Walking the Plank: Onne van der Wal

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There aren’t many people who reach the top of one profession and then attain the pinnacle of a second one. But Onne van der Wal, though he is affable and modest, is also a talented overachiever. 

Photo by Kim Tyler

Born in the Netherlands and raised in Hout Bay, South Africa, van der Wal learned to sail aboard his grandfather’s boat before he learned to walk. Youth sailing programs followed, and van der Wal discovered his first passion: ocean racing.

He was the bowman and engineer aboard the Dutch maxi Flyer II, which won all four legs of the 1981-82 Whitbread Round the World Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race). When van der Wal wasn’t busy with his crew duties, he was documenting Flyer II’s circumnavigation with his camera — from the bowsprit, the top of the mast, wherever his instincts took him. Sail magazine was the first to see that his deep experience as a world-class sailor made him a uniquely inspired photographer — and the rest is history.

Today, Van der Wal is one of a select few “Canon Explorers of Light,” influential photographers and cinematographers considered masters of their creative specialties. His work appears frequently in Soundings and other nautical publications, and he covers the world’s most competitive regattas. Van der Wal has published several books of his photography and has a gallery on Bannister’s Wharf in Newport, Rhode Island, which you can also visit at vanderwal.com.

First memory of being on a boat: My first memories of being on a sailboat are in South Africa. My father had bought a partially completed Dabchick, a junior training boat similar to a Sunfish but without a cockpit. It was more like sitting on a kitchen table with a mast, small jib and mainsail.

First boat you owned: The first boat I owned was here in the U.S. I probably had about seven years of professional racing under my belt and was a little tired of the politics of the Grand Prix racing scene. I decided it was time to go back to my roots and race a dinghy, so I bought a Laser. I wanted to be the helmsman, tactician, crew and run my own racing program. I met the best people and had the most fun I ever had in sailing. I did the North Americans in Canada, the midwinters in Florida and was a regular in the Newport Laser frostbite fleet.

Last or current boat: I own two boats — a 25-foot Apex inflatable that I use to shoot from here in New England and a recently acquired Pearson 36. I am doing a refit on the boat this winter and plan to go cruising with my wife, Tenley, when it’s done. It’s time to get back to the basics, slow down a bit, sail around, and enjoy the little coves and back bays of New England on my own yacht.

Favorite boat you’ve owned: I documented the travels of an 88-foot Tripp-designed sloop called Shaman. The owner had hired me to record the travels of the boat over a 10-year period, and I joined the boat once or twice a year for two to four weeks at a time. We went to the most remarkable places, from the Arctic to the sub-Antarctic and the tropics. Shaman was an all-carbon, water-ballasted centerboard sloop that sailed like a Volvo Ocean Race boat and cruised like a large Swan.

Your dream boat: My dream boat is probably an aluminum centerboard adventure cruising boat in the 45-foot range that can go anywhere, from Newfoundland to the Exumas. I love sailing and exploring in remote, off-the-beaten-track places, and this type of boat could do that.

Most rewarding professional experience: Building and working at my career as a professional maritime photographer since 1987; meeting great people; sailing on the most amazing sailboats, powerboats and ships; and going to the far corners of the globe have all been wonderful experiences. But the greatest reward has been hearing people comment on the work we display in our gallery in Newport, Rhode Island.

Scariest adventure aboard: During a delivery from Punta del Este in Uruguay to Cape Town, South Africa, on a 72-foot ketch. We had done the 1979 Cape Town to Uruguay trans-Atlantic race, and the boat had to be taken back home to Cape Town. We left Uruguay in late March (autumn in the Southern Ocean) and were at about 40 degrees south and halfway across when we ran into a bad depression. The barometer dropped like a stone, and the weather went with it. We eventually ended up heaving-to in 70 knots of wind with 50-foot breaking seas.

Most memorable experience aboard: When Flyer crossed the finish line of the 1981-82 Whitbread Round the World Race in Portsmouth, England, and we realized that we had been the first boat to finish first on all four legs and would probably win the handicap prize, as well.

Longest you’ve spent aboard: I was on Flyer on Leg One of the 1981-82 Whitbread for 36 days, from Portsmouth to Cape Town, through the doldrums and into the South Atlantic — a long stretch of beautiful open ocean.

Favorite destination so far: I love the extremes. The high latitudes of Spitsbergen, also known as Svalbard, have to be up there with the other extreme of the Exumas in the Bahamas, a close second.

Favorite nautical book: South, Ernest Shackleton’s story of his adventure and survival in Antarctica on Endurance.

Favorite nautical cause you support and why: Save the Bay (savebay.org), an organization that makes sure Narragansett Bay is kept clean and safe for boaters, swimmers and fishermen. This past summer we could see the bottom on most of our ocean swims, and the amount of baitfish in the bay was the best in years. It’s a great cause to support.

Favorite quote about the sea:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

(“Sea-Fever,” John Masefield)

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.