Meet the nation’s highest regatta: The Dillon Open
August 4, 2017
It used to be known as "Skiyachting," and it was by far the best day of the season for skiers who moonlighted as sailors, or vice versa.
"The inevitable has finally happened," reads an article in a 1966 edition of the enthusiast magazine One-Design Yachtsman. "A group of Denver sailors and skiers got together and spoke for many of us when they laid plans for the first combined sailing and skiing regatta ever held in the U.S."
It was the ultimate Colorado regatta: On Memorial Day weekend in '66, a group of several dozen "skailors" met at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area for men's and women's giant slalom one day, followed by class races and events for catamarans and monohull craft the next day. There were crews of never-evers paired with former U.S. Ski Team members, and Warren Miller was there to get footage of the snow-to-sail carnage. He even competed in a few races from the deck of his Pacific Catamaran boat.
Skiyachting was also a little dumb and maybe more than a little dangerous. In 1968 — the same year that the Dillon Yacht Club came to the shores of a then-new Dillon Reservoir — veteran sailor Paul Kresge says a bad storm hit during the Skiyachting race, still held over Memorial Day Weekend despite a thick covering of ice in early May. A microburst capsized more than half of the 100 boats in attendance — just about all of them were center-loaded boats with no keel, the type prone to getting flipped — and that was no one's idea of a good time when the water was a few days removed from slushy ice.
"The state was populated with those boats — Butterflies and Yuenglings and Sunfish and Catamarans," said Kresge, who never raced in the Skiyachting regatta but has heard plenty of stories through the years, some wild, some even wilder. "That was before the Laser was built. You didn't have anyone out there in keeled boats."
By 1971, the short-lived Skiyachting races had ditched the giant slalom and moved to the dog days of summer, where it morphed into the Dillon Open Regatta. It was a traditional sailboat race, just as it is today, and it still featured the unpredictability of sailing a high-alpine lake with constantly changing winds, fingered inlets and those tricky microbursts.
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"What makes sailboat racing so intriguing and cerebral is you have hydrodynamics, plus thermodynamics and mental dynamics," said Kresge, a New York native who's lived in Colorado since the '70s and was race director for the 2016 Dillon Open. "It's one of the very few sports where the field itself is morphing into something different. With football and soccer, the players know what the field of play is like every time. Sometimes it's micromanaged. Here, it's incredibly difficult, or it can be."
Fleet family reunion
Now in its 46th season, the 2017 Dillon Open this weekend (Aug. 5-6) is no easier than ever. It's still the highest deep-water regatta in the U.S. and continues to draw about 100 boats from across the nation, including sailors with plenty of international boating experience like Frank Keesling. The Denver-based J-24 skipper has been sailing on Lake Dillon since he was a kid in 1971, and after piloting everything from Ensigns to Etchells to J-24s on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Dillon Open is still one of his favorites.
"You get really good competition from around the state and region, and it's almost like a big family reunion," Keesling said. "We have the chance to come out here, sit on the dock, tell our stories, then get back on the water and have good, fair competition in this beautiful environment. That brings people back year after year."
And every year since 1990, Keesling has been coming back with his boat Dumpster. It's short for Cautin: Do Not Play In or Around This Dumpster, like some kind of AKC dog of the sea, but it's really just a nod to the money pit of sailing.
But it's not all bad, Keesling laughed. He and his four-person crew, including his wife, Vivian, are using the Open to train for the J-24 World Championships in Toronto this September. It's his third trip to worlds and Lake Dillon is a perfect training grounds for anything Canadian waters can throw at him.
Also racing this weekend is Etchells fleet captain Scott Snyder, who was already in town for two days of regattas for the fleet regional championships. Like Keesling, he's a longtime Dillon sailor and Denver resident who just can't get enough of the high-alpine waters.
"We race all over the world and there is no more stunning venue to sail in, to race in, than right here in Dillon," said Snyder, who regularly sees Lake Dillon on top-10 bucket lists in sailing magazines. "It's never the top, but it's always on the list."
Snyder's boat, Bullseye, is taking its maiden voyage at this year's Open, but his crew is hardly new. He alone has been sailing in the fleet for eight years and in Summit County since 1995. He served a stint as Dillon Yacht Club commodore, and even though something like Skiyachting was before his time, he knows you don't need skiing to make racing on Lake Dillon a wild time.
"All of the things I love about this lake," he said, "Are the things I hate about it."