Life in Salt: An Interview with Master Photographer and Round-the-World Ocean Racer Onne van der Wal

by Owen James Burke

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(Photo: Billy van der Wal)

“I think the nicest thing about the sea is that even though there are other people out there, it’s still very quiet…there are just so many times I’m out on the water in Narragansett Bay, which is a stunning piece of water, and the engine is off and we’re drifting or casting…and I look around at my driver and say ‘We live in the most beautiful part of the world’…”

Onne van der Wal has been a professional sailing photographer for over 25 years. He’s been as close to the north and south poles as you can get with a sailboat and, aboard every kind of yacht you could imagine, gone everywhere in between. Having completed more than ten trans-Atlantic crossings, he’s ridden out 80-knot winds off Tristan da Cunha, followed Shackleton’s expedition in the South Seas, and nearly lost his life photographing Tierra del Fuego. We caught up with him after the Antigua Classics.

Onne van der Wal began his career as a professional sailor, and was sailing the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1982 when Olympus handed him some cameras and asked him to cover the event. Being the bowman, he happened to snap pictures from some unusual angles. He didn’t think too much of it professionally (at least not at the time), but he eventually hung up his professional sailing shoes and became a full-time photographer in 1987.

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Scut: So you were born in Holland but you grew up in South Africa? What were your first experiences with the sea?

OvdW: Right, exactly. Well, I lived in a small fishing village just 15 or 20 minutes outside of Cape Town — a setting not unlike San Francisco, obviously not as big, but with the same cold ocean. There was a reasonably big fishing fleet there, and as a kid of about 14, I was intrigued by that. On my bicycle, I would always hang out down there in the harbor and one day I asked one of the fisherman, “Can I come along?” and I went for a ride. I went fishing with him early in the morning and just loved it.

I spent a lot of time in my teenage years working and fishing during my school holidays — sometimes when I should’ve been at school I ended up going fishing instead, which wasn’t that great. So that was when I started getting a real love for the sea — and I’d been sailing since I was a small kid, even in Holland my grandfather had a small boat and taught us how to sail. When we were in South Africa, my dad built a small boat, like a Sunfish, so I sailed on that and got involved with some family friends who had a 25’ keel boat. The two meshed nicely with my ocean experience and with the sailing. That’s how it started.

Scut: What pulled you into the world of photography from sailing? Was it the Whitbread Round the World Race?

OvdW: It was. I always had a little camera with me — a small simple camera, when I was doing my racing before the Whitbread days. Even on the fishing boats I had a camera with me. There were always unique times, lighting, and scenes that I thought people would appreciate.

Then, when I got on the Whitbread boat, we did two trans-Atlantics as a warm-up and crew test, or crew trial period. I was always up in the rigging or somewhere taking pictures, and one day the guys from Sail magazine came onboard to look at the boat and I showed them my work. They were intrigued, and said “Wow, we’d love for you to shoot for us during the race,” so that’s really how it started.

Sardinia 2007 Veteran Boat Rally, Sardinia, Italy.

Scut: What gratifies you most about sailing photography?

OvdW: Having happy clients. And also, the fun thing is being on the water and making it all work — getting in the right place and getting the light right. I’m lucky to have a profession that I enjoy.

Scut: Judging by your photography, I can only imagine you’ve had yourself in some precarious, if not terrifying, situations. Do you have any you’d like to discuss in particular? Even just as a sailor?

OvdW: As a sailor, I’ve had some hairy moments. I brought a boat back from South America in 1979 and sailed back to Cape Town by way of Tristan da Cunha down in the South Atlantic. And there we had 80 knots of breeze for a day or two — I didn’t think I was going to make it home. That same year — this was in March — in July I did the Fastnet Race in 1979, and 15 people died in that race. It was a bumpy year for me.

I’ve had some times when you realize that you’re so small. When the sea kicks up like that, you’re nothing. You have to work with it, you can’t work against it. You have to respect it.

Scut: What was it like sailing into Tristan da Cunha back in ’79? It’s still very remote now; what was it like then?

OvdW: We couldn’t even go ashore because it was so rough. We tried to find a lee to anchor in — and it was so rough, that anchorage, that we were rolling from gunnel to gunnel on a 72’ boat. You literally had to go on all fours to cross the deck. It was crazy.

I think there were about 175 people living there at the time, and it was a shame that we couldn’t go ashore. I would have loved to see it. Here we were, a bunch of young guys in our 20s, and all we could see were the girls waving from the dock.

