in the United States, at 9,017 feet above sea level. The 50-square-mile reservoir lake was formed in the 1960s as a water source for Denver.

“Lake sailing is challenging, and it’s dangerous because things happen so fast,” says Bill Darling, a local J/22 sailor. “Here it’s all about picking shifts and trying to figure out what’s going on with the weather. The upside is that the race is not over until you’re done; you can always come back. If you get behind, you may be able to work your way up, which is fun for everyone. You’re never out, and it gives you a reason to keep sailing hard.”

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The regatta began in 1973 as a “ski yachting” regatta on Memorial Day weekend, and included two giant slalom races at nearby Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in the morning, followed by three afternoon sailing races.

“I love skiing and sailing. They are similar sports, as you’re not sure what the conditions are going to give you,” says Frank Kelble, a former U.S. Women’s Ski Team coach, who grew up near Lake Dillon and has been sailing on the lake for 25 years.

In the final year of the combination event, a huge storm blew onto the lake, capsizing many boats in what Kelble describes as “slushy conditions.” In response, the regatta was moved to later in the summer and the ski portion eliminated.

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Today the Lake Dillon Open hosts 75 boats, and any class is welcome. In 2016 the regatta included 12 classes of boats, divided between a keelboat course and a junior course. “Because [the race] is so popular with out-of-towners, all of the local race-management talent want to sail it too,” says Paul Kresge, race manager at Lake Dillon for the past 12 years. “So we import the talent. The PRO for the keelboat course is from Oklahoma, and the PRO for the junior course is from Iowa.”

Race officials are not the only people who traveled a great distance to the event. Sailors from California, Illinois, Oklahoma, Kansas and Houston also came in to check out the high mountain waters this year. A few years ago, a boat from Japan showed up to see what high-altitude racing was all about. “Lake Dillon is remarkable because you’re never sure what Mother Nature is going to give you, both in terms of drifters as well as out-of-control conditions,” explains Rick Norris, an Ensign sailor who has been competing on the lake for 38 years. “It’s totally stimulating. The winds come from all directions around the mountains. It really is a challenge. The lake is not only a function of skill, but also a function of luck.”

Unfortunately, for this particular Lake Dillon Open, we did not have any luck — it was a drifter both days.

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My talented and enthusiastic crew and I, on the J/24 Pinotage, did fit some practice in with what little wind filled periodically. I was able to see how predicting a pattern around the lake is indeed difficult. On one occasion, we were speed-testing upwind, powered up and bow out, with another J/24, and we were about to break free when we saw a small puff hit the boat to windward of us, lift it, and send it right over the top of us. This is what’s called “getting Dilloned.”

We sat on our boats all day both days, anxiously awaiting wind, knowing that it could fill at any moment. Each wind line that made its way across the lake got everyone’s spirits up, but the racing on this weekend was not meant to be.

“We were amazed not to even get in one race the entire weekend,” Kresge told me at the conclusion of the event. “Folks that I have spoken to have never seen this happen at Dillon. It put the regatta team in a bit of a quandary as to what the next step might be. We started with a free drink at the bar! Nothing like a little Gosling’s to calm the nerves.”

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In the end, race officials made the call to score a later-season one-design race as the Dillon Open instead. In a sailing location as unique and challenging as this, even the RC can get “Dilloned.”

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