June 23, 2020
DILLON — Dillon Marina operations manager Craig Simson knows people say you can’t see the wind. But, he says, out on the water, you can.
You can read what the wind is doing to the water. Out on a man-made fish bowl like Dillon Reservoir, reading the wind is a volatile venture. The body of water at the heart of Summit County, Simson says, sees the most intense conditions a sailor will ever encounter. The ferocity is thanks to the thermal and atmospheric conditions that coalesce at the barometric bullseye, where summer’s heat rushes in from five different, high-altitude mountain valleys.
This convection — this energy — is what makes the Dillon Reservoir the riddle it is to read. And Paul Kresge could read it better than most anyone else.
“He could look at what was happening on the lake, and say, ‘All right, 15 seconds, you’re going to get a little bit of wind from the left,’” Simson said. “He could look at the clouds as they built, and predict it almost exactly. He’d say, ‘OK, now we’ve got one coming over Peak One. We are going to expect in the next 30 minutes. It’s going to pull. The wind is going to wrap south, come back to prevailing.’
“So he could position himself for victory, basically,” Simson continued. “He’d be the kind of guy you’d look at and say, ‘What the heck is he doing?’ He’s separating himself from the pack. And, for the most part, he was completely right.”
To the local sailing community, Kresge was a lifelong competitor who took pride in living by his principles and values. And he always embraced a challenge. Many, like Dillon Junior Sailing director James Welch, looked up to him. He had an attention to detail, an honesty and a knowledge of sailing that was admirable.
A skier and a sailor
Close friend and Dillon Yacht Club past commodore D.B. Tanner first knew Kresge as a hard-charging skier at Western State College of Colorado (now Western Colorado University) in Gunnison in the early ’70s. Kresge fostered that ardently-determined mentality sailing as a child, not on the Dillon Reservoir, but on Skaneateles Lake near his childhood home in upstate New York. That’s where he and his brothers, Tanner said, were “wickedly” competitive.
That sportsman’s disposition shepherded his life, from skiing in freestyle’s early days at Gunnison to his time as a respected member of Copper Mountain Resort’s Over The Hill Gang. He had it each day when he’d ride his bicycle around the reservoir. And the one-time Dillon Yacht Club commodore had that disposition when sailing his longtime Star racing keelboat, 7977.
It was Kresge’s passionate role as a thread at the heart of the county community that made his death in a storm out on the lake on Saturday, June 13, at the age of 66, the heartbreaking shock it was for so many. To Simson, if the Dillon sailing community was a tribe, Kresge was the medicine man and respected elder.
“It will be a loss to not have Paul there with us,” Welch said. “He’s super instrumental. The kids looked up to him. And I trusted everything he would tell me.”
A sailor’s sailor
When it was his time to sail 7977, Kresge brought out the best in others. Philip Mancuso was one of those star sailors who credits him for his introduction into the sailing world. Kresge motivated Mancuso, the one-time marina mechanic, to take on the tall challenge of the Olympic two-man fixed keelboat. It’s a boat “so athletic,” Simson said, that it left Mancuso barely able to walk for two weeks after a national-level competition.
To Mancuso, Kresge was a leader who spread the love of sailing to everyone around him — and he also was one of the best.
“I’d always look at him from behind, the guy was always ahead of us,” Mancuso said. “He knew this lake like the back of his hand.”
This week, a few days after Kresge’s death, Simson had a friend stop by the marina. She took a look at Kresge’s 7977. It’s at the marina where it and Kresge most always were — hanging out by the other Star boats.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Man, that boat looks like Paul,’ and I got a huge smile on my face,” Simson said. “And I said, ‘You know what, it actually does look like Paul.’
“Because he was an athlete,” Simson continued. “The guy never stopped. And the Star boat, it’s an incredibly athletic sailboat.”
To Simson, Kresge was just compelled to the Star. It was a challenge like a jockey wrestling with a thoroughbred. And he treated 7977, Simson said, “as a tool, not a jewel.” He’d sand down epoxy on a ding and not care to paint it, just as long as it raced well.
“He liked getting off that boat and being a little worn in by the wind, the sun, the challenge of holding one of those things down,” Simson said.
Kresge’s command of 7977 made June 13’s development at the yacht club’s Peak 1 Regatta that much more chilling. But to guys like Simson, they are aware of the fiercely fickle calamities Mother Nature can usher in at the Dillon Reservoir.
A local ski patroller of a quarter century, Simson is well versed in the weather wonders of our local mountains. Four harrowing times, including June 13, he’s sailed and survived sudden systems, dubbed “downdrafts,” with tropical storm-like conditions and wind speeds. It’s the kind of situation where you just want to get back to shore, no matter what remains of your boat.
“If Lake Dillon was talked about on the news like any other named storm, we would have one about three times a week,” Simson said.
On June 13, Simson began his morning with his typical, meticulous look at worldwide weather, from Russia back to Summit. He also got a text from someone mentioning potential record-setting heat in Denver. Heat is always an indicator for afternoon troubles on Dillon Reservoir.
Simson and the sailing experts he spoke with on the afternoon of June 13 knew this as they spotted virga — streaks of precipitation falling from a cloud and evaporating before the hit the ground — near Peak One and Buffalo Mountain. Simson said virga are the flashing neon light that means wind.
To Simson, the one coming in from Buffalo and the Gore Range looked like it had more potential in it. But he said the one from Peak One brought the power and force no one at the marina expected that day.
Soon, several boats were overturned by the sudden system into the reservoir’s frigid water. After Simson conducted a rescue out of the Snake River arm of the lake — surfing the storm’s waves that buried the bow of the boat he was rescuing — in typical Summit County fashion, it all stopped. The sun came out.
As those at the marina radioed asking where Kresge was, there was silence. Simson and the search party soon found 7977 overturned, with Kresge’s sailing partner still with it. It was clear Kresge had been swept from the boat from his position at the helm of the boat.
Simson believes in a downdraft of that magnitude, Kresge’s attempts to manage the vessel’s tiller likely proved too much. And though Simson believes a personal flotation device may have reduced the urgency of his predicament while in the frigid water, Simson believes the conditions were not survivable.
“The wind, the waves, the temperature of the water — you’d only have minutes,” Simson said.
‘Paul was there’
Five days after the accident, more than 200 people descended on the marina to pay homage to Kresge with a lap of remembrance. Tanner was in charge of the memorial and, despite the wet, cold weather all day, eyed a window of time in the early evening as possible for dozens of boats to go out to drop flowers at a wreath near where the accident occurred.
En route to the wreath, Welch and Simson were amazed by a random rainbow and how the sun peeked through the clouds.
As the boats turned back for the marina and friends and family shared stories of Kresge over the radio, Tanner heard a thunderclap and saw a lightning bolt strike down on Tenderfoot Mountain. It was unlike any he’d ever seen before. To Kresge’s old college ski buddy, it was Kresge sending a message.
“I think Paul was there,” Simson said. “I think he said, ‘OK, I’m going to help, give you enough time to do this.’ And then we got that rainbow, the signal from the lightning, (and he said) ‘OK, that’s it. Go back.’
“It was an amazing moment.”