Racing At The Top Of The World: Lake Dillon, Colorado

“A favorite expression on the lake is getting ‘Dilloned.’

You pick the favored side of the course, yet get hung out to dry while boats less than 100 feet away catch a spot of wind and take it to the finish.” Make room in your wooden bailing bucket--aside that dream to cruise Tahitian waters, compete in a Caribbean regatta and buy (then sell) your own boat. Here’s a new to-do list item: race a small boat at the top of the world. Aside from spectacular views, Lake Dillon in Colorado experiences constantly changing wind flows--making it a most challenging spot for the sport of sail racing.

Top of the world at 9,017 feet above sea level, this is also the thinnest air sailing venue in North America. Dillon Yacht Club past commodore Scott Snyder claims the only higher up yacht club he knows about is at Lake Titicaca in Peru (12,500 feet above sea level), and rumors say that is a humble yacht club with no organized racing.

The manmade reservoir of Lake Dillon is tucked between Buffalo Mountain to the west and the Collegiate Peaks to the south. Created in 1963 to provide a water supply for Denver and local residents, this waterway has average depth 79 feet (24 m) with 230 feet at its nadir. The lake spans 3,233 acres and nearly 27 miles of shoreline. Take in dazzling 14,000-foot peaks from surrounding mountains, but understand those heights can take you down—or sideways or spinning or stop you dead in the water.

Lake Racers With Swivel Heads
Location and land/sea temperature differentials greatly influence sailing conditions no matter the latitude-longitude. Shares Snyder, “Being nestled up against the western side of the Continental Divide makes for a formidable barrier. Most weather fronts pass to the east toward Denver and beyond. The big ones get through without problems, but it’s not unusual for one, two or even three fronts to collide—yielding everything from 180-degree wind shifts, to dead calm, to intense micro bursts that can explode from 5 knots to 40 knots in the blink of an eye.”

Currents are not an issue in the lake, but water temps and wind conditions are. Snyder continues, “Long winters make for pretty thick ice that generally doesn’t clear until Memorial Day weekend, so our racing season begins in early June and concludes in October. It not unusual to still have the occasional snow flurry during the first and last few races of the season.” Summer temperatures range from the high 60s to low 70s with ample high-altitude sunshine. “In mountain climes, differentials between day and night can vary greatly—up to 30 degrees for us—so our races generally start at noon to permit wind to develop; even then things can be pretty spotty.”

With such varying conditions, Snyder states that lake racer have to keep their heads on a swivel. “In past years we’ve seen regattas where we were lucky to get off a single start. At other times, one in particular the Buccaneer North American Championships in 2014, we experience a microburst that ripped through the fleet with violent force. Being two miles closer to the clouds, weather can change pretty quickly here, bringing intense (and cold) rain and even lightning strikes that dance on the mountain tops and occasionally touch the water.” Needless to say, the Dillon Yacht Club takes very seriously the practice of safety.

Sail the World’s Highest Regatta
“To my continued surprise, nearly every sailor I meet has either heard of Lake Dillon and wants to sail there, or has a great story about his or her visit,” smiles Snyder. The Dillon Yacht Club stands ready to help adventurers check off sail and race bucket list items. The club, which counts nearly 180 members, has a season kick-off “Social Spring Party" on Memorial Day weekend. Local racers hit the marks June through late September. You’ll see ample Etchells, J/22 and J/24 boats, plus Ensign 22, Star and PHRF fleets. For families, there’s an active cruise agenda as well as junior sailing programs.

Want to race at the top? Consider the 49th Annual Dillon Open Regatta: “The World’s Highest Regatta.” The 2017 event runs August 5-6 and anticipates 140 entries spread through 13 or more one-design classes and PHRF fleets. An Etchells boat fan himself, Snyder shares that his yacht club will also host the Etchells Rocky Mountain Regional Championship August 1–4, 2017, scheduled six weeks prior to the Etchells Worlds in San Francisco and two weeks prior to the Etchells North Americans in San Diego.

Sports Playground for All
Not a regatta racer? There are ample options for alternate aqua, land and air activities: hike, golf, cycle, rock climb, horseback trail ride and more. With the lake and town of Dillon situated in the heart of outdoor adventure country--Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain resorts, plus the towns of Frisco and Silverthorne--there are myriad outlets.

Water lovers may rent a sail, pontoon, kayak or canoe, or can fish at the shore. Nature attractions in the region include the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction with its high desert canyons and sandstone rock formations. Tour Rim Arch in the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness located in western Colorado. Snowshoe winter trails or view the ruins at Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park. There’s even a shorefront amphitheater which hosts free concerts, local performances and outdoor markets.

Denver airport is the closest major hub, with American, United, Southwest, Frontier and Virgin being some of its major air travel providers. Driving from Dallas, Los Angeles or Seattle? The Town of Dillon’s Web site has suggestions: