From Sailor to Shooter


Dramatic photographs, taken from the edges of racing yachts in rough seas or from the outsides of helicopters, have won international acclaim for Onne van der Wal, who grew up in Cape Town’s Hout Bay. His work has been displayed in calendars, magazines and in galleries around the world. It all began with a chance encounter with a group of suit-wearing men in a rowing boat.

He explains: “I had done a fitting and turning apprentice in the Epping, in Cape Town. But 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 into 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 recalls. “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. And seized his chance. “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. 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 says. “They were my first commercial sales.”

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