There was a time where on almost any nice summer day, I could found at Lake Granby, sitting at the helm of a sailboat. Wheel in one hand, a cold beer in the other, there is nothing quite like sailing in the mountains. At least every weekend we would make the drive up to Granby to take the 25-foot Catalina out on the water.
My dad grew up racing sailboats in New York on the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean. When he moved to land-locked Colorado, sailing got left behind on the East Coast. But not for long. When my sister and I were old enough to start “learning the ropes” of sailing, we did.
Lesson #1: There is only one rope on a sailboat; every other line is called a sheet or a halyard.
Which seemed weird when my instructor told me that on my first lesson. I mean, sailboats are covered in ropes. But no, if you ask someone to hand you the main rope or tighten up the front sail rope on the right side, they’ll look at you like you’re an idiot.
Lesson #2: The left side of a ship is port, while the right side is starboard.
So, in proper sailor speak, if you needed the forward sail tighter, you’d say, “Sheet in the jib on the starboard side!” The first part of learning to sail was really just learning to speak the language, understand what you were being asked to do, and how to tell others what you wanted them to do. Sailing is a sport where slow reactions and miscommunications will end up with a capsized boat.
The second part of sailing is learning to read the elements around you. Especially in the mountains, the water, sky, clouds, and even ducks can tell you all you need to know.
Lesson #3: Watch the water, waves move with the wind.
Which might sound pretty self-explanatory, but it comes in handy. You can catch gusts of wind coming across the lake by spotting rough patches of water and make adjustments to the sails before the wind reaches you. If a patch of water is calm, you know it’s a dead-zone with no wind, and to avoid it. The waves can even tell you how fast the wind is blowing. If waves are white capping, the wind is blowing at least 15 knots, which is a pretty hefty speed.
Lesson #4: Like anything, sailing takes practice, spend time with it and don’t give up.
Which is exactly what my family did. We bought a beautiful 25-foot sail boat that was basically a floating camper. Below deck there was a queen-sized bed, a stove, table, seating area, and even a small bathroom. During the weekend, my family and I would pack a big cooler full of food and drinks and hit the water. An afternoon spent of the lake was an afternoon well spent.
There is something about the mountains and something about water that people naturally seem to connect with and be drawn to. The combination of the two is spectacular and the only way to really describe it is magical. Even though Lake Granby is one of the biggest lakes in Colorado, it receives very little traffic, and on any given afternoon, you might be one of four or five boats on the water. That feeling of freedom and ownership of the water only adds to the experience.
Late June was by far the best time to sail. Long warm days meant you could stay out on the water well into the evening. The water was warm enough to swim in, but still a cold refreshing wave from the hot sun. Lying on the deck listening as water lazily slaps the side of the boat and taking in the view quickly became one of my favorite ways to relax.
Since Lake Granby is over 100 feet deep in most places, the water is a deep, rich blue, and every little wave catches and refracts sunlight in intense golden beams. Massive mountains surround the lake on all sides, some reaching up to 14,000 feet. All of them are high enough to keep snow all year round. Sitting in a bowl and staring at snow-capped mountains all around you, then jumping into the water to cool off is a surreal experience.
Sunset was by far my favorite time to be on the water. When the sun started to drop behind the mountains and the sky turned a fierce red, all the colors were reflected and amplified by the water. Massive clouds would roll over the mountains and add to the show, creating impressive views that looked like they could have come from paintings. Along with this picturesque landscape, came the smell of the mountains. Fresh air, pine needles, sap, the smell that a mountain candle tries to capture, but can never quite get perfect.
After the sun went down, the stars came up and created a whole new show. A big lake in the middle of the mountains is a great place to escape light pollution, so the skies bright and the Milky Way can be seen. As long as you don’t get sea sick, falling asleep to the gentle rocking of a boat under a blanket of stars, while protected by high mountains is something I couldn’t get enough of.
Lesson #5: There are good days, and there are bad days.
Lake Granby is feed by the Colorado River, and on years when there is lots of snow pack and a good rainy spring, you can sail a ways up the river. The river was full of coves and places to anchor and hang out for a while. Many times, we would strap paddle boards to the deck, sail into the river, find a nice spot to drop the anchor, and hang out for a few hours. Swim, eat lunch, take the paddle boards out and explore what was around. Everything moved at a slower, more relaxed pace.
Since the river had carved its way through the mountain, it is protected on both sides by fairly high walls. Which means it is protected from the wind and conditions that the rest of the lake is exposed to. With almost no wind, the water was nice and calm, great conditions for paddle boarding. The protection from wind also meant the surrounding trees were popular spots for eagles to build nests. I spent many afternoons paddling as close to the nests as I could get with a telephoto camera lens trying to get pictures of those majestic birds.
Which is exactly what I was doing one afternoon when I got caught in the worst storm of my life.
