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.

The Triple Play of Motivation

01I arrived before the doors opened at The Mystic Harbor Seaport Museum & saw bird activity in a rain garden. I noticed a frequent landing area & snapped off some decent images. Watching them fly on the breeze was a prelude for seeing some old sailboats.

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The signature exhibit is the Charles W. Morgan. Like most boats large or small they don’t make pretty pictures sitting at the dock. Built in 1841 she is the last wooden whaling ship. Voyages lasted from 9 months to 5 years during her 80 years of hunting whales. The Seaport took 3 years to make her seaworthy & she sailed on her 38th voyage to New England seaports in 2013. If I hear the Morgan is going to be setting sail, a repeat of my last road trip may be in order.

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Last Summer I made an unsuccessful attempt at getting images of the replica Norwegian Longship the Draken Harald sailing on the Great Lakes. With a symmetrical bow & stern powered by a single square sail, she is a style of a boat not seen on the water for hundreds of years. After taking the Erie Canal across New York last fall she ended up at Mystic for the winter. Images of her at the dock without a sail are blah. However, the detail of the craftsmanship put into the ornamented patterns is very impressive.

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Who doesn’t enjoy the sounds of a good sea shanty? The rhythm of the songs was used onboard ships to coordinate the hauling of the many lines for the sails. They were work songs where lyrics & tempo were customized for the task. I didn’t learn if the position of shanty-man was assigned or earned by a member of the crew. If I could go back in time I think that is a job for me.

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Using nothing but hand tools, barrel makers during the 1800’s are a testament to the ability of human craftsmanship. When these barrels were full of the oil processed from the blubber of whales the ship would return home. For some ships that would be 80,000 gallons. The discovery of less expensive petroleum in Titusville, PA replaced the markets for whale oil. Trying to comprehend how close we came to the extinction of whales just because we had to fill these barrels with oil makes me question the judgment & motivation of the industry surrounding this short-sighted business.

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I would occasionally get a call from a friend about producing a video that I would make enough money to buy “that wooden sailboat I had dreamed of.” He didn’t understand that the purchase price is only a small part of the equation. My respect & thanks go to all of those that routinely do the maintenance on these gorgeous yachts. During WWII the schooner Brilliant was a submarine patrol boat. Now she is an offshore classroom for teaching seamanship.

07The Seaport Museum is really a port village with shops, working craftsmen & displays of nautical history. I was anticipating seeing their collection of figureheads. I was less than thrilled with the lighting & the room but surprised at the diversity.

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I knew Mystic was a working shipyard but taken back when I saw the current project of rehabbing the Mayflower II. This 60-year-old replica of the boat that brought pilgrims to Plymouth almost 400 years ago is big. It is 106 feet long with a displacement of 236 tons. It is a unique opportunity for the 30 plus workers who are involved in making this vessel seaworthy. Sailboat, wood & history…yea this place is a three-fer for my inspiration. Maybe I will plan a return trip in 2019 when the Mayflower sails for Plymouth to get sunrise images of her on the water.

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Accurate time is something we take for granted. Long before GPS satellites, the only way to navigate at sea was by taking settings of the sun or stars with a sextant & plugging that info into an equation. Part of that equation requires using the precise time. Making accurate clocks that could work on land like this one were easy compared to the challenge of making a chronometer that would work aboard a ship sailing long distances. An Englishman, John Harrison was a self-educated watchmaker & carpenter who solved the problem of east/west navigation in the 1770’s by making a clock accurate to within a minute over 50 days. The cost of these devices was 30% of the cost of a boat. My time wandering through sailing history by was priceless.