8 Tips for Photographing Sailboat Regattas, with Maritime Photographer Onne van der Wal


When most of us think of “sports photography,” we immediately think of iconic images from the world of land-based sports—American football, track and field, boxing, baseball, and others. One could argue, however, that yacht racing and sailing regattas provide the canvas for some of the most spectacular images in all of sports. And, if you have spent time around the water, seen the framed print on the wall of my physical therapist’s office, or flipped through the pages of any sailing magazine, you might have noticed that professional sailboat racer-turned-professional photographer and Canon Explorer of Light Onne van der Wal is the photographer behind many epic sailing images.

Photographs © Onne van der Wal

B&H Photo Video chatted with van der Wal before one of his recent on-water workshops, to get some tips on photographing sailboat racing from one of the masters of the genre.

A fleet of 12-meter class yachts (Intrepid, Heritage, American Eagle, Weatherly, Nefertiti, and Columbia), all former Cup contenders, race in tight formation on Newport's Narragansett Bay. Canon EOS 1v; 300mm lens; Fujifilm Velvia


“Obviously, you need to have a good vehicle to get out there,” says van der Wal. Options include a standard, rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB—pronounced “rib”); or another type of powerboat as a chase platform; getting on a racing sailboat itself as a shooter or onboard reporter (OBR); or getting in the water with a waterproof housing or camera and shooting boats turning at the mark. van der Wal says, “You can swim around at the mark, which is a little risky, but fun.” All those options, minus the swimming, have costs involved.

Your last option is going airborne in a helicopter.

All six J Class Yachts seconds after the start, at the 2017 J Class World Championships, held in Newport. Canon ESO 5D Mark IV; 75 mm lens; f/6.3; 1/1250; ISO 400

There are pros and cons to each type.

OBR: “On board, your perspective is very much with a wide-angle lens and you don’t catch a lot of the other boats racing. Maybe if there is somebody close to you or in a crossing situation it can be very nice,” says van der Wal. If you are only shooting the race for a day, he doesn’t recommend going on board to get images. Also, there is a “big advantage” in being a racing sailor on board with a camera. If the crew knows that you know what is going on during the race and while maneuvering, they won’t worry about you getting in the way or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “If you are a newbie, they will keep you in the back,” he says.

The Schooner Windrose and the J Class Yacht Velsheda race downwind with huge spinnakers, off Antigua, during the Classic Yacht Regatta.

Swimming at the mark: “Obviously, you get a beautiful perspective of half-in/half-out where you see the keel and the waterline and the boat.” Again, van der Wal doesn’t recommend this if you are doing a one-day regatta or shooting for only the day, because the shots are limited. He either jumps into the water with the camera in an Aquatech UW housing or carries a large monopod in his RHIB so that he can attach a camera and get this shot without getting in the water. [As a racing sailor, I would advise you to only do this with an offset mark to reduce the chance of boats crossing or ducking and not making the mark and sailing where you are swimming!]

A unique perspective as a sailboat races past van der Wal during the 2009 Grenada Sailing Festival

RHIB: van der Wal says, “My number one thing to do is RHIB, because you can really run around and do a lot. It’s a nice perspective—you can catch the start, and two boats, one boat, get far away, etc.” Although it has been done by some photographers, van der Wal chooses not to drive the RHIB and shoot—for his own safety and that of the racing boats.

Dean Barker, Skipper of Emirates Team New Zealand's AC45, checks his clearance while trying to avoid disaster with spectator boats, during Newport's America's Cup World Series, in 2013. Canon EOS 5D Mark II; f/7 1.1; 1/800; ISO 200; EF 70-200 mm f/2.8L USM IS II

Helo: “Of course, the helicopter is my second-best angle,” he says. He loves the low shot from the aircraft, “25 feet above the deck with a 400mm lens it almost looks like you are on the water.” But, the problem, he adds, is the expense. “The cheapest that I know you can get a [Robinson] R44 [helicopter] for is $650 an hour… but you can get a hell of a lot done in that hour because you can zip from one part of the course to the other.” He also wants helo pilots who aren’t afraid to go low and slow—at least 50 feet. Turbine helicopters will cost easily twice as much.

van der Wal also uses a drone, “but it doesn’t replace the helicopter,” because you are limited by the lens on the drone.

