Onne van der Wal is one of the most prolific and talented marine photographers in the world of sailing. He was born in Holland on a Friday, February 24, 1956 and raised in Hout Bay, South Africa. Before he learned to walk, he learned to sail aboard his grandfather's boat. After he progressed through youth sailing training programs, he discovered his passion, ocean racing.
As the bowman and engineer aboard the Dutch maxi-boat Flyer II, van der Wal won all four legs of the 1981-82 Whitbread Round the World Race. Along the way, he took his camera with him everywhere he went to document the experience, even to the top of the mast and the end of the spinnaker pole.
Keith Taylor, the former editor of SAIL magazine met Onne in Marblehead by chance in 1979, and reviewed some of his photos. He said, "These are pretty damned good, you better visit us at the office and show us more." After that meeting, the editor was so impressed, he reached into the SAIL magazine refrigerator, pulled out a brick of Kodachrome film, and said, "Shoot at the boat, shoot at people, and when things go to shit, keep your camera with you and shoot, because that is when no one else is shooting."
This image of Conny Van Rietschoten, "the Flying Dutchman" at the helm of Flyer II is the sort of iconic photography that Onne captured during the assignment. Taylor said, "Bernie Goldhirsh who started SAIL was an avid sailor who insisted that every cover put the reader inside the sailing action. I've seen a lot of photography from the Southern Ocean, but it didn't come together. This particular shot had it all, the boat, the people, the sails, and this great foaming wake stretching up across the horizon, with mountainous waves behind them."
During the Whitbread, Onne's skipper Conny Van Rietschoten suffered a heart attack while Flyer II was winning the race. A stern disciplinarian whose rules stated, "no shouting, no swearing, no complaining about the food," Conny informed Onne and the rest of the crew, "If I die, just throw me over the side. Don't divert. Keep racing!"
The skipper survived the heart attack, the team won the Whitbread, and Onne's visceral images launched a new career. SAIL magazine editor Taylor said, "Onne has always been able to see the moment, then seize the moment. He's also a gregarious soul, easy to meet and his personality stands him in good stead. He is able to walk up to somebody, tap him or her on the shoulder, and get the photograph he wants."
Many admirers of Onne's work believe that his background as a world-class sailor informed the artistic choices he made as a world-class artist. During the 1979 Fastnet Race, when the winds reached 85 knots, Onne shared a watch with Steve Colgate, the owner of Sleuth, a 54-foot ocean racer.
Colgate said, "We only had maybe two people steering on each watch, me and Onne …we got our sails down to a triple-reefed mainsail and a small stay sail jib and were able to ride through it on a beam reach…we'd have the cockpit filled with water almost every other wave. Onne was just a stalwart support. He is a very centered, caring person. I remember he was very calm and smart about racing."
Peter Wilson, a project manager for Super Yachts, who was also a crew member aboard Sleuth during the Fastnet said, "I think what makes Onne's work different is he has been there at sea in all sorts of different circumstances: flat seas with no wind, then in storms in the teeth of a tempest. And that is what separates him from his colleagues. They don't have salt water in their veins as Onne does."
Doris Colgate, co-founder of Offshore Sailing School, where more than 130,000 people have learned to sail, believes Onne's extensive experience, which includes 10 Atlantic ocean crossings, gives him the ability to see things that other photographers do not. She said, "His composition and lighting are phenomenal. Onne takes a lot of risks getting his photos, but because of his sailing experience, he knows how to manage that risk. He captures the essence of sailing really, really well."
In addition to editorial work, Onne, who is based out of Newport, Rhode Island, has shot for blue chip commercial clients, including the likes of Hinckley Yachts, J Boats, Sperry, Patagonia, North Sails, and Harken. Kate Geskos, a professional art buyer, said, "Even when Onne captures his action shots, they are shot in a very painterly fashion. He shoots the neutral tones and the amazing skies so you can envision them as a 20th Century painting. Onne's work is so graphic, all of his images present the sport in a majestic manner."
While he has an artist's eye for composition and color, Onne is also a perfectionist when it comes to the technical aspects of his craft. As a member of the elite Canon Explorers of Light, a group of the most influential photographers and cinematographers in the world, he is always pushing the equipment and the technology forward. He was one of the first marine photographers to go all digital, and is an early adopter of shooting with drones to get that unique perspective that is higher than a stepladder, but lower than a helicopter. He often works with equipment manufacturers to improve stabilization technology and shot the 2013 America's Cup with a prototype Canon 4K video camera.
Steve Inglima, the Professional Products specialist who is the administrator of the Canon Explorers of Light Program and was on the America's Cup shoot, said, "The very careful nature of what Onne includes and excludes, which is composition, is so well presented in his work. Onne's also willing to take a certain amount of risk in order to get professional images. We were struggling to keep up with the America's Cup boats and we were in a chase craft that had dual 200 horsepower motors."
Inglima was impressed with how friendly Onne was. He said, "When I just started working with Onne, I told him I was going to spend some time touring New England. My first stop was Block Island. My only problem was I was going to Maine after the vacation for a seminar and I didn't want to drag the cases and cases of camera equipment onto the ferry. Onne said "Oh, leave the gear at my house in the living room. I won't be there. But it will be fine." Onne is remarkably open and generous and kind. He is just a wonderful human being and his family reflects that as well."
Sailors appreciate van der Wal's attention to detail. Brad Read, former College Sailor of the Year, J24 World Champion, and the current Executive Director of Sail Newport, has followed Onne's work for more than 30 years. He said, "You know you're at a very important regatta when Onne van der Wal is shooting." Read believes what sets Onne's work apart is the unique angles from which he shoots. He also stated that van der Wal "does more than just shoot pretty pictures of spinnakers." He said, "His work from the Antarctic and South Pacific is among some of his most incredible." In fact, Read's favorite image from Onne's collection isn't a sailboat at all; it's a tuna with a drop of blood on its jaw.
Gary Jobson, who won the America's Cup as tactician aboard Courageous and served as an on-air commentator during the last Cup said, "With Onne's pictures, you feel like you are either on board or you want to be on board. He's not the portrait photographer; he's the motion photographer. The cool thing about our sport is everything changes, all the time: the wind, the waves, the light, and the sail trim. Onne anticipates those changes to capture beautiful images."
Harry De Zitter, a professional photographer who was educated in South Africa and is a naturalized American citizen, is a peer of Onne's and a fan of his work. He said, "I think with Onne's point of view, there's always tension and beauty at the same time. One thing is tension can be partly aggressive, the way a boat tacks, then there's the elegance of the sails. Onne is able to read situations in sailing and still have the wherewithal to capture the moment in a millisecond. His work is spectacular."
Despite all of the accolades and accomplishments over a career that has covered more than three decades and all seven seas, Onne van der Wal is always looking forward to the next assignment. With a smile, he said, "There are two things I need to do great work. One is wind and the other is sun."