There was a point in Andrew Welles’ youth that his career path could have gone either way. “One weekend we’d be hauling the Optimist off to a race on another lake in Minnesota and the next weekend we were hauling the horse off to a show.” Horses wound up winning out career-wise for Andrew, who now lives in Florida as a young professional scaling the international ranks in the equestrian sport of jumping. But sailing will always have a place in his heart and for one week every summer, he’s at the helm or halyard on a small craft on the Ontario side of Lake Huron.
Andrew and his wife, Alexandra, on the Ontario side of Lake Huron | Photo Courtesy Andrew Welles
His family has had a cottage on the North Shore there for 100 years or so. It’s where Andrew learned to sail, where he launched his passion for racing the Optimist, “a flat-bottomed bathtub with a sail,” during the school year and where he makes a point of returning every summer with everyone from fourth cousins and their kids to his new wife, Alexandra.
“It’s my favorite place in the world,” says Andrew of their spot on the second largest of the five Great Lakes. “I look forward to it from the day we leave to the day we go back.” Sacrificing a week of the intensely competitive jumping summer season attests to his affection for the place, as does the fact that he chose to propose to Alexandra there.
Similarities in the Sports
During that one week, usually late-July or early-August, sailing dominates. It’s racing in CL 16s sloops, getting wet in the family’s Sunfish or picnicking in their Harbor 20, The Price Is Right—so named because its first owner was CBS-TV, which awarded it as a prize on the TV show.
The CL 16 racing is “sanctioned” by the North Channel Yacht Club, which consists of “a rock island with a dock and storage for a few boats and beer,” Andrew laughs. Wednesday and Saturday races are purely recreational, but “as in any activity for me, it’s always made more enjoyable if there’s a way to win it.” He and his crewmates have done plenty of that over the years and the cottage walls are adorned with the NCYC pennants to prove it.
Andrew sees ample similarities between jumping and sailing. Both require a huge amount of skill and the reality that elements are not always under your control. With sailing, it’s wind and currents. With jumping, it’s an animal who doesn’t always respond as it’s been trained to.
Andrew with his up-and-coming, 9-year-old mount Serpico | Photo © Sportfot
Both involve highly technical aspects. “When I break down a jumping course, I go into complex details,” Andrew explains. “The distance between the jumps, how they relate to each other, factoring in the time allowed, determining what part of the course may be problematic for my horse and where can I take the fastest route while still leaving the jumps up. It involves making a plan yet being able to deal with unforeseen circumstances.
“The same goes for sailing,” he continues. “You look at the course and talk about the plan with your crew, but the circumstances might change and it’s all about how you adapt.”
In the head-to-head nature of a sailing race, you’re always adjusting to whoever is right ahead or right behind you while angling toward the finish line. In jumping, contenders go one at a time, leaving fewer opportunities to adjust to the competition. “You’re aware of what the other competitors have done or could do, but you can only be in charge of your own score. You leave the ring hoping your score stands.”
Strong traditions underpin both sports. “Except when you are luffing into the wind or when your horse is not listening to your aids, both are elegant sports with deep roots in our society.”
Wisdom and Experience
Like any Olympic event, peak physical condition is critical to sailing over jumps or water. But unlike many sports, wisdom and experience are equally essential. Last summer’s individual Olympic jumping gold medalist, Nick Skelton of Britain, was 59, and 10-time Canadian Olympian Ian Millar is 70 and still strong in the saddle. On Rio’s Marina da Gloria, sailing’s oldest Olympic contender, 54-year-old Argentine Santiago Lange, took gold in the Nacra 17 Mixed Catamaran class.
“That’s something that’s really unique in both athletic endeavors,” Andrew notes. “The mind is so important. So is the feel and experience, and you gain more and more of that with every race or every time you jump a course. The longevity you can have is something really special.”
Pursuing jumping as a profession rather than a hobby, Andrew sometimes rides himself right out of the race—at least temporarily. A big part of a professional horsemen’s success comes from developing successful equine athletes from one level to the next for clients and/or sponsors, often as investments. That means they might be sold just when they are hitting their stride at the sport’s top level.
Fifty-one weeks of this coming year, Andrew will be vying for those highest heights aboard a relatively new mount, a 9-year-old named Serpico. Just coming into his own at the 1.45–1.50 meter fence heights (Olympic level is 1.6 meters), Serpico will hopefully be Andrew’s horse in the 2017–2018 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League. Whether it’s him riding or any of his contemporaries at that echelon, Andrew urges fellow sailors to check it out (www.fei.org).
“You can appreciate the fact that there is so much going on behind the scenes—just as much as there is in sailing,” he asserts. “There’s so much fine detail that goes into preparing the boat and the rigging and it’s the same with jumping as far as how much needs to be planned and executed to win one event. You might be looking at months worth of work for 90 seconds in the ring.
“We have thrills, spills, a lot of excitement and, at times, complete uncertainty about who will win, even when it looks clear cut on paper,” he concludes. “Sailors at any level can appreciate all of that.”