SAILING IN THE MOUNTAINS
by Morgan Stinemetz
Last weekend, at an altitude of about 6,000 feet above sea
level, I sailed from Colorado, into New Mexico and then back into
My hosts were David and Janet Dickinson of Durango, CO. The
trip was helped along by an avid sailor in Pagosa Springs, Gregg
Jorgensen, who helped me make the connection.
The Dickinsons and I sailed on Navajo Lake, near Arboles, a
26-mile-long body of water that came from damming up the San Juan
and Piedras Rivers, which flow south out of Colorado. The dam
itself is in New Mexico, but the water backs up a long way.
The first thing I noticed was an absence of heat. When I
walked down the path to the cove where the Dickinsons moor their
1974 Aquarius 23, Cat's Paw, I was wearing a pile jacket, and I
never took it off. David Dickinson told me that it was, however, a
cooler-than-normal day. On any other weekend 10:30 in the morning
would indicate bath suit time.
The water in the north end of the reservoir was turbid last
weekend, the color of coffee with a little too much cream in it.
Southwestern Colorado has had a unusually wet summer and the runoff
had more silt than usual in it. At the south end, Dickinson said,
the water is clear.
Lake sailing is different from what we have around here. The
high hills which surround the reservoir cast prodigious wind
shadows. David Dickinson said that sailing along the east side of
the lake can give entirely different wind conditions than the west
side, which has lower topography. Luckily for us, the wind had a
northerly component in it the day we were out and the sailing was
easy as we tacked up wind on lazy tacks.
Cat's Paw is outfitted with a knot meter and a VHF. The knot
meter showed we were doing five and a little more. We estimated the
winds at 8-12. The VHF crackled occasionally on channel 16 with
radio traffic from the state park people. Dickinson said that the
Coast Guard Auxiliary has a contingent at Navajo Lake, which first
struck me as unusual. Then it seemed just right. People need help
up in the mountains just as much as they do down here at sea level.
I asked how deep the water was, when we were sailing about 10
yards off the shoreline. "Oh, about 50 feet where we are right
now," said Dickinson, "but down hear the dam it is about 200 feet
deep." There are, however, some shallow spots along the shoreline,
and Dickinson and some of the other 25 or so boats in what is
called the San Juan Sailing Club have found most of them, he said.
As a sailor who has been aground a few times myself, I could
relate to that.
However, one thing that the San Juan sailors have to contend
with, something we don't need to worry about, is anchoring
difficulties. When the San Juan and Piedras Rivers were backed up
to form the reservoir, a lot of real estate was flooded. And on
that real estate were about a zillion trees. Anchor in the wrong
place on Navajo Lake and you'll get fouled by pi¤ons and cedars you
can never see. Dickinson said that there had to be a ton of anchors
down there somewhere in that murky water, which is 70 degrees in
Like sailors everywhere, the San Juan Sailing Club races. They
use the Portsmouth handicapping system. Local knowledge is the name
of the game, because of all the variance in wind direction and
speed, depending on where you are.
I noticed that sailboats tended to be on the small side, by
Gulf Coast standards. I saw Rangers and Catalinas, mostly. The
biggest was about 30 feet. One, a Santana, was tricked out with all
the bells and whistles for racing, and it sat at its mooring with
proper bow-down trim.
Navajo Lake is a big reservoir, one that Dickinson said was
pretty much off the beaten path. "We count ourselves lucky. It's
undiscovered as of yet. Down around Albuquerque it is wall-to-
wall," he explained.
Jet skis (aka personal watercraft) are as big a nuisance out
west as they are here, but Dickinson said he thinks that jet ski
rentals will be phased out by high insurance tariffs; it is just a
matter of time.
We can usually see our bad weather coming from a long way off.
Dickinson and his fellow sailors have to keep one eye on the bow
and another looking over their shoulder. We get rain. They get
rain, hail and wind gusts that come out of nowhere and knock the
unwary on their ears.
Still, sailing is sailing anywhere you can put navigable
water, a boat, willing people and sails together. Sometimes it is
nice to see how the other people do it, way up high, where the
season is short and the experience most likely twice as sweet.
A tip of the cap from this flatlander to the people who sail
high in the Rockies and love it just as much.