Photo success for SA man
By Stuart Graham
Boston - His dramatic photographs, taken from the edges of racing yachts in rough seas or from the outsides of helicopters, have been displayed in calendars, magazines and in galleries around the world.
But it was only after a chance encounter with a group of suit-wearing men in a rowing boat, that Cape Town native Onne van der Wal's photographic career took off.
"I had done a fitting and turning apprentice in the Epping, in Cape Town. I wanted to make a living out of sailing. So in 1978 I travelled overseas to find work on yachts.
"I had the engineering qualification in my back pocket - I could fix pumps and engines and hydraulics - and that got me some lekker rides. All the boats wanted me aboard. That's how I got in to serious sailing. Photography was my hobby."
In 1981, Van der Wal made his break into the photography world.
"I was working on a yacht that was anchored in Boston," he recalled. "Suddenly this rowing boat arrived full of men in suits. They wanted to see the yacht. I said, 'Who the hell are you?' They said, 'We're the publishers of Sail Magazine.'"
Van der Wal took the men aboard and showed them around the yacht.
"After their visit I said, 'Hey would you take a moment and look at my photographs'. I had a bunch of slides in sleeves.
"The men held them up to the light and said, 'Wow, this is pretty cool stuff. Can we hang onto this and give it to you tomorrow?'"
The magazine's publisher called back the next day and invited Van der Wal to shoot exclusively for them in the Whitbread Round the World yacht race that was to start in a few months.
"He said, 'We'll give you a couple of hundred rolls of film. We want you to be our shooter'."
The yacht Van der Wal was sailing on, Flyer, went on to win the round-the-world race. By the time the race ended in 1982, Van der Wal's photographs were in demand around the world.
"The papers in the UK bought them and Sail Magazine had been running them every time we hit a port," he said. "They were my first commercial sales."
Van der Wal could have started shooting full-time, but winning the race had given him "all kinds of opportunities".
"I created myself a nice little jacket that said 'winner of round-the-world race'. I was invited to all sorts of events, including the America's Cup."
After five years, Van der Wal was "gatvol" of living with 15 drunk sailors and never having a bunk to himself.
He bought himself a flat in Newport in 1987 and put a sign up outside that said "Onne van der Wal - Photographer".
It took him 10 years to reach a point where he felt things were rolling.
"I had a little money in the bank and people really knew my name, but it was ten years of cranking and really working hard and taking every project that came my way, from power boating, to sailing to ships."
Today Van der Wal's photographs have been published in all the world's major publications including Time, Newsweek and Travel and Leisure.
His wife leads a team who run his gallery in Newport and his photographs are sold through various galleries on the east coast of the US.
Earlier this year, the five star Intercontinental Hotel in Boston held a major exhibition of his work.
Van der Wal's career has taken him to some of the world's harshest environments. He's crossed the Atlantic ten times, he's been to Spitsbergen in the Norwegian Arctic and in 2003 he was part of an expedition that retraced the steps of the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton on the Island of South Georgia.
But for Van der Wal, who teaches on Canon's prestigious lecture tour in the US, taking photographs in rough seas is second nature.
"I started sailing before I could walk," he said.
"When I was a boy I learned to sail dinghies in the south-easter in Seekoeivlei. So walking down a heaving deck is no big deal at all. It's bumpy and it's wet, but you learn how to take a shot before the next wave hits the bow.
"The whole thing about shooting on the water or in the air from a helicopter or from a chase boat is about learning to adapt, learning to keep the gear dry and going with the flow when the boat is bumpy."
Van der Wal, who is now based in Jamestown in the US with his wife and three children, still finds himself longing for the Cape, where his sister and parents live.
His ties with South Africa are "very strong", he said.
In 2010 he hopes to return to the Cape to photograph a 90-foot catamaran being built in Epping.
"I would love to photograph the catamaran sailing out of Hout Bay with Chapman's Peak in the background," he said. "That would be beautiful."