I love those remote islands. I’ve sailed right past the islands of Amsterdam, and around those islands in the Southern Ocean, as well as the Indian Ocean. I’ve also been down to South Georgia, which is closer to Antarctica than anywhere else. Those islands are fascinating, because a lot of times there’s nobody there and they’re very unspoiled. The bird life there is just phenomenal, because that’s where a lot of the Arctic or Oceanic birds nest and breed. It’s wonderful to look around there, and they’re very tame — they just walk right up to you. It’s very interesting.

I’d love to go back to some of those islands, but it’s so hard to get there. There’s no air service, there’s no shipping service, and you almost have to find some rich guy with a big boat who has that interest. But the guys with these big boats just want to go to St. Barts and St. Tropez, tie up, and drink champagne.

Scut: So how about terrifying situations as a photographer?

OvdW: I had a situation where I fell over the side because a stanchion broke on the side of a sailboat. I didn’t think I was going to die, but it made me realize that if somebody else in that situation had gone over the side and they couldn’t swim, they would have gone straight to the bottom because it took them about six minutes to come back and get me. But so far it’s all been good — I haven’t really had any close shaves. …It’s been quite a long time, so maybe it’s best to forget them. I have more humorous stories than I do scary stories.

Scut: Well, we’d love to hear those.

 OvdW: I was out in Hawaii working for the Kenwood Cup many years ago, and they always tell you that they’ve got good chase boats and people. But then you get on board and it’s some old retired geezer — a weekend warrior at the Waikiki Yacht Club. So you ask the guy to get a little closer, and he tells you that you can’t, but the boat seems like its two miles away. So you have to be really polite, because they’re a volunteer, but you’re there for a job. You’ve flown all the way out from the east coast.

The best thing you can find is a fisherman who handles his boat well, who knows nothing about sailing, and who listens to you. That’s the best way to go because then you can say to the guy, “No, we’re good here, let them scream at us.” The fisherman doesn’t give a shit. So that’s normally the best way to do it.

Scut: Hahaha. What do you find to be the most difficult angle or point from which to shoot aboard a sailboat, lighting aside?

OvdW: Obviously when it’s wet and windy it’s tough to keep the gear dry, and it’s tough to use a waterproof housing — you’d like to just use the camera. But without any protection, you risk getting pretty wet. I’ve sailed on the J’s quite a bit, and they’re very wet. There’s no lifeline, so it’s always an interesting dance on the leeward side — holding onto a sheet with one hand and shooting with the other.

When it gets too wet you have to put the gear in a bag or a housing or something, but it’s always the same thing: you’ve got to risk getting wet for the good shot.

Sardinia 2007 Veteran Boat Rally, Sardinia, Italy.

Scut: How about your favorite point at which to shoot. Do you have one?

OvdW: Onboard a sailboat, the leeward quarter looking forward. I’ve got a handful of shots that have been very successful over the years. It’s always nice if you’ve got either a flush teak deck, or a little house that doesn’t intrude too much in the picture. The challenge always is to get bodies out of the way, to get a nice clean shot. Or, to get somebody in there that looks nice, to keep them in the shot or move them slightly.

It’s always tough to get onboard a boat, and you don’t know anybody — and they don’t know who the hell you are — to go up and tap them on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, do mind turning 15 degrees?” or to pull their leg out of the shot, and they’re wondering, “Who the hell are you?”

That leeward side is definitely, by far, the most popular one to get, both looking forward and looking aft. If you sit forward of the shroud looking aft and the boat’s on the wind — the trimmer sitting to leeward and the driver behind him to leeward — that’s always a nice shot. If you slow the shutter speed down a little bit you get a little blur in the water.

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Scut: I can see why that’s popular. Do you have a favorite race, and/or boat to shoot?

OvdW: I must say that I love shooting the classic wooden boats, I’m very partial to that. The rig and the whole sail plan, the way they have a big gaff and then have everything rigged up. Out in the Mediterranean they have a lot of beautiful boats like that. That being said, shooting from a helicopter with a fleet of Grand Prix boats surfing along is also very exciting. It’s beautiful.

But I’d say my most favorite boats are the wooden classics. I just got back from Antigua Classics, and we had a couple days with 25 knots and big seas and blue skies. It was just phenomenal. You’re on the chase boat and the boats are going upwind and at times all you can see is just the heads of the crew, or even just the rig, the sail-plan and nothing else. They go behind swell or they’re climbing up the face of the swell and it looks like the bow is just pointing towards the heavens. There’s some pretty dramatic stuff like that.

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Scut: How about a sea story you’d like to share?

OvdW: An old yarn? Any old story?

