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The Splash: Colorado Water Sports



Look, we get it. We’re mountain folk. We want to hike and climb and boulder here in Boulder County. We walk trails, run trails, bike trails, build trains, and tell people who don’t have trails they should come see our trails. (Really, though, check out our trails. They’re epic). But Colorado also has snow. And that snow melts. And that melt becomes the rushing rivers, lakes, streams, the majesty of open water where we have a dizzying array of aquatic activities.

Water sports don’t just happen in your grandpa’s above-ground pool anymore, kids. We love to get wet and with a water sports season running eight to nine months long, that’s easy to do. We have it all: sailing, rafting, canoeing, kayaking, rowing, scuba, paddleboarding. Colorado Parks & Wildlife website points out that “Over 16 Colorado lakes and reservoirs offer full-service marinas where you can rent a boat slip on a seasonal basis or take a sailboat out for the day. Adult and youth sailing instruction is offered by the Denver Sailing Association, Dillon Junior Sailing, Victoria Sailing School, and Community Sailing of Colorado.”

And it’s for everyone. In a world that has often felt exclusively for the able-bodied, it’s time to admit that survival of the fittest is a thing of the past. We have access for everyone. All ages. All abilities. All income levels. No pun intended, but let’s dive in.


Ever since “I’m on a boat” came out, we have wanted to be on a boat. Actually, we used to help teach sailing in little dinghies off the coast of California and we fell in love. You may not think of Colorado as a place where sailing is even remotely available, much less as a place where it’s an advanced craft. Yet here we are, a mile high while the sails fly.

The oldest photo of sailing in Colorado that we could find was published by the Denver Public Library in their Wow Photo Wednesday series. It shows a man in 1898 in a homemade sailboat on Grand Lake with his dog. DPL takes the time to point out, correctly, that “Colorado’s mountains are actually home to more water sports than you might imagine. While the flatlands offer great sailing venues like Pueblo and Cherry Creek Reservoirs, our mountain towns like Dillon and Grand Lake have also offered sailing amongst the spectacular beauty of the Rockies.”


Colorado Parks & Wildlife has a sailing webpage as well. Bet you didn’t know that. They point out that “Sailing is a popular activity on many of Colorado’s lakes and reservoirs. Our mild winters often allow sailing enthusiasts to enjoy eight or more months of the sport each year.” This makes sense, as our friends at Victoria Sailing School told us they’re open from April through November.

Thankfully, despite being landlocked a mile high (Google tells me the nearest actual beach is Los Angeles, can you believe that?), sailing has flourished in Colorado. A quick search yields results for nine sailing companies, which isn’t a comprehensive list. With the addition of newcomers like Able to Sail and the fact that some companies operate multiple locations (for example, Community Sailing of Colorado in both Boulder and Greenwood Village) as well as different programs (like Dillon Yacht Club and Dillon Junior Sailing), sailing’s imprint on Colorado is vast and growing.

We spoke with Erica Cook of Victoria Sailing School, “Colorado’s oldest and largest sailing school,” according to their website. They opened their doors in 1986, 88 years after a man and his dog plied the frigid Rocky Mountain waters of Grand Lake in a dinghy. It makes sense to tie these two together because, as the VSS website notes, “There is an old expression about learning how to sail: ‘The Fastest Way to Learn How to Sail – Start in the Smallest Boat in the Coldest Water’”.


Erica tells us that she hears, “Denver, here in Denver?” all the time when she tells people she helps run a sailing school. Admitting it’s a cliche, she says, “if you build it, they will come. It’s no less fun sailing in Colorado.”

Jim Cook started VSS 30 years ago and was the first to bring a real sailboat, and real sailor schooling, to the state. They have classes for both adults and children, from introductory fun to full-on professional courses like celestial and coastal navigation, “which is what you need to be a skipper.” They also host diesel maintenance courses because “there is AAA for boats, but not really, and if you have a problem on a boat it’s a little more stressful than if you break down on a highway.” We’d never even considered this! They have kids camps, offer all those lovely extra water sports, and host moonlight paddle events for those looking for a quirky Tinder date option. Get wet in the dark under the full moon for four nights – two nights before full moon, the night of, and the night after, which is also the darkest of the four. They don’t provide libations, but don’t ban them either; Erica says it’s BYOB. Have fun, friends.


Victoria Sailing School offers a season pass, as well, which means you can reserve a boat at any of their eleven locations around Colorado to ply the waters, free of maintenance or moorage (parking) costs. That’s an idea we can get behind. Enjoy your sailing all over the state, hassle-free.

Interestingly, one of their courses is paired with Long Beach Marina (California, baby!) where “you do one day of training here and then go to California for a weekend. You’ll take a monohull and catamaran out to Catalina for the weekend, spend the night, have a great time and then come back.”

If you want to teach your kids the fine art of sailing, there’s also Colorado Watersports, a subset of VSS. They do the kids stuff. “We have eight 12-foot dinghies out at Chatfield, and we’re trying to get a fifth grade sailing program up,” Cook tells us. They also have kids camps, which is exactly the kind of camp we wish we’d attended as kids. (Thanks for dart camp, mom.) They’re currently offering a 35% discount on camps until April 1st.

Victoria Sailing School tells us they have a perfect record of safety, in case being on a boat sounds a pinch dangerous. “We’ve never had an accident,” Erica tells us. With mandatory life vests (“if you’re not going to wear a lifejacket you’re not getting on the boat. I don’t even want to talk about it”), a rescue boat, and long-time instructors on hand, the worst that’s happened is someone going for a swim or needing a tow in heavy winds. With an average of “300-400 students through the sailing courses. Add another 100 for the navigation and diesel,” and operating for 30 years, that’s a massive achievement.