A beautiful aerial perspective of the J Class Yacht Lionheart, shot in Newport during the 2017 J Class World Championships. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV; 95mm lens; f/6.3; 1/4000; ISO 400

He adds that if you are shooting a two-day regatta, you might choose to shoot from the air one day and the RHIB the next. On a one-day event, he will choose the RHIB unless it is super windy and choppy, in which case he will go aloft in a helo to stay a bit drier.

The fleet leaves Newport, RI, racing toward Hamburg, Germany, in the 2007 HSH Nordbank Blue Race.

The Driver

“It is very important to get a good driver,” says van der Wal, for when you are on a RHIB or other type of chase boat. “My perfect boat driver is an experienced dinghy sailor… they know racing inside and out.” The second-best driver to get, he adds, “is a sport fishing boat with a sport fisherman who knows nothing about sailing and you tell him exactly where you want to be.” The worst is “to get a sailor who isn’t really a sailor who thinks he is a sailor who drives a motorboat which he does half badly and then he says, ‘We can’t get any closer,’ because he thinks he is affecting things. That is the worst driver.” Van der Wal also uses Lexar’s 64GB cards that enable him to spend the whole day shooting and not change cards, risking getting water in the camera.

A stormy sky during 2016 Key West Race Week with a fleet of C&C 30s racing downwind. Canon EOS 5D Mark III; 70-200 mm lens; f/5; 1/8000; ISO 200

Protect Your Gear from the Wet

van der Wal carries SKB waterproof cases with three Canon EOS 5D MK IV camera bodies and Canon lenses—one with an EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, one with an EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, and one with a the EF 200-400 f/4L IS USM w/ 1.4x Extender. Lens hoods are de rigueur to help keep spray off the front of the lens. The idea is that you do not want to change lenses while underway where you could easily get spray and water inside the camera and on the sensor. “You are never going to find a boat that is completely bone dry—my RHIB is pretty damn good—but whether it is from the heavens or from the ocean, you’re gonna get spray,” says the long-time sailor. He also carries an umbrella and is happy to hand that to the driver or someone else while he shoots in the rain.

A wave curls off the bow of workboat #28 during the Bahamas National Family Island Regatta, in George Town Exumas, Bahamas. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III camera; Canon 300mm lens

van der Wal prefers the SKB cases over the competition for reasons of cost and weight. The weight becomes a huge factor when he is travelling by air to a far-off shoot for a client or going aloft in a helicopter.

RC44s racing downwind, off Miami, in the RC44 Championship Regatta

Have the Right Gear for Travel

When flying to a shoot, van der Wal packs all the cameras and gear in a Think Tank wheeled carry-on bag and then packs his clothes, tripod, sailing foulies, and other gear into the SKB cases and checks them. He also likes that the SKB cases are a bit less conspicuous than other brands of hard cases and camera bags.

van der Wal always gets a press pass for the events he shoots and, he says that sometimes, airlines will cut you a break on luggage weight if you are traveling media.

Numbers races upwind.

Shutter Speed is Key

The biggest mistake van der Wal sees with others on the water is that people are not shooting with sufficient shutter speed. “With a 200mm lens on the water, you have to be at least at 1/500 of a second, because you get a lot of movement—bumping and rolling.” Experienced shooters know how slow they can go and how good their image stabilization is. Van der Wal shoots often with the Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS II USM, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM, and the Canon EF 600mm f/4L IS II USM lens and always tries to get his shutter up around 1/1500 or 1/2000. This is even more critical, he says, at the end of the day when you are getting tired. With today’s ISO performance, he knows he can get the ISO up around 1000 and still get great noise performance in those really dark shooting situations.

The bow of the Perini Navi, Baracuda, crashes into a wave while racing on the wind during the 2009 Saint Barth's Bucket Regatta.

