If you spend any time looking at boating magazines, you’ve seen Onne van der Wal’s photos. For more than 35 years, the Dutch-born, South African-raised nautical photographer’s images have graced the pages of just about every sailing and boating magazine in the world.
Van der Wal made his name as a photographer in the early 1980s when he sailed in the 1982 Whitbread Round the World Race aboard Flyer. As that boat crushed the competition, van der Wal’s onboard race photos appeared in SAIL magazine. In 1987, after five years of roaming the world as a professional sailor, but tired of not having a permanent place to lay his head, van der Wal came ashore in Newport, Rhode Island. He hung out a shingle as a nautical photographer, married and opened a gallery with his wife, Tenley.
What many people don’t know about van der Wal is that he is a trained machinist and capable of fixing or making just about anything on or for a boat. Those mechanical skills got him hired onto Flyer, but some years back they also allowed him to fix up a tired 1972 Pearson 36. The restoration of that boat took place in his driveway. He named the Pearson Snoek for the barracuda-like saltwater fish van der Wal used to catch as a teenager on Hout Bay when he worked alongside black fishermen during South Africa’s apartheid days. The Snoek restoration was chronicled in print and in a PBS special episode.
Van der Wal is known in particular for his sailing photographs, and he is a sailor at heart—for a number of years, he and his wife sailed Snoek around New England. But even though he is in his mid-60s and still robust, sailing Snoek made him feel his age. “Tenley loves sailing,” van der Wal says, “but the hoisting and trimming of the sails had fallen to me, and it was getting a little old.”
So, van der Wal and Tenley sold Snoek and shopped for a trawler. In late 2020, they purchased a 1986 Grand Banks 32, which van der Wal will restore at Clark Boatyard in Jamestown, Rhode Island, a few minutes from their home.
The name of the boat is Snow Goose, and Tenley has already decreed that the name will not be changed. Van der Wal is okay with that. In South Africa, goose is slang for someone’s girlfriend or love. Van der Wal’s wife knows this, and she is okay with her husband having a new love or girlfriend, as long as it’s a boat.
The Grand Banks 32 may not be a speed demon, but van der Wal is fine with running 8 knots. “I do look forward to not having to tack my way to Cuttyhunk at 4 knots. I just want to put the hammer down and have a bigger cockpit to barbecue and entertain. And now I will have my own trawler and fishing boat. It will bring me back to my snoek fishing days on Hout Bay when I was the only white kid on the boat.”
Van der Wal is just as particular about his boats as he is about his photos. By the time he got done with Snoek she was as good as new, and he has the same goal for Snow Goose.
The work on the Grand Banks 32 will include a lot of cosmetics and updates. Some of the dirtier jobs are at the top of the to-do list. After cleaning out the lockers, first on the list is a good scrubbing of the bilge. The head, which to van der Wal’s eyes has its best days far behind it, will be tackled next. After that he will install new speakers on the boat so he can listen to his favorite classical music and NPR programs as he spends the winter tackling the rest of the boat.
The couple hopes to relaunch Snow Goose in time for the 2021 boating season and go for longer cruises. Soundings will cover the renovation of their boat in detail, sharing the story in words and photos in the magazine and through videos and podcasts on the website. Look for coverage in the weeks and months to come.
“It’s not going to be as much work as Snoek,” van der Wal says about the Snow Goose renovation, “and I think it will be a lot more fun.”
This article was originally published in the March 2021 issue.