Scut: Anything you think is worth sharing, or would care to share.

OvdW: I have one that comes to mind. I was walking the Miami boat show four years ago and came across a really nice, professionally built, 30’ catamaran. It was built out of plywood, so it wasn’t a really fancy boat but it was very functional. I said to the guy who was selling them, who looked like the owner of a small boat-building operation in West Palm Beach, “That’s such a beautiful boat, I’d love to sail it in the Bahamas and do a story about it.” He said, “It’s for sale,” and I replied that I wasn’t really in the market for buying a boat but that I’d love to use it and do a story for a magazine.

He looked me up and down and probably wondered to himself, “Who the hell is this shyster?

He called me about three weeks later and said, “You’re on. I made a few phone calls, talked to some people, and they all said that you know what you’re doing.”

Exlporing the Exumas with 30 ft catamaran ABACO

My whole idea was to do a story about how you can sail in a pretty basic little boat, that you can just enjoy sailing. You don’t need to have an air-conditioner and an ice-maker and a whole fridge full of champagne to go boating. Here was a boat that didn’t even have a head. It had a very basic galley with a little, single-burner stove.

I said to my boys, who were probably 17 and 9 or 10 at the time, “Do you guys want to go sailing? We’re going to do an adventure in the Bahamas. We’re going to sleep on deck and use a bucket as a toilet. We’ll just cook on a barbecue out back, and we’ll take a bunch of sausages, hamburgers, potatoes, apples, and oranges, and those’ll be our meals.” They said, “Awesome, let’s go do it.” My wife and daughter turned up their noses and said, “Forget it. There’s no toilet on the boat? We’re not going.”

Exlporing the Exumas with 30 ft catamaran ABACO

We ended up exploring a very remote part of the Exumas in the Bahamas. It was stunning, it was absolutely beautiful. The boat drew about a foot-and-a-half, and it was very light, so if we sailed onto a sandbank, we could always just take pictures, pick it up, and walk it off again. We slept on deck, and we had a limited amount of fresh water so we had to be a little careful, but we cooked on deck and did everything on deck. We got some amazing photography.

Exlporing the Exumas with 30 ft catamaran ABACO

The whole idea was to do a story about me, the old man, showing his sons that you can sail in a simple way, and maybe enjoy those remote parts even more. My boy — who is now a senior in college — was at the time in high school, and he wrote the story.

Scut: That’s a beautiful story. That brings back some fond memories for me of sailing with my father like that. We had a little 18’ Herreshoff Catboat that we used to sail along the coast. It was great. Do you have a favorite book about the water?

OvdW: Well, to twist that around a little bit, I just did two books myself (Wind and Water: Boating Photographs from Around the World and Sailing). The most recent one, Sailing, was published by Rizzoli, a publisher in New York — it’s a big coffee table book. That obviously has a lot of my favorite imagery of the water.

I love the stories of certain people, like Shackleton (South: The Last Antarctic Expedition of Shackleton and the Endurance). That’s an incredible story, and I’ve read a lot of books about him.

When I was getting into my ocean racing days, before I left to go and do that, I ended up reading all the classics like Robin Knox-Johnson (A World of My Own: The First Ever Non-stop Solo Round the World Voyage), and Chay Blythe (Impossible Voyage), a lot of those early ocean racers, even Joshua Slocum (Sailing Alone Around the World), Bernard Moitessier (The Long Way) and Éric Tabarly (Ocean Racing) — I still have a lot of those books here today. Those guys made a big impression on me. I really learnt a lot about the terminology and ocean racing or ocean voyaging — how it worked with weather systems and storms and anchoring, how life was, and what to expect when I was going to do it myself.

Scut: That’s inspirational hearing you say that, because I’ve only read the books — I haven’t done any ocean crossings yet. But I do hope to do that at some point.

OvdW: That’s one thing I really want to do with my boys, or at least send them off with somebody — I think everybody has to do a trans-Atlantic at some point in their lives. It’s great to be out in the ocean for more than ten days, getting a good sleeping, eating, and watch routine, seeing the stars and night and steering a sailboat — I love it, I loved it. I did it a lot. I did ten trans-Atlantics, I did a circumnavigation, and I crossed the Pacific. I did a lot of long-distance sailing. But it was my passion; it’s all I wanted to do. I left many a cute girl on the dock because of that. I just kept moving. I didn’t want to get tied down.

Later in life I was ready to stop, get a house, find a wife and start a family, but I’m so glad I did that when I was younger. I still want to do it now, but not nearly as badly — I wouldn’t leave people behind now.

Scut: Food for thought, thank you.

