How better to arrive at the "Super Bowl of Horse Shows" than on a Sea Ray sport cruiser?
It was definitely not a day like any other day for the Kehlenbachs of Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Any other day they’d be out on their beloved 340 Sundancer, enjoying an afternoon docked near the quaint village of Essex or anchored in one of the isolated coves along the Connecticut River. Or perhaps it would be an adventure in Montauk, New York, or an overnight to Mystic Harbor, Rhode Island.
No, this day would be different. It would be even better.
“I’d been going to the Hampton Classic for years,” says equine devotee Dawn Kehlenbach. “And then we thought, how cool would it be to take the Sea Ray over…to arrive in style? I mean, how many people get to take their boat to such a fancy horse show?” By all accounts, the Classic, held each year in Bridgehampton, is a lavish, world-class affair. “It’s a very prestigious show that draws the best of the best,” Dawn says. “It’s like the Rolls Royce of cars…or the Sea Ray of boats.”
So now, when The Hampton Classic Horse Show rolls around each year, the Kehlenbachs load the Sundancer with goodies and head across the Long Island Sound to East Hampton’s Sag Harbor, where Dawn and husband Tom meet their good friends Joe and Georgia Frohnhoefer.
“The Kehlenbachs are not really horse people,” says Joe, “and for that matter, neither am I, so we all enjoy Dawn’s commentary during the event. Her excitement is contagious.” For Dawn’s part, she is the personification of Horse Fever. An avid rider since age 12, she says she loves horses the same way Tom loves the sea. “It’s just like boating,” she says. “It’s all about passion. You might take a year off here or there, but it never leaves you. Eventually, you have to have ‘that’ horse, or ‘that’ boat, and be in that environment. It’s just a part of who you are.”
For Dawn, “that” horse is Tally, a beautiful warmblood Connemara Pony mix, which she uses for jumping and equitation. As soon as she sees Joe and Georgia at the dock in Sag Harbor, she shows them the latest photos of Tally clearing a huge jump. Oohs and ahhs ensue, the photo serving as a perfect appetizer to all the equine viewing pleasures to come.
The group has been invited by Bridgehampton National Bank to watch the day’s main event in its VIP area. There, Dawn gets the thrill of a lifetime, meeting Olympic champion McLain Ward. “That would be like me getting my picture taken with Eli Manning,” Tom says as Dawn poses for photos. The couple supports one another’s passions well. Tom, whose father had a business tending boats in nearby Westlake Marina, grew up on the docks and around the water. He went on to become founder and CEO of Sea Tow Services International, the world’s leading on-water assistance provider.
Dawn was busy riding horses when Tom was courting the sea, but it didn’t take her long to embrace the lifestyle. “I was at the Hartford boat show and saw our boat, a 340 Sundancer, the year before we bought it. I was mesmerized. I thought, ‘Oh man, what a beautiful boat. Wouldn’t it be nice to own a boat like this…to be able to afford a boat like this?’
“It turned out it was something we could do,” she continues. “It felt like a dream.”
They took delivery of the Sundancer while Dawn was pregnant with the couple’s daughter, Ally, now almost 12. “I was a little reluctant during the buying process, thinking about the responsibility of being parents, but the minute we picked it up I was hooked. It was pouring rain the first two months we had it, but we still took it out every weekend. I just couldn’t get enough of being on the boat, and we still can’t. It’s still our favorite place to be, all three of us.”
“Dawn was three months pregnant when we bought the Sea Ray, so my daughter literally grew up on it,” Tom says. “I wanted that for her. My father had a 240 Sundancer he bought new in 1978, and we used to spend time on it as a family. He had it for 30 years and took really good care of it. In fact, he just sold it a few years back and joked that he got almost as much as he paid for it.”
Ally couldn’t join her mom and dad for The Hampton Classic, and Dawn says that’s just as well. “She didn’t catch the horse bug,” Dawn says. “She loves the ocean, just like her dad. She respects the water, loves it. In fact, she just got her boater’s license and is so excited.”
Dawn and Georgia spend much of the afternoon at the fence watching the horses and riders run through the jump circuit, an activity that requires excruciatingly precise physical control as well as intense, wordless negotiations between horse and rider. “It’s about trust,” Dawn explains. “It’s a partnership, but your teammate can’t communicate with you, at least not in the same way another person can. He can’t tell you how he’s feeling that day, or how he’s feeling about the next jump. He can only trust that you’re not going to ask him to do anything that will hurt him, and you can only hope that he has confidence in your judgment.”
“Being able to control a 1,200-pound animal is cool,” Tom adds, “but getting that animal to jump five- and six-foot fences is amazing.”
After the competition ends, the couples make a round of the show grounds and the luxuries available for purchase there. “It has the flavor of the Kentucky Derby,” Dawn says. “It’s so colorful and everyone is dressed up; it’s definitely a place to be seen, but at the same time it’s so exciting to watch such a high level of competition. Plenty of people here don’t know the first thing about horses but they love watching it anyway.”
Later in the afternoon the couples retreat to the aft deck of the Kehlenbachs’ Sundancer, Midnight Dawn. “We named it that because back when we were first married and Tom was starting the Sea Tow business it was a 24/7/365 job,” Dawn says. “He didn’t have the help he has now, so he was always the one on call. Each evening I’d ask him when he thought he’d be home and his answer was always, ‘Probably around midnight, Dawn.’”
Now the words evoke only relaxing scenarios. “Wow,” Dawn says. “Boating and horses in one day! It’s a dream come true.” These days the couple doesn’t miss taking their Sea Ray to the Classic for anything. “Even hurricanes don’t stop us,” Dawn says. “We boated to an event right on the tail of Irene, when no one else was even on the water yet.”
Whether it’s a long voyage (the couple took the Sundancer all the way down to New York City the first season they had her) or a day trip, this Sea Ray has become an integral part of the Kehlenbachs’ family life. “I couldn’t imagine life without this boat,” Dawn says. “We might make our living on the water, but being on this Sea Ray is how we live our lives.”