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You have to be there

Eating cold baked beans in the pouring rain on the banks of the River Wye on the final night of a 50 mile canoeing trip was an experience I shall remember for a long time. I already have. It was over 35 years ago and part of the Duke of Edinburgh Gold expedition award I undertook in my teens. All our supplies: tent, food, clothing, etc was packed into the canoes for the three days and nights trip. Cold. Wet. Tired. Blistered. Hard work. Good fun - even making time to ferry glide up Symonds Yat as well as down - and of course, character building. Again in my teens, sailing a 14ft Bosun dinghy across to the Isle of Wight from the mainland for the first time was another memorable experience. I was crewed with a nutty schoolmate from New Zealand whose main aim was to see how many times we could capsize on the trip. He was so annoying! Then just a few years ago, sailing at night across the Channel in heavy wind and rough seas, helming for over 7 hours due to the ‘mal de mer’ of other crewmates is another I bring out over a glass or two of 12 year old Bowmore. (That’s my favourite tipple by the way, a little smoky and a little salty).

This year’s Round the Island race will also stick in the memory of many . This year’s annual race for sailing yachts circumnavigating the 70+ miles around that time warp Isle of Wight, saw a record entry of over 1900 yachts. We were there! Not taking part but taking photos. I had chartered a 40ft work boat again and was joined by fellow photographers eager to capture the action. Meeting at 6:00am on a windy, quayside at Lymington, rain in the air and leaden clouds scudding across the sky at great speed produced apprehensive compatriots. Some of these clients of mine had been with me at Cowes Week last year. Some were virgins. You always know their state of mind when discussion over coffee turns to when they last took their ‘Quells’ as opposed to what camera and lenses they were using! Anyway, safety briefing over we headed out.

The first boats started from Cowes at 6:00am so the plan was to get out just inside the Needles to welcome them. The wind over tide conditions however made it prudent and more comfortable for us to wait their arrival inside Hurst Castle to start with as the usual ‘Solent chop’ was exacerbated by the conditions. Storming towards us the first of the fast boats appeared. Pre the trip I had emailed out details of how to protect the cameras and lenses, and on the run out here, I had suggested suitable shoot settings - aperture and speed etc- to capture the action, which was fast approaching. It is a totally different discipline taking images of bucking, slewing, yawing boats in a choppy sea with 35knot gusts when you are also on a bucking, slewing, yawing boat in a choppy sea with 35knot gusts! My frequent questioning to attest the clients wellbeing and comfort was met with affirmative responses so we held station and memory cards continued to be filled with gay abandon.

With so many yachts taking part, the question of which ones to shoot tested us. As is usual in these conditions, a fair few shots do not pass muster and the skill of anticipation and timing, surprisingly similar to waiting for clouds and sunlight to come into position for landscapes, came to the fore. As the tide eased we headed off to the Needles, those iconic white cliffs of rock and the now unmanned, (dirty,) red and white striped lighthouse so synonymous with the Island.. We were in good company, there being no less than three RNLI crews standing by there. With the waves freer here, their fetch was greater, less choppy, but much larger! Our skipper, Richard, expertly manoeuvring the launch through the powerful towering waves to keep us in a good position for our shots. Many tried to capture images of the yachts in the wave troughs. Some even succeeded! The rolling waves ever approaching the back of the boat, the boat pitching up and down continually climbing the peaks and descending down the back of the waves caused problems for the auto focus systems used by some. Ways round these problems were sought and offered. How much depth of field? Is the speed faster enough? That old exposure triangle and the reciprocal changes that occur start to have more urgent meaning out here. A totally new ball game and set of disciplines to learn and effect. Challenging certainly. Rewarding? It’s that buzz you get when you know you’ve got one in the bag. Full elation.

All the crew were comfortable even finding time to grab a bite to eat in the sheltered cabin before motoring down to the race finish off Cowes. Now all talk of Mal de Mer had subsided and shots were eagerly offered for view. Discussions concerning apertures, depth of field, speed and focus had increased throughout the morning as initial apprehensions left the thought processes. The VHF radio was alive with Mayday and Pan Pan distress calls, mainly from the south of the Island. Our skippers conservative, safe, and pragmatic approach kept us comfortable. The competitors provided the action.

The run back into Lymington was exhilarating. Spray flying as the launch sped back to home port. A good day of photography. Challenging conditions for us and even more so for the competitors. Later that evening I received an email from one of my clients who attended. Prior to the event, as one of the first timers of the day, his enquiries highlighted his apprehension. The evening email however read, “ Did I enjoy the day? Hmmmm Can you book me in for the Cowes Week trip!”

Definitely a day to recount. The experience was amazing. I have photographed yacht racing in many seas and weather conditions but the spectacle of so many yachts in such conditions will remain for many years to come.

We all need excitement and we can get it with our photography. Just because it is blowing a hooly doesn’t mean we have to sit inside all warm and cosy. Live a little. Get out and about whether for land or seascapes. Push yourself and the camera. Think about the most dramatic pictures you have seen. They are nearly all taken in dramatic weather. Don’t put yourself at risk or danger though, no shot is worth that. But if you are not there, you are not going to get the shot!

Keep practising
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