Exlporing the Exumas with 30 ft catamaran ABACO

Cruising through the Caribbean

Scut: So, you retraced Shackleton’s voyage in 2003, right?

OvdW: Not the whole voyage, just a part of it. I’d been down to Elephant Island before, on an Antarctic research vessel, and with Shaman we sailed from Ushuaia, Argentina, down to South Georgia. We circumnavigated the island and walked certain parts of what he did — we didn’t go over the tips of the mountains like they did because we weren’t mountaineers, but we definitely lived his voyage in and around South Georgia. We went to his grave on his birthday, went to Grytviken and Stromness — all the areas you read about in the book. …It was great to relive the whole thing.

Scut: That must have been incredible. Moving onto gadgets — any tools or pieces of gear that you’re using on the water these days that you’d like to recommend?

OvdW: I use all Canon gear, and they have a lot of long lenses — a 500mm, a 300mm, and then I use a 70-200mm. So really, I need three or four camera bodies with all those lenses ready to go. Then they came out with a new 200-400mm zoom. It was the first time they came out with a big, fast, sharp lens that you could zoom. Before, if it was more than 200mm, I’d have to pick up another body with a 300mm on it, and if I wanted to go longer I’d have to put that down and grab a 500mm. So I really got rid of two lenses to replace it with a 200-400mm zoom. And that’s made a huge difference with capturing things that I see, because you have that zoom capability.

Canon makes a camera called the EOS-1D X, and that’s a nice weatherproof piece of gear that takes a pounding. You can’t go swimming with them, but at least if I’m shooting on a chase boat and there are sheets of spray coming over — and it’s a really amazing situation — I’ll keep shooting. That stuff is worth it, but those bodies are expensive because they’re weatherproof. They work, though.

The other thing that I can add here is that I love shooting with a wide-angle lens, or really long. But if it’s up to me — say I’m shooting a regatta of classic boats and the client says just take some beautiful shots for me — then I’m either nice and close with a wide-angle lens or I’ll just grab a long lens and get that different perspective.

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I have started using a drone — so that’s interesting — a little helicopter with a remote camera on it. That’s been amazing to use, we’re doing videos and stills with that. It’s taken a little getting used to, and learning. The learning never stops — we’re busy developing a new machine right now called a seaHEX, which is a waterproof carbon-fiber helicopter to take a camera up in the air, so that’s a new bit of gear.

I use a waterproof housing on a pole, so when a boat comes by I just stick the camera in the water, or have it half in and half out, which gives unique angles. That’s a brand I use that isn’t too expensive because it’s designed for surfers, called AquaTech. They make a great piece of gear.

OvdW: People always ask how I keep my gear dry on the chase boat when I’m moving around — on my own boat I have it rigged up with a cooler mounted to the bum rest on the center console — but when I’m travelling I carry everything in an SKB case, and they have wheels on them. They’re like a Pelican case, but they’re lighter.

When I’m travelling, I’ll keep my camera gear in a piece of regular luggage, and then I have that SKB box with all my clothing and tripods and chargers, and I check that. When I get to the hotel, I empty out the SKB box, put all the cameras in it, and then I go out on the water.

Scut: How do you spend your spare time on the water? If you happen to have any, that is.

OvdW: If I have a long chunk of time, I’d rather go in my Airstream and go camping, because I love being in the mountains and sitting by a fire, spinning a yarn with my kids. But we also have the photo chase boat, so if it’s a nice, hot weekend, we’ll go and anchor someplace nice and go for a swim. We like to fish, as well. There’s some good fishing here.

Scut: What’s the best thing about the sea?

OvdW: I think the nicest thing about the sea is that even though there are other people out there, it’s still very quiet, and you’re on your own. Sometimes that’s scary, but the solitude, the peace and quiet, the fresh air, being out there and enjoying nature — there are just so many times I’m out on the water in Narragansett Bay, which is a stunning piece of water, and the engine is off and we’re drifting or casting, waiting for a boat to arrive to shoot, and I look around at my driver and say “We live in the most beautiful part of the world,” and it’s just because we’re out on the water and it’s quiet. There’s no bullshit. It’s wonderful. I love it.

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Exlporing the Exumas with 30 ft catamaran ABACO

(Photo: Billy van der Wal)

Somewhat more sedate these days (though hardly sedentary), Onne van der Wal now lives in Rhode Island with his wife and children, where he spends his free time fishing and swimming from his inflatable chase boat or traveling into the mountains with his Airstream trailer.

All photographs by Onne van der Wal (except where otherwise noted) courtesy of the van der Wals

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