Born in the Netherlands and raised near Cape Town, South Africa, Onne van der Wal is considered one of the planet’s best nautical photographers. In October, his latest book, Sailing America, will be released. We caught up with him at his gallery in Newport, Rhode Island, to learn more about the project.
You were a 25-year-old professional sailor when you were hired as the bowman and engineer on the second Flyer for the 1981-82 Whitbread Around the World Race. How did that come about? I wrote a letter to Cornelis “Conny” van Rietschooten, the skipper of the first Flyer that won the Whitbread in 1977-78. He liked that I was a trained machinist, because he needed someone who could take things apart and put them back together. That’s what got me hired. I was the third crewmember hired for the second Flyer, and Conny sent me to the Royal Huisman shipyard in the Netherlands to attend to the construction of the boat.
How did your photos from the Whitbread race end up appearing in publications around the world? I had already been taking photos. Before the Whitbread, we sailed Flyer across the Atlantic. In Marblehead, Massachusetts, four guys in suits and ties showed up in a little rowing boat. They were the publishers of Sail magazine. I asked them to look at my slides, and they hired me to shoot the Whitbread for Sail. Conny thought it was great. My father and Conny each gave me a camera, and Conny also handed me a movie camera and said, “You might as well shoot this too.” In every port, I would get my work processed and ship it to Sail, and then other publications picked up my work.
So, in effect, you were the first of what came to be known as the race’s On Board Reporters (OBR)? Yes. I met the OBRs for the Volvo Ocean Race when they came to Newport recently, and someone pointed to me and said, “This guy was the first OBR.” One of the Volvo race’s OBRs was Whitbread and America’s Cup winner Peter Blake’s son. I said, “I knew your mom and dad.” All the OBRs knew who I was, which surprised me, but that was really nice. It’s nice to have established a good brand and be recognized.
When did photography turn into a full-time job? After the Whitbread, everyone was telling me to go full-time, but I said, “No, I want to go sailing.” So, I did the Fastnet, the Transat and other races, but by 1987 I was tired of being on the road all the time. So, I hung up a shingle on Thames Street in Newport.
You’ve taken photos from helicopters, the tops of masts and the ends of spinnaker poles. What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to get a photograph? I
almost got arrested shooting the workboats in Georgetown in the Bahamas. I wanted to shoot the race while swimming at the windward mark using a camera in an underwater housing. People told me, “Don’t even ask. They will never give you permission.” I jumped in, and within 10 seconds, the police boat arrived. I got these beautiful pictures, but the police said, “Go see the race director.” I showed him the pictures on the back of the camera, and he said, “Why didn’t you ask me? I would have given you permission.” Two years later, I went back and asked for permission and he said, “I can’t give you permission to do that.” I don’t think it was so crazy, but people love the story.
How did “Sailing America” come about? The first book we did with Rizzoli Publications was “Sailing” in 2013. We sold a lot of them. They came back and said, “What do you want to do next?” My middle boy was moving to Oregon. My wife, Tenley, and I dropped him off, and when we drove back across the country, we saw all kinds of little places where people were sailing. So, when Rizzoli asked what do you want to do, I said, “I want to do ‘Sailing America.’”
How did you find the locations? First, Tenley and I sat together, and I said, “I want to do the scows in Minnesota.” That’s where Tenley is from. Tenley also did some digging. For the rest of the book, I went on Facebook and said, “I’m doing a project looking for interesting, unique places to shoot sailing in the U.S.,” and the floodgates opened.
Where were you surprised to find sailing in America? Flathead Lake in Montana. We found two Herreshoffs. We had a stroke of luck. We found a charter boat company and went out on the lake. It was overcast and dark, but then in the last 15 minutes the sun came out and it was bingo.
What was one of the most beautiful places you photographed for the book? There’s a stunningly beautiful island, Kauai, near the end of the Hawaiian chain. I’d sailed there many years ago on the Transpac, and I remembered it being amazing. The Nā Pali coast on the northwest side of the island is beautiful, but there were no boats. I put word out on Facebook again, and this woman put me in contact with her friend who had a 45-foot Beneteau, and I hired a helicopter to shoot it.
You sell your photos at your gallery at Bannister’s Wharf in Newport. How did that come about? That was Tenley’s idea. She started it in 2001. Tenley manages the gallery, and she decides what gets printed. I might pick a photo and she’ll say, “No. I don’t agree with you.” Tenley did the whole edit for the book. She pulled the images, and got them organized. The book should really be called “Sailing America” by Onne and Tenley van der Wal.
This article originally appeared in the October 2019 issue.