Another epic program for young sailors is the new Able to Sail project. Helmed (skippered?) by Diane McKinney. The goal is simple: teach life lessons through teaching sailing.

Meet Diane. “I’m not a born sailor, by any stretch,” Diane says. “I was born in St. Louis and my parents sent me to camp in Estes Park each summer for two months, so I grew up riding horses and climbing mountains.” Diane was an alcoholic who, prior to a five year spiral, had fallen in love with sailing. How? Well, a girlfriend had taken her out sailing on a boat she owned and passed out while drinking. While Diane was steering the boat the winds kicking up, leaving her to steer through the choppy waves, sans skills, all on her own. “I was like, ‘holy god’,  she says. “It was like my first day, fell in love with it. Just the sport, the adrenaline, the challenge.” That was 1989. She bought her first Sunfish in 1990.

VSS_Yellow-Scene_2018_3_a1Diane is in recovery now. She had her five year relapse and ended up living on “the Eastside of town” on a cul-de-sac in Longmont, “a Mexican neighborhood where I still live to this day; I love it.” She recalls, “I had a list like, when I got sober, I had a list of what I wanted to do” and she wanted the kids around her, that hung out at her house, that befriended her, to have a list, too. She wanted to “take these kids out and show them something beyond this circle.” After meeting Brandon, at Community Sailing of Colorado, she wrote a few pages on what her project idea would look like, which were really life lessons. “The biggest one we base everything on is, ‘to steer a boat left, you steer right.’ It requires a change of thinking.”

Changing minds and keeping kids focused on the positive in life is what Able to Sail does. “You can’t stop medicating a pain, so why don’t we change what’s causing pain? We’re not born with beliefs. We just made them up and called it real.” Pretty profound lessons from a sailing program, right? “Every day of sailing comes with an hour of empowerment seminar…to guide kids to a place of ‘you’re amazing, you get to choose to believe that.’”

They host kids 11 – 18, with a ratio of about 60 to 30 percent men to women, which is pretty good. She also tries to have a high percentage of Latino youth, “just because they have my heart.” To accommodate, they do a lot of low to no cost sailing, sponsored by “me asking people like you for money,” she says with a chuckle. “You can get your company or organization name on one of their sails” because “inability to pay should never keep kids from going to summer camp.” Through that, you can help keep Able to Sail on the waters, teaching and empowering your people in a surprisingly fun and beautiful way.Sunflower-Bank_Able-to-Sail_Yellow-Scene_2018_3_a

SUP’s, etc.

It may sound like a term from the stock market or a class at your local community college, but SUP is actually Stand Up Paddleboarding. It’s amazing for balance and core workouts and you can find places to do it all over BOCO. Then we have the more traditional small craft for our local lake scene: kayaks, canoes, and rafts. Victoria Sailing School provides “kayaking, paddle boarding and canoeing out of Chatfield.”

“Right now there’s a really huge trend of paddle boarding,” Cook says. “It kinda came out of nowhere. There’s always been paddle boards, but now there’s paddle yoga”.

RootsRated wrote about four amazing places across Colorado to get out on the water and paddle till you’re not bored. The first one is the Boulder Reservoir (bit.ly/SUPBoulder), where you can bring your own board or rent one from Rocky Mountain Paddleboard. They offer 1 and 2 hour rentals, beginner lessons ($75/2 hours), SUP yoga ($35/90 minutes), as well as 2 and 4 hour private group rentals to get your folks together and go ham out there.

Also stunning, should you feel inclined to venture across BOCO for some SUP action, is Gross Reservoir, located 40 minutes from Boulder at 7,290 ft of elevation and boasting 440 acres of water surface, less than two-thirds the size of Boulder Reservoir. This remote body of water is skirted by “Rocky outcroppings [that] tumble down to the water’s edge, creating scenery so stunning, you’ll want to paddle along every nook and cranny of the shore … Note: SUPs must be labeled with the owner’s name, address, and phone, and paddlers must carry a wearable type 3 life jacket and a whistle or horn-sounding device. No swimming is allowed.”

Beyond these, you should check out Brainard Lake at the base of Indian Peaks. You can reserve a campsite or be spontaneous and head out before dawn to get in some sunrise action; the “dramatic mountains form a stunning backdrop for this teardrop-shaped 14-acre lake” where you’ll fall in love with Colorado all over again. Lastly, Brainard Lake is 256-acre of quiet gorgeous “tucked in a sleepy Longmont neighborhood, with stunning views of Mount Meeker and Longs Peak.” Less well known and definitely unexpected, this lake has “cattails and wildlife habitat [around] the shore, attracting an abundance of birds, including great blue herons, cormorants, ducks, red-tailed hawks, and the occasional bald eagle (no swimming allowed, however: If you fall off your board, you’re supposed to get right back on).”

Closing Thoughts

Trails are epic, but so is water. Almost every lake or waterfront in Colorado has options for sailing and SUP’s, as well as canoeing, kayaking, rafting, jet skiing, wake-boarding, scuba, and anything else you set your mind to. It’s not all hikes and trails, my friends, though you can hike a trail to one of these gorgeous spots for some waterfront action.

Basically, what I’m saying is, Congratulations! You live in Colorado. Get our there and get wet, or stay dry, or get submerged. It’s your choice. Springtime is here. Whether you just wanna have a blast or you want to make a difference, it’s time to get out there and make this summer one to remember. Just remember to stay safe.Girls-laugh_Able-to-Sail_Yellow-Scene_2018_3_e1

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