My dad and I had sailed out in the morning and then headed up the river for the afternoon. One of the drawbacks of the river being so protected is that it’s hard to see what is happening over the rest of the lake. It was a beautiful day up in the river cove, and well after 5PM by the time we started to head back towards home.
Our nice day ended abruptly at the mouth of the river where we were greeted by choppy water, high winds and dark skies. A huge black cloud had started forming over the middle of the lake and was sinking lower and lower the bigger it got. The waves on the water were white capping, which meant it was windy enough that hats and anything else you didn’t want to blow away went below deck.
Even though this evil cloud was massive, it didn’t cover the whole lake. There were still blue skies around the outskirts, so our plan was to try and sail around the storm cloud. The only problem was, the wind was blowing up lake, the exact opposite direction we were trying to go. Sailing into the wind means tacking back and forth, basically moving forward in zigzags. Not the fastest approach when trying to outrun a storm.
I watched the cloud grow as we moved back and forth across the lake. By the third tack, it was clear that the cloud was growing faster than we were going. The blue skies on the outskirts of the lake were shrinking alarmingly fast. Our plan to sail around the storm was quickly failing.
To this day, I still haven’t seen anything quite like that cloud. It was almost like a living thing. You could see it breathing. The dark edges swelling out and collapsing back down on itself in an uneven rhythm, each time expanding just a little farther than the time before, consuming more of the sky.
It sat so low in the sky I swore if we sailed straight under it the mast would touch it, which was terrifying. You could see lightning building inside the cloud, just brief flashes of gold deep in the center, and I could feel the hair on the back of my neck starting to stand up. I looked from the cloud, then to the 30-foot metal mast sticking straight up into the air. Dark wisps were reaching down from the cloud like fingers clawing for the water. Several of them actually connected with the surface of the lake.
Again, I’d never seen anything like it. I’d never seen a cloud breath or reach down and touch the ground the way it did. I’d never seen a storm grow so fast and couldn’t believe how nice it had been in the river just a few minutes ago.
Lesson #6: The calm before the storm is a saying for a reason.
Even though this was a saying I’d heard many times, and even said a few, throughout my life, I had never really thought about why it was a saying. Until This moment. It was all I could think about. The wind had abruptly stopped. The air was perfectly calm, and the water had become still. This sudden and absolute calmness was unsettling. Coasting under a massive death cloud with no wind felt like something out of a movie. Something not real.
“I think we should drop the sails…” my dad said, eyes transfixed upwards.
I pulled in the jib as quickly as I could, then we both lowered the main sail and tied it up.
“Time to get the motor going,” I was trying to sound calm, but not succeeding all that well. Getting the motor going was probably something we should have done earlier but giving up on sail power is a pride thing.
After a few pulls, the engine sputtered to life, and then it was over. The storm destroyed the abrupt calm with a vengeance. The calm water quickly became white a foamy from breaking whitecaps from wind that was howling so hard you could hear the metal mast stays vibrating.
The cloud now dominated the entire sky and seemed furious at us, the only boat remaining on the lake. The raging wind seemed to scream, “How dare you try and sail on my lake!”
The tiny motor was meant for getting the boat in and out of the dock, not speed or power, and keeping the boat straight in the storm was becoming more and more challenging.
The most powerful gust of wind yet grabbed the back of the boat and jerked it around sideways, where wind continued to pound the side of the hull, pushing it over. The boat keeled over so hard water slopped over the side and onto the deck, despite the 2,500-pound weight on the bottom designed to keep this exact thing from happening.
I have no doubt that if the sails were still up, the wind would have taken the boat all the way over and at least one of us would have fallen overboard.
“What do we do?” I called back to my dad, my voice instantly getting ripped away by the wind.
“I don’t know.” He yelled in reply. Which is possibly the worst thing he could have said. He grew up sailing and was supposed to be the expert. Hearing him say that was disheartening. I have never in my life felt so small and powerless. We were in the middle of the lake, not another boat in sight, and completely at the will of Mother Nature.
Somehow, we managed to get the boat straightened out and pointed into the wind, so it wasn’t keeling over anymore. But going around the storm was no longer an option. We were motoring straight through the center of it. A freezing and forceful rain that made the deck slippery and moving around dangerous joined the wind. After a few minutes we were both completely soaked and still a few miles from our dock.
The storm was growing more intense and lighting was starting to increase in frequency. Rough water pitched the bow of the boat upwards, and the whole thing would shake as the hull slammed back down into the next wave. The going was slow and miserable, and frightening.
After about a half-mile, we ended up taking shelter behind a small island. It provided enough protection from the wind to drop the anchor and get down inside the cabin, out of the rain. We sat in the cabin, soaking wet, huddled under towels for over an hour waiting for the storm to let up enough for us to keep going.
When the storm had subsided enough for us to venture back out onto the deck, we pulled anchor and continued motoring home. I was still shaken by the whole thing, but when I looked back at my dad he smiled and said, “I think we should get raincoats for the next storm.”
Lesson #7: Always have rain gear.