2016-01-07 / Around Town

Photographer Featured Museum Series

By Joe Berkeley

Do you have a favorite image of boats sailing in Newport? Can you remember it? There’s a good chance it was taken by Onne van der Wal, whose gallery is on Bannister’s Wharf.

One of the most prolific and talented marine photographers in the world of sailing, van der Wal was born in Holland 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 for ocean racing.

As the bowman and engineer aboard the Dutch maxi-boat Flyer, van der Wal won all four legs of the 1981-82 Whitbread Round the World Race, the precursor to the Volvo Ocean Race. Along the way, he took his camera with him everywhere he went, even to the top of the mast and the end of the spinnaker pole.

Keith Taylor, the former editor of SAIL magazine, met van der Wal 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 [bad], keep your camera with you and shoot, because that is when no one else is shooting.”

A member of Canon’s prestigious “Explorers of Light” program for photographers, Onne van der Wal has refined his photography skills, adapted to shoot HD video on DSLR and dedicated Canon video cameras. A member of Canon’s prestigious “Explorers of Light” program for photographers, Onne van der Wal has refined his photography skills, adapted to shoot HD video on DSLR and dedicated Canon video cameras. During the Whitbread, van der Wal’s skipper Conny Van Rietschoten suffered a heart attack while Flyer was winning the race. A stern disciplinarian whose rules stated “no shouting, no swearing, no complaining about the food,” Conny informed the crew, “If I die, just throw me over the side. Don’t divert. Keep racing!”


Joe Berkeley is a freelance writer and sailor. His work is at joeberkeley.com Joe Berkeley is a freelance writer and sailor. His work is at joeberkeley.com The skipper survived the heart attack, the team won the Whitbread, and van der Wal’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 van der Wal’s work believe that his background as a world-class sailor informed the artistic choices he made as a worldclass artist. During the 1979 Fastnet Race, when the winds reached 85 knots, he 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.”

Sailors appreciate van der Wal’s attention to detail. Brad Read, former College Sailor of the Year, J24 World Champion, and the executive director of Sail Newport, has followed the photographer’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 his work is set apart by the unique angles from which van der Wal shoots.

“He 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 van der Wal’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 onair 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.”

His stature as a Cannon “Explorer” has him sharing his photographic passion and expertise with seminars, lectures and workshops throughout the U.S.

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.”

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