Colorado Escapist: The ins and outs of J24 sailboat racing on Lake Dillon |

Colorado Escapist: The ins and outs of J24 sailboat racing on Lake Dillon

2016 Dillon Open Regatta

What: An annual sailing regatta with divisions for large and small craft, hosted by Dillon Yacht Club

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

Editor’s note: For more of host Shawna Henderson’s adventures across Colorado, including wine biking in Palisade and stand-up paddleboarding in Glenwood Springs, see the sports section at

“Starboard tack!”

Our captain yells the order as sailboats in front of us quickly scurry to get out of our way moments before a head-on collision.

There is nothing easy about sailboat racing on Lake Dillon. Rumor has it that our hometown reservoir is one of the more difficult places to race sailboats in the world, but I have little background to justify that statement. If you want to experience the thrill of a high-alpine lake regatta, join a racing crew. It’s the real deal: Due to the constant wind shifts and random directional changes, a crew out here must be prepared for anything. Learning to sail on Lake Dillon gives you the skills to sail anywhere in the world.

The start line

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It’s essential for every boat captain to master proper starting techniques before a sailing regatta. If a boat arrives too early, it gets pushed over the line before the starting horn is blown. If a boat passes over too late, the craft is in position to get “gassed,” the term used for bad air. Race marshals are on the watery course to call out premature starts, which forces the boat to turn around and begin again.

The sweet spot is any location where no other boat is stealing your wind. As the count down begins (10…9…8…) the crew realizes we might be missing the mark. We luff our sails to slow the boat boat that we don’ miss the mark. Nearby boats count down just feet away (7…6…5…) until the last few seconds (4…3…2…) when the boats trim in the sails and off we go, on our way to the first upwind mark.

The game plan

Usually, race organizers place the first mark, or buoy, upwind of the start line. As we pick up speed, the captain calls out “high side” or “windward side,” which means the entire crew on our J24 rushes to even weight on the side of the boat that’s out of the water.

At the start of the race, boats begin with two sails up: the headsail, known as the Jib or Genoa, and the main sail. Located at the helm is our captain, who orchestrates the entire production. Fast decisions make or break our position in the race, and the question remains: Do we tack (a zigzagging steering motion) or not before hitting the lay line?

As we utilize the wind to pick up a nice pace, the crew realizes that we are getting lifted into a perfect position to make a clean tack around the mark. Then, the wind shifts and we get “headed,” meaning the boat is heading too far away from the mark, leaving us no choice but to tack — and then tack again.

As the trimmer

Sailboat racing is a production with all hands on deck. Everyone has a role to play, and together, their efforts make all the parts flow like a finely oiled machine.

The captain drives the vessel and commands the rest of the crew for the next move. I’m the trimmer, so when our captain says, “Ready to tack,” I jump into position, patiently watching as the front sail begins to luff before releasing the lines on one side of a winch. I duck under the main sail as it swings to the other side of the boat and pull with all my might to wrap the line around the other winch.

“Trim in!” the captain yells as I grab the crank to tighten the lines. Now we are really cruising. The wind picks up and the crew moves to the high side to balance the boat. I dangle my feet over the edge, holding onto the lifeline.

By now, the boat is out of the water and on course to hit the lay line. I’m in charge of the lines connected to the Genoa, as well as flying the spinnaker. We round the mark and this is where things get a little crazy. Things happen quickly: Pole up. Spinnaker up. Genoa down.

Unpredictable winds

Oh, the joys of racing on a high-alpine lake. Unlike other bodies of water with a consistent wind forecast, unexpected wind shifts are common on high-alpine lakes.

Our man on the foredeck looks out on the water to see changes in the ripples. Foredeck is positioned at the front of the boat and in charge of the spinnaker, the large front sail. His job is to remove the pole and place it on one side or the other depending on the wind.

“Wind puff in four, three, two and one,” he says, as a burst of wind that seemingly comes from nowhere places the boat on edge. We quickly move to the high side to balance out the boat.

During our last race, the boat in front of us began heeling over to the point that one of the crewmembers got dumped in Lake Dillon. Even though the design of modern sailboats makes it almost impossible to capsize, you feel that adrenaline rush when the wind kicks up.

Things get crazy determining what boats are on port tack. When the wind is blowing on the left side of the boat you are on a port tack, and when the wind is blowing on the starboard side you are on a starboard tack. Since boats on a starboard tack always have the right of way, races can be won or lost based on crew tactics: ending on a starboard tack could make all the other boats hustle to get out of your way, with some boats coming within inches of each other before the finish line.

At the end of the day, we are out on intimidating Lake Dillon to have fun and learn new skills. And, when the wind picks up, it certainly gets the heart pumping.

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