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Q&A with Onne van der Wal

A marine photographer and veteran charterer shares some insights

A marine photographer and veteran charterer shares some insights

Onne van der Wal is a world-class marine photographer and experienced charterer who lives in Newport, R.I., with his wife, Tenley, and their three children. Born in Holland into a seafaring family, van der Wal, 51, loves the sea and at one time sailed professionally. He turned to marine

photography while crewing aboard the Dutch boat Flyer, winner of the 1981-’82 Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, now known as the Volvo Ocean Race. He has chartered worldwide, from the Mexican Baja, Belize and British Virgin Islands to the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean and the Abacos and Exumas in the Bahamas.

For van der Wal, charters usually are equal parts work and play. He not only takes photos for the charter company but also is captain of his family’s vacation yacht for the week. So his travel bags are weighed down with chart kits, tour books, photo-shoot props, snorkeling gear, life jackets, fishing equipment, special clothing to help him get “the shot,” and other typically weighty tricks and trinkets he drags along to create the perfect charter vacation — or at least the appearance of one.

For the business of taking enticing charter photos, he travels with two or three camera bodies, five or six lenses from 15mm to 300mm, a giant underwater housing, his laptop and various chargers, waterproof bags, and electrical inverters and converters. We caught up with van der Wal for his take on what makes a successful charter.

You’ve chartered all over the world. What is your favorite spot and why?

The Bahamas, both the Abacos and the Exumas. They are close by and easy to travel to. The weather isn’t deathly hot, the waters aren’t too crowded, and the locals are friendly. The sailing and anchorages are excellent, perfect for chartering. You can visit lots of islands and harbors in a short time and find plenty to do shoreside. The restaurants are great; the snorkeling and diving is even better.

Do you prefer a catamaran or a monohull, and what’s a good size charter boat for a family of five?

Catamaran! A 45-footer is just about right for us.

What do you look for when choosing a destination? What references do you use?

The charter companies know where the good cruising is, and I trust them. We like places that aren’t too crowded, are off the beaten path, and are far from holiday chaos. The BVIs at Christmas were way overcrowded.

Talk a little about provisioning. Do you like to handle that yourself or go with a company that specializes in charter provisioning?

We provision ashore the morning before we cast off. It’s more fun to provision yourself, and it’s a highlight for the whole family. In Belize one year we let the charter company provision for us, and we ended up with twice as much cheesecake and key lime pie as meat. So we traded with a commercial shrimper — pie for shrimp — and vowed never to skip our trip to the market again. Tenley is the meal planner, and she puts a lot of thought into it so we aren’t left eating cans of Spam. We count on catching fish, not only for entertainment but for healthy dinners, so she doesn’t overstock the meat. But planning will only get you so far on a charter. In the Seychelles we once caught so many fish we couldn’t eat them all. In Baja, we didn’t get a bite, except for an octopus and a needle fish. In that case, we bought shrimp from local fishermen.

What extras should a charterer bring along?

Tenley organizes the packing and preparations, and she does it with the goal of being totally self-sufficient. I always bring my own mask, snorkel and fins to be sure they fit properly and are comfortable. And for the kids — toys, games, iPods, video games, movies, art projects and books. My son Billy uses an underwater sea scooter that is fun for everyone.

How much camera gear should amateurs take on a charter, and how do they get the best photos?

All you need for nice vacation photos is a decent digital camera, one with an image resolution of at least 5 megapixels, and 512 MB of memory. Bring extra memory cards to swap out the full ones, and always have extra batteries on hand. A wide-angle lens is nice, and a polarizing filter is a must in the tropics, along with a stout camera bag that can bang around in the dinghy and stay safe and dry. Shoot in early or late light. Harsh midday light creates too much contrast with white boats, sails and beaches. The best time for a family portrait is sunset, on the beach with the boat anchored in the background, piña coladas in everyone’s hand … virgins for the kids, of course.

If you arrive at your destination a day early, how do you spend your time?

Being experienced charterers, we have our program down to a science. We like to arrive from long and tiring trips to spend the first night aboard dockside at the charter base. With advice from the charter-base crew, we devise a plan of where to sail to first, where to avoid, what local delicacies to experience, what not to eat, and — most importantly — where to provision ashore before we cast off.

How do you familiarize yourself with the boat and brief your “crew” on seamanship and safety?

I brief myself and listen carefully to the charter rep’s briefing. Then the family goes over head usage, man overboard procedures — and, of course, dishwashing detail.

What are some common mistakes you see charterers make?

They put too many people on the boat. You see them at the anchorages, and they have eight people on the bow all trying to help anchor. No more than two couples per boat for sure — and one family per boat is just right. Also, arriving at the anchorage too late in the day. Finding your way into a strange anchorage at night is no fun.

You’ve chartered with friends, as well as family. How important is compatibility?

It is of the utmost importance. You must get along and travel well with your companions. There are lots of decisions to make, and group dynamics mustn’t be a problem.

How do you keep the kids busy and happy when it rains for three days?

It rained on us for an entire week once in the Abacos. We depended on the iPods, board and card games, art supplies and books to keep the kids busy. Tenley usually brings too many books, with high hopes that each kid will read three — but that never happens. It’s a nice time to play family games, which we never do at home with so many distractions, like the television. Art projects — painting shells, beading, hair wraps, painting animals on the kids’ fingernails — are fun during long day passages.

Do you recommend celebrating the holidays aboard?

When we charter over Christmas, we arrange early delivery of toys from Santa and carry them through airports, on taxis and onto the boat. Despite that complication, Christmas aboard is special, particularly when we’re all gathered around our portable, tabletop Christmas tree, far from the madding crowds. It’s great to get away from the commercial holiday and back to the basics of simple living and quality time together in a new place. One year, Kristin Browne, my stock sales director, insisted I shoot a holiday scene of a sailboat with lights in the rig. For effect, we brought the old-fashioned, very large, red-bulb lights. Just hoisting them was a fiasco, and once up, I plugged them into the inverter only to blow out the power for the whole boat.

Should you be careful of eating local fare, particularly from street stands?

We all love to try different produce, drinks, seafood and meats, so it would seem like a lost opportunity not to sample local cuisine. We favor local markets to roadside stands, where you’re gambling with your digestive system. After grabbing a taxi to the largest local market, we’ll typically muddle through aisles of food that is strange to us, using it as a lesson in local culture and customs. Tenley considers it a personal triumph that our then-12-year-old son told a waiter, “I think I’ll have the octopus.” On the other hand, after 10 days of cruising and catching no fish, we stayed at a nice Mexican hotel before coming home, and all the kids wanted were burgers and fries.