Cotton Washcloths

van der Wal is a big fan of the standard hotel white cotton face cloths to keep his front elements dry and clear when shooting. He doesn’t worry about spray and salt water on the camera until the end of the day. After a day on the water, he takes one of those washcloths, wets it substantially and, without ringing it out too much, wipes down all his gear—drying it with a fresh and dry cloth from the towel rack and leaving the gear out of the cases to dry.

Hanuman, Velsheda, Sveja, Lionheart, and Topaz lined up at the start of the 2017 J Class World Championships, in Newport. Canon EOS D5 Mark IV; 125 mm lens; f/6.3; 1/2000; ISO 500

Condensation Considerations

If shooting in colder climates, van der Wal will leave his gear in a colder area—not in a warm cabin—removing the batteries, so that the gear will not have to spend too much time acclimating and getting fogged up. “You can lose 20-40 minutes with those big lenses getting acclimatized to 30 degrees, and you might just lose that perfect shot of the iceberg with the albatross or whatever.” The same applies to leaving an air-conditioned cabin in the tropics, you’ll want to keep your gear out of the A/C so that it doesn’t fog up when you come out on deck.

Intrepid sailing during the 2015 12 Metre North Americans, held in Newport, with American Eagle and Nefertiti in the distance. Canon EOS 5D Mark III; 24-70 mm lens; f/9; 1/800; ISO 200

Protect Your Data

After a day on the water, van der Wal will download all of his images to his laptop using a Lexar card reader. If a client needs photos immediately for social media, he uses Photo Mechanic to export a few files and then he backs up all the photos on an external hard drive so that he has two copies. If he is in a “shaky hotel” or area, he will take the external hard drive with him to dinner in case the “cleaning staff cleans out the room, plus all of the gear, so I just have the photos of what we spent $10,000 on—chartering a boat, a helicopter, and five models—so you don’t come back to the room and find everything missing.” Back in the Newport home office, van der Wal then downloads all his assignment images from his traveling hard drive to a Synology 12 bay NAS system.

van der Wal’s travel and office storage workflow have been perfected after years of shooting and traveling and being cautious so as not to lose any data ever, be it while on the road or in the office.

The 100-foot Comanche, built, designed, and skippered by Ken Read, on its maiden voyage out of Newport on its way to the Sydney/Hobart race in Australia. Canon EOS 1DX; 70-200mm f/2.8 lens; f/5.6; 1/3200; ISO 1000

About Onne van der Wal

van der Wal was an amateur photographer when he was sailing as bowman and engineer on 76' maxi sloop Flyer, in the 1981-1982 Whitbread Round the World sailboat race. Because of his photo experience, he was asked to document life on Flyer’s victorious 124-day circumnavigation, for a sailing magazine. For 10 years, until 1987, van der Wal raced ocean-going sailboats, logging the Whitbread, 10 trans-Atlantic crossings, and more than 150,000 miles on the sea before moving ashore to be a photographer full time. This experience allows him to work seamlessly with sailing crews and boat owners to get the best shot possible. With his wife, Tenley, van der Wal operates his business and runs a gallery on Bannisters Wharf, in Newport, Rhode Island, taking assignments and teaching workshops all over the world.

Onne van der WalMeg Heriot

van der Wal’s gear list

Canon bodies:
Canon EOS 5D MK IV cameras with BG-E20 grips (3)
Canon C200 video camera
GoPro HERO5 cameras (5)
Canon Large format Prograf printers

Canon lenses:
Canon EF 14mm f/2.8L II USM
Canon EF 8-15mm f/4 L Fisheye USM
Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USMCanon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
Canon 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
Canon EF 100-400mm f/4L IS II USM
Canon EF 200-400 f/4L IS USM w/ 1.4x Extender.

Manfrotto/Bogen/Gitzo carbon tripods + heads and LED lights
Think Tank camera & gear bags (wheelie, backpack, tripod, drone, and briefcase)
Aquatech underwater housing
Lexar CF, SD, Micro SD cards
EasyRig video camera support rig
Kenyon K8 Gyro for video work
Westscott Icelight 2 portable led lights
Breakthrough Polarizer and ND filters
Synology RAID back-up HD system
Zhik sailing clothing

Apex 25-foot RHIB chase boat with 225 hp Honda outboard
Apple Mac computers (Mac Book and Mac Pro)


I've been a fan of van der Wal's work for a long time too.  In fact as I was starting to get serious about photographing sailing events, I attended one of his on the water classes (2012 Classic Yacht Regatta).  I have to tell you he is a master and freely parts with lots of great advice.  He does a great job of providing 1 on 1 instruction to everyone on board at one point or another too, and I have to tell you, though I never saw him giving instructions to the driver, he put that boat right where we needed to be to get GREAT shots all day.  

Oh yes, I agree that the best photographer will never get the shot if he doesn't have a good driver & chase boat.  

I've been a fan of van der Wal's work for a long time.  His unique eye for both subject and composition, and his excellent skills with color balance, is refreshing in a field with far too many "same shots" and over-saturation.  He knows his subject, and it definitely shows in his work.

- Chuck Lantz

Agreed,wonderful shots. Questioning a location though.Six J's were in Bermuda,not Newport?   

Hey Paul,

According to the internet and Onne's website, the J Class World Championship was hosted by the New York Yacht Club and the races happened in Newport, Rhode Island from August 21 - August 26, 2017. I am a bit annoyed that I missed the races! Spectacular yachts!

the J's were in Newport for the J Class World Championships last summer ( Aug 22nd through the 25th.  I got this shot just as Onne exited the right side of the frame....

Nice shot, John!

Check out Onne's shot of 5 of the J's all lined up flying their spinnakers in the slideshow. That's the Newport Bridge in the background... I had a much different view of that lineup..... still it was an awesome event to be involved with....

I forgot to include a high-five for van der Wal's comments about the importance of RHIB drivers, and especially the different types of drivers.  The observations are spot-on!  Nothing can make a day of shooting, or spoil it, like a good or bad driver.  The downside of having a bad driver goes beyond missing shots, since if your driver really screws-up out there, YOU are the person who will get all the blame and all the heat, and not the driver.  Which is only fair, I guess, since the photographer is supposed to be in charge. Sort of. 

Good point, Chuck! Of course, in a court of law, the vessel's master is responsible for the safety and well being of the crew (including paying charter guests) and the safety of his or her craft, so, even though the photographer would get the blame for a bone-headed accident, the skipper of the vessel would have to answer any legal challenges.

But, everyone would remember the photographer's name...not the young random RHIB driver. If the photographer owns the RHIB and provides the driver, guess who gets all of the blame? :)

The driver is in charge of his boat - most times us photographers are only guests on their boats (either a direct charter or on a boat provided by the organization putting on the event).  The trick is getting a driver that knows racing and knows just how close to the action they can go.  Then there must be interaction between both the photographer and the driver to plan where the boat needs to be in order to get the shot that the photographer has in his head.... Its a dance that I'm only just learning, luckily I get to regularly shoot with several much more seasoned pro photographers who are very good at communicating with our drivers... From what I've been told, everything I just talked about regarding boats is also true with helicopters except the cost is several orders of magnitude above that of a chase boat (still on my bucket list though). 

Hey John,

If I can recall my college course in maritime law, the driver is not always the master/captain/skipper of the vessel. If you charter a boat and the company you are chartering the vessel from provides crew, one member of that crew will be designated as responsible for the safe operation of the vessel. If you own a boat and hire a crew to operate the vessel, a person should be designated as the crew member responsible for the operation of the vessel. If you own a boat and hire a deck hand or helmsman and do not designate them as the vessel's master while you are on board, you are responsible for the operation of the vessel.

This is why history is littered with the names and wrecked reputations of vessel masters who have suffered collisions or groundings since the begging of time and not the names of the quartermasters of those vessels.

In an aircraft, the same rules apply. The operator at the controls might do something dumb or worse, but the aircraft commander is ultimately responsible for the safe operation of the aircraft.

(All of the above is simplified, of course. I am not a lawyer, but I have skippered and crewed racing yachts, chase boats, photo boats, and helicopters.)

Well said, Chuck! I agree!