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What they don’t tell you about sailing photography by Liesl King

It started almost exactly like my sailing career.  “Why don’t you hop on one of the support boats and come take some photos of us racing today? It will be fun.” You’d have thought that by now I should be fully aware that anybody that uses water, boats and the word fun in one sentence is probably not entirely sane. Yet what did I do? I said yes, I would love to! Go figure.

It all sounded so romantic, you see?  It even sounded like FUN.  Sitting demurely on a gently bobbing boat, camera in hand as a colourful fleet raced by in the distance. Hence, I presented myself at the Waterfront marina at the appointed hour. Getting to the Waterfront? No problem. Getting down to the RIB I was supposed to be on, an entirely different story. “Phone me when you get here, and I will let you in.” The magic words that were supposed to get me into the Fort Knox of boat marinas, complete with sliding glass doors and two fierce looking security guards.

Now that is all very well, until you get “Mr So and So is currently unavailable” in the dulcet tones of the phone company. A couple of frantic WhatsApp messages later (also unread and unanswered), I decide there is nothing for it but to storm the glass door bastion. After all I had been warned that said RIB would leave on the appointed hour and would not be waiting even one second for me, so best I be on time. Right, all that was left was to “fake it till you make it”. So I slung my newly acquired waterproof bag over my shoulder, assumed a bored yachtie look (don’t ask) and sauntered up to the unsmiling security guard. I smiled, kept walking and just like that the glass doors slid silently open, letting me through.

Now if I had known it was going to be that easy, I would definitely not have wasted 20 minutes impatiently but politely waiting to be fetched. Still one lives and learns. I descend down to the frenzied activity on the jetty below and thankfully spot a familiar face. Tina Plattner and I have a shared history in racehorses, riding horses and now it seems boats as well. In fact, it was her support RIB that I was about to get a ride on. Well that was until she had a proper look at me. “You are not going out in that, are you?”

Apparently, a warm waterproof jacket, jeans and the obligatory sailing shoes were not the proper gear. But I was only going to sit there demurely and snap the odd chocolate box picture, wasn’t I?  It seemed not. The next minute I was handed a numbered black set of foul weather gear, clearly labelling me a member of team Phoenix. “Put these on, you are going to get wet!”  Wet? Who said anything about getting wet? I wasn’t going to be doing anything was I? “My RIB is very wet and out there you will need these.” Famous last words.

Yep Tina was one hundred percent correct! Her RIB is VERY WET, in fact so wet, that if one is travelling at speed to get out to sea, get to a mark or chase the fleet around, you get fire hosed. And there is really no way to escape that, other than to turn around, thus letting your back enjoy the deep tissue seawater massage instead of your face. All I can say is I have never been so thankful for the loan of a set of foul weather gear! Hence tip number one – buy a set of proper foul weather gear, down to knee high boots, if you want to become a sailing photographer.

Yeah, you are definitely going to look out of place in your full, foul weather outfit, when you clomp down to the jetty on a lovely sunny day with ten knots of wind, but you will thank me later.

Once out there the real fun starts and sadly it does not include sitting prettily taking chocolate box photos. Oh no, you see support boats are just that, they support the racing boats.  So in between taking photos (there is some of that I promise), you will be expected to assist in handing over cooler bags full of food, drinks, tools, sail bags or anything else that might be required by the crew of the racing boat that you are looking after.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it.

There is just this one slight problem. Racing boats are rather fragile creatures, so coming alongside to hand anything over requires delicate manoeuvring. They also don’t stop. They are perpetually moving. You begin to see the problem? It goes something like this. Liesl, can you hand over the drinks bag please? “Sure, give me a moment?”  I pop my camera back into its waterproof bag, clip it firmly to the boat with a carabiner, thus avoiding it leaping overboard without me, and scramble forward over spare sails, booms, and whatever else we happen to be carrying.

Then, while holding the rather heavy bag filled with at least 8 litres of fluid, I park myself on the bow, leaning over as far as I can with the bag dangling. RIB driver then, in theory, brings us alongside the racing boat without touching it and at an appropriate speed. A designated crew member then leans over and casually grabs the bag from me, as I swing it towards him and hopefully before I manage to drop it in the water. It sounds so simple and it is, on a calm day. Now add a 4 meter swell and 20 knots of wind and you start getting a different picture. As we go up the racing boat goes down.  The wind has them flying along even under bare poles and now the exercise requires the precision and skill of a Formula One driver in the stern and the strength of a weightlifter on the bow.

Still, I can happily report that I have become an expert in handing over drinks bags, lunch bags and even a spinnaker bag in the wildest of conditions. Speaking of conditions, that is the next thing they don’t tell you about photographing sail boats. Tip number two – if you get seasick at all, sailing photography is not for you. It is that simple. Firstly to get great shots you have to stand. That entails placing your hopefully properly-clad-in-sailing-boots-with-extra-grip feet on either side of the mound of equipment in the RIB, locking your knees and standing with both hands holding the camera, without going overboard.

Much harder than it sounds. RIBs are notoriously bouncy in bad weather. They also become very wet in such conditions. And standing on a wet, bouncy boat, holding a heavy camera with both hands, means you can’t hold on. Thus going overboard becomes a real and present danger. Hence it is advisable to always wear a personal floatation device. But back to being seasick! Yes you may be able to handle being on a wet, bouncy, rolling  and rocking deck, camera in hand, but the kicker is still coming.

You see, the swells that often accompany bad weather means that not only is your mode of transport bouncing up and down and from left to right, but the subject you are trying to photograph is doing the same and most certainly not in sync with you. Sadly, looking through a viewfinder at a subject that appears and disappears from view at an alarming rate, while being tossed around in the ocean, is not for anybody that gets even remotely seasick. Thankfully I don’t get seasick, but on those bucking bronco days, even I have to make sure I eat something before I step on a RIB.

Tip number three is one for the ladies. Apart from Tina’s RIB, RIBs do not have toilets. And if you are going to be out all day photographing a series of races, that becomes a problem. Oh it is so easy for the men, but unfortunately even the fanciest ladies foul weather gear, with a smiley zip on its bottom, just doesn’t work when it comes to bouncing support boats on a stormy ocean. So take that bottle of water along but be prepared to be a light drinker or suffer the consequences.

The last thing they don’t tell you about sailing photography is that it actually is fun!  Yes, you will get very wet.  Yes, you will have to develop strong arm muscles.  Yes, you will almost be catapulted overboard while you are trying to get that shot.  But you will also be part of something special, something that very few get to see. Us sailing photographers are truly honoured to be out there. We get to capture the drama, the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat. It is magical. It is special. And I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

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