How Skiyachting on Lake Dillon became the Dillon Open Regatta
2016 Dillon Open Regatta
What: An annual sailing regatta with divisions for large and small craft, hosted by Dillon Yacht Club to support the Dillon Youth Sailing program
When: Friday to Sunday, Aug. 5-7
Where: Dillon Marina, 150 Marina Drive in Dillon
Cost: $60 to $160 for keelboats, $15 to $20 for juniors
The Dillon Open Regatta has nearly 20 divisions for keelboats, Laser craft and junior sailboats. Racing takes place on Saturday and Sunday, with a dinner and dancing party at the yacht club for all skippers and crewmembers on Saturday night. For more info, including registration details, courses and rules, see the regatta website at www.dillonopen.com.
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 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.
“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 is race director for this year’s 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.”
Now in its 45th season, the 2016 Dillon Open from Aug. 5-7 is no easier than it ever was. It’s still the highest deep-water regatta in the U.S. and continues to draw about 100 boats from across the nation. That’s down from a peak of more than 120 boats before the 2008 recession, but, aside from ebbs and flows in the registration numbers, little has changed since Skiyachting became the Dillon Open. It’s also the club’s largest fundraiser of the season for the Dillon Junior Sailing program.
“We just go around in circles, that’s really all we do,” joked DB Tanner, a longtime member of the Dillon Yacht Club now serving his first stint as commodore. “But, there’s no questions about it that this is a skill sport. People don’t believe this, but it’s also a team sport. You have to work as a crew to be successful. If you head out with sufficient bodies to keep the boat flat, it doesn’t work. One tiny, teeny mistake can mean the difference between first and last.”
The Dillon Open plays host to 11 classes for keelboats and five classes for juniors, plus a division for small, one-person Laser craft. Racing takes place on a slew of courses based at the Dillon Marina, with an estimated four races per keelboat class and six races for other classes on both Saturday and Sunday. Each race takes about 45 minutes, or at least that’s the hope, and things get started around noon daily.
If you’re new to sailboat racing, the Dillon Open is a perfect introduction to the motions of a very technical yet seemingly simple sport. It comes down to the lake: Just about every race and boat will be easily visible from the dock at Dillon Marina or high above the marina at the amphitheater park. Spectators can watch for free from the shore, or pay $25 for a 1.5-hour ride on a motorboat that cruises around with the race boats.
“It’s funny — people think that what happens on a sail boat is happening fast, but it’s really just happening at 6 to 8 miles an hour,” Tanner said. “It still gets a little tenuous, even at that slow speed, when you’re at the start because everyone is jockeying for position. They all want to be in the same spot at the same time.”
So, what exactly happens at a regatta? It’s all about the marks: Every boat must navigate a set course of about 0.75 miles filled with marks, or buoys, that skippers and their crews must round in order. The first mark is typically upwind, the second mark is 90 degrees away and the third is typically downwind, and the trick is to command a boat as quickly as possible between the marks while dealing with Lake Dillon’s disastrous temper tantrums.
Add up to a dozen boats all jockeying for position, and, suddenly, a regatta comes dangerously close to bumper boats. But this is a gentleman’s sport, Tanner says, and the best skippers play by the rules on the water.
“The rules in a nutshell are, ‘Don’t hit anybody,’” Kresge laughed. “The person on your right has the right of way, and the person who gets to the mark first gets to go around it first.”
“And the goal is to be gentlemanly,” Tanner said. “That doesn’t always happen, but it’s the goal.”
Kresge, a smart and intuitive sailor who plans to defend his regatta title as Star Class champ, says the Dillon Open is best when all sailors live by those simple rules. And they have, from the days of Skiyachting to today.
“There was an Olympian, Paul Elvstrom, who said, ‘You haven’t won the race if you haven’t won the respect of your competitor,’” Kresge said. “Sailing is Corinthian. It’s about fellowship.”
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