Best of 2015: A day of sailing the unpredictable Lake Dillon waters
August 16, 2016
Editor's note: This article first appeared in the July 31 edition of the Summit Daily.
It's an eerily calm day at the Dillon Marina, and Bob Evans is praying for something Summit sailors rarely need: A good, strong wind.
Evans and I are suspended over chilly water on the rental dock at the marina, found on the northern shore of Lake Dillon, just below the lake's namesake town. It's technically a reservoir, not a natural lake, and that seemingly innocuous distinction factors into the wind equation.
See, the modern 3,233-acre reservoir didn't exist before Dillon Dam was completed in 1963, when the Blue and Snake rivers were diverted to help water the Denver metro area's surging population. Roughly a million people more than 100 miles away needed to drink, and so, a lake was born. It's no different than Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Now, back to the wind. After the reservoir/lake had filled out, it left rocky, jagged peninsulas. (It also gave way to the world's highest deep-water marina and yacht club, the Dillon Yacht Club.) When paired with the towering peaks on all sides of Dillon Valley — the Tenmile Range to the south, Red Mountain and Buffalo Peak to the west, the Continental Divide to the east — those fingers of land wreak havoc on wind direction and speed. Gusts billow and fade at a moment's notice, sometimes coming from the west, other times from the south, still other times funneling through the southern Snake River arm before colliding with winds from everywhere else.
The conditions are a nightmare for newbie sailors and, as Evans knows full well, even veteran skippers, the sort who are more familiar with the predictable winds at ocean bays and "normal" inland lakes.
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Evans pets his German shepherd, Allie, and lets out a sigh.
"Well, let's hope for the wind to pick up," he tells me, "but, if nothing else, we'll get out there for a little bit of sailing."
For nearly two decades, he has been the manager at the Dillon Marina. As a kid, he learned to sail in his native Wisconsin on Lake Geneva, where winds cross miles upon miles of flat land before hitting the water. It's where he first picked up and then honed his sailing skills, but, as he tells me later, "I came to Dillon, and that's when I really learned to sail."
Lesson one: The boat
He and I walk with Allie down the rental dock to one of the marina's 20 rental boats, a 22-foot Catalina with a stark-white hull and blue-trimmed mainsail. The blue writing reads "Dillon Marnia," but nevermind the typo — the sail still works just fine.
As Evans begins prepping the boat — unravel the large mainsail and smaller jib sail, adjust the rudder, check the rigging for knots or kinks — I ask him how long he's been sailing, and, in typical fashion, he doesn't give me a direct answer. He's a storyteller at heart, and his head is in 20 different places at one time: The wind, the boat rigging, nearby skippers, minuscule ripples on the blackish water. Still, he starts into a quasi-answer.
"Well, let's just say I've been doing it since I was young because, if I gave you an answer, that would date me right off the bat," he tells me while giving the orange windsock on the marina a glance. "But, if I had to guess, I'd say about four decades."
Not to date myself, but that's longer than I've been alive. He gives a quick, sly smile, then prepares to push off from the harbor. Allie paces back and forth a few times on the dock before hopping aboard, where she immediately begins walking from bow to stern with a look of pure, unbridled joy. Or, at least, that's how I interpret lolling tongue and wagging tail.
I start bombarding Evans with even more questions, these less personal: What's the name of that rig above the rudder? Why do sailboats rarely tip over in high winds? How do the two sails, one smaller and one larger, interact?
Being the storyteller he is, he gives me complete answers. The rig is called a traveler, and it helps the skipper fine-tune the angle of the boom, the large horizontal arm attached to the mainsail (also known as a mainsheet). Sailboats don't tip over in high winds because the sails power boats on Bernoulli's principle: Wind flows over the sail, almost like a vacuum, pulling — not pushing — the boat along the water. It's how airplane wings work, which is why he is also a high-level stunt pilot (and science guru), with hundreds of hours flying in shows like the Dillon air show and Wheels and Wings air show in Eagle. He just gets this stuff.
The "how do sails work?" answer depends on the previous two answers. Under Bernoulli's principle, the mainsail captures wind and, when paired with the pointed keel, acts as a counterweight, pulling the boat gently forward while the skipper adjusts the traveler to catch just the right wind angle. The smaller sail, the jib sail, is the boat's "gas pedal." When taut — controlled by a series of lines, or ropes, just like the mainsail — it propels the boat forward. If the mainsail is the engine, the jib sail is the turbo.
Evans then starts rattling off terms, all of which sound vaguely familiar, but none of which mean a damn thing to me. There's jibing, tacking, high-siding (I know that one), the traveler …
"Pretty creative, right?" he says. "It all comes from old sailors, like maritime law. Sailing started centuries ago, with the Egyptians and Phoenicians, and most of the laws date back to colonial times and trade routes. Sailboats helped open the world."
Lesson two: Feel and patience
As soon as we leave the marina, home to 300 or so boats, his prayers are answered. The wind begins to pick up, and the boat powers away from the shore. Again, my skipper's head is in 20 different places at once, gauging the wind on his face while explaining maritime law and, when the boat high-sides with a strong gust, reminding his dog to stay off the bow.
"I call sailing on Lake Dillon the black diamond of sailing, the Pallavicini of sailing," he says, referring to the intimidating chute band at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. "I can explain everything I want, but it's the sort of thing you have to do. I've always been into the 'learn by doing' side of things."
And sailing truly is the sort of sport you have to learn by doing. It requires a mix of skill and natural ability, just like any sport, but, in the heart of ski country, it seems oddly similar to skiing or snowboarding.
He lets me take the rudder — thankfully, he's still in charge of the mainsail lines — and I point the bow at a landmark. At first, I tenaciously watch the wind arrow at the top of the mainsail, but when Evans points to a nearby boat, flailing and twisting in the ever-changing wind, I take a page from his book and just feel the wind on my face.
And, it works.
"It's something you can't fight or force yourself to be good at," he says, taking the rudder back for the return trip. We pull into the marina after circling far to the east, and I watch in flabbergasted awe as he pulls one of the calmest "emergency maneuvers" I've ever seen, when a motorized boat nearly reverses into the side of our hull. He'd been eyeing the boat from the start, so when the other captain ignorantly pulled out, he was already three steps ahead. Oh, and did I mention he hasn't sailed in nearly a year?
"It's more a finesse thing," he says while mooring the boat. "If you want to go to a certain place, you have to go there first, then there, just to get back to there. And, some people either don't get that or just don't have the patience for it. But here, on Dillon, you can't cheat."
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