Round the Island Yacht Race tomorrow

29/06/2012
Tomorrow (30.6.12) sees the annual Round the Island yacht race take place for this year. I have been photographing this glorious spectacle for a couple of decades now, both on the water and from the land. With in excess of 1500 yachts of all shapes and sizes circumnavigating the Isle of Wight battling against or with the varying tides, wind, sea states and navigation obstructions, not least the numerous shallows and ship wrecks close to the island, it is truly a trial of boat, crew and teamwork.

I’ve seen massive professionally crewed trimarans travelling sideways through the Hurst channel purely on the current with no wind and conversely small yachts crewed by family members driving through the choppy seas around the Needles lighthouse with a real howler blowing. It is one of those few events where the amateur yachtsman or woman can battle it out against well funded professionally equipped yachts and crews to test their seamanship.

Photographing yachts from the land can be rewarding. For the RTI my favourite place is Hurst Spit near Milford on Sea. This is the closest mainland point to the Isle of Wight where the waters funnel in and out through the channel with a right old rip. Getting there for most means a 25 minute walk along the shingle bank to the historic fort which dates back to King Henry V111’s time. The first site of the approaching yachts occurs around an hour from the start time at Cowes, but you also need to find your position and set up, so leave more time to get there than you think.

The first yachts which are always the fastest and invariably the biggest, arrive and depart Hurst very quickly. There are usually a number of spectator boats milling around also so photographically I will usually run some test shots to get my eye in well before the competing crews arrive. Trying to anticipate the yacht movements; their direction of travel and tacking points, is a worthwhile exercise in timing your shutter release.

Initially I set up on the southern end of the spit overlooking Prince Albert Fort on the Island. Then, when the first yachts have departed I move to the eastern side. You will usually find that the class fleets barrel up towards this point near the Keyhaven River entrance before tacking out into the Channel and on towards the Needles. Watching a fleet of Contessa close hauled almost onto the beach before they all tack seemingly as one into the confused choppy seas of the Hurst Channel is always a sight to behold. Extending a few hundred metres off the south west point of the spit is the Trap, an area of very confