An Ongoing Inspiration & Challenge

01 copyOn Facebook last December, a friend posted video from the Volvo  Around the World Ocean Race. The images & footage from onboard the boats really got my attention. Racing around the world takes tremendous endurance & the ability to follow it so dramatically got me hooked. When I found out Newport RI was one of 11 stops I began to plan a road trip to photograph these amazing boats.

02Last Summer I failed at connecting with Tall Ships as they were passing thru the Great Lakes. With a defined departure date from Narragansett Bay in Mid May, I was not going to miss a chance to get some shots of these unique boats. I established a connection with John Lincourt, a RI photographer with a portfolio of great sailing images. He provided me with some valuable info. Things work out better when you can talk to someone with both experience & local knowledge to develop a plan.

03Sailboats are a subject I enjoy watching as well as taking photographs of. Not only are their numerous types of boats but they offer a diversity of forms that are unique. The only other forms I can compare them to in my mind’s eye are dancers. Since I own a small sailboat & have done a bit of sailing I recognize the challenge of capturing the unseen power of the wind to guide your boat. Although photos from onboard a sailboat are OK, in my opinion the real beauty is seen from another boat or the shore.

04 7D2L9029 last saturdayOn Saturday they had an In-Port-Race. With only a very minor impact on the scoring for the competition it was really more of a dog & pony show for host cities to promote. Even in the rain crowds lined the shore & filled the fleet of spectator boats. I had decided to buy a seat on a Ferry for this event  This gave me a somewhat elevated position above the fleet of fans. On Sunday, as they started the race leg across the Atlantic to Whales, I took images from shore near Ft. Adams.

05These boats are a custom design for one thing. Sail around the world as fast as possible. If you’re not familiar with sailing take my word these things fly through the water. Slicing thru waves for 600 miles in 24 hours must be one heck of a ride! They have almost nothing in common with my lil 15 foot day-sailor other than they both float. The 3 dome shaped antennas on the stern provide a link via satellite for vital weather info as well as a uploading images & footage. With 5 fixed video cameras & an embedded photojournalist, each team gave updates from all over the worlds oceans. The technology & the effort to capture & distribute this 9-month event is unlike anything I have ever heard of. It makes video coverage of a marathon look easy.

06I knew the basics of racing sailboats having read a bit about America’s Cup & seen a few on Chautauqua. When I saw Narragansett Bay I realized this was about as perfect a venue as possible for holding a port race because of the locations for spectators to watch along Ft. Adams. I’m sure that without rain or fog it would be stunning. On the upside, the poor weather did soften the background. The decision to be on the Ferry on Saturday was indeed the right choice. Watching 2 of these monsters sail thru the crowded spectator boats was a demonstration of amazing confidence.

07It was a personal challenge to frame tight because I think the beauty is in the wide shot with the wind shaping the sails. However, having viewed many sailing images prior to my trip I understood the power of a tight shot without the complete sailing rig. This is especially true when the boat is horizontal to the camera or coming right at you.

07aRD Turn tideNaturally, on an event as big & as expensive as this, sponsorship by businesses & organizations is necessary. I’m not a fan of the NASCAR type of branding but I understand it provides the financial support to make it happen. Turn The Tide on Plastic sails under the flag of the United Nations & is sponsored by foundations seeking to raise awareness of our oceans health. It was the only boat with a woman skipper.

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A unique aspect of trying to find the best sailing shots is the diversity of perspectives. In my perfect image, the horizon should not interfere which ideally would mean a position high enough to see only water in the background. This requires either a drone…I’m not buying another toy…or shooting from a helicopter, which is a very pricey platform. Ignoring the poor weather conditions this is about as close as I came to my “dream” shot.

09This is the crew that won it all 6 weeks later. As with any world-class competition, racing sailboats requires a level of experience, dedication & daring that only a handful of individuals can muster. To do it for over 45,000 nautical miles over 9 months makes it one of the most demanding sporting events any human can undertake. In the 13 races of this event since 1973, 9 people have lost their lives. John Fisher, one of the crew on Scallywag, was knocked overboard in the middle of the Southern Pacific Ocean. RIP

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As the boats headed off across the Atlantic for a 3300-mile sprint to Wales I felt a sense of accomplishment. I was not inspired to take up or closely follow sailboat racing. However, the imagery of sailboats remains an elusive photographic goal. I learned a great deal more about this event; I had made good decisions in my planning & I had expanded my understanding of personal motivations. Most rewarding, I got a few nice shots.

Pursuit of a Passion

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Newport is a city on an island. That means 3 things. #1 Water. #2 Boats. #3 Bridge. The bridge did not interest me but the water & the boats, specifically sailboats, is something I’ve been drawn to for a long time.

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My initial attraction to this historical sailing center was America’s Cup in 1977 won by Courageous captained by Ted Turner. When I saw pictures of the 12 meter boats that raced off of Newport I was enamored with their form, beauty & grace. As a teenager, I had been on a few sailboats enjoying being on the water powered only by the wind. I also admired the way they added a nice visual element to views of Chautauqua. When the leprechauns of logistics & scheduling fell onto my calendar this past May, Newport was a road-trip destination that couldn’t be ignored.

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I found out about a layover in RI of astonishing sailboats that were racing around the world. They had a scheduled in-harbor-race the day before starting the next leg of the 9 month race. More about The Volvo in my mid-September post. These boats do not have the grace of a 12-meter, but these thoroughbreds are FAST. They easily can more than double the speed of a 12-meter. While most sailing speed increase has been with multi-hulls & hydrofoil boats, Volvo 65’s are a dramatic upgrade to a classic mono-hull design. OBTW The building on shore was a summer playhouse of Jacqueline Bouvier.

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From Connecticut north most of the towns on the Atlantic coast are not very large & all have a history with the sea. Newport is no exception. Rhode Island was established on the principles of religious freedom as well as the separation of church & state after a radical priest was banished from Boston in 1636.

05 copyNewport was an ideal summer retreat for wealthy. At the height of the industrial revolution, plantation owners from the south & affluent families from NYC were lured to there with its cool consistent breezes. Yacht racing was a pastime of this elite crowd & it became the on-the-water clubhouse home of the New York Yacht Club. From 1930 to 1983 the Americas Cup Challenge & Defense were held off the coast of this ideal sailing port.

06 copyWhile the wealthy still come to their summer cottages in Newport, many of the mansions symbolic of the Gatsby era of wealth are now museums. The grandiose architecture that identified enormous wealth is indeed impressive & well worth strolling Bellevue Ave. to see how the 1% of the previous century lived. While I may be taken back by the amount of money it took to build these get-away homes I am glad that some of the wealthy still spend big bucks on sailboats. Priorities.

07But for me this trip, this destination was about sailboats. An opportunity to purse a subject with my camera I toughly enjoy. Ft. Adams is an excellent venue to host a event that is centered around the water. It has lots of space & good views of the boats on the natural harbor of Narragansett Bay. This State Park also has hosted music festivals including one where a kid named Bob Dylan shocked the world of Folk music by picking up his electric guitar.

08When I first arrived on site the schooner Adirondack II was the 1st boat to catch my eye. Coincidentally it was the boat I had booked an afternoon sail on the day after the 7 Volvo boats departed the natural Harbor of Narragansett Bay. Always in search of the perfect image I realized that my 100-400 was the perfect lens but the backgrounds were going to be a distraction. It took me a while but soon I was concentrating on the subject while trying to ignore the distractions. I’m learning to accept the things I can’t change.

09The reduced waterline of the dual hulls of catamarans makes them inherently faster than mono hulls. Comparatively less expensive than other high-end high-speed demons the M32 class of boats has a sail area to weight ratio that makes it a very popular racer. Here in Newport sponsors & paying guests could go for a spin with a crew. I wouldn’t turn down a chance to ride on one but if I had to choose between this or a slower 12-meter it is an easy decision. I am old-school fond of mono hulls.

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I am still shocked that there are professional racing sailors. I guess if you grew up around the coast where this sport is common it is a little bit easier to understand. Like any other sport or skill it is helpful to start when you are young.

11For me the passion for a wind powered boat isn’t about speed. It is not about the competitive rush of racing. My enthusiasm of sailing is about harnessing the unseen force of the wind to control where you are going on the water. With my camera it is about the soft forms of the sails & the lines on the boat blending with the natural world as they cut thru the waves on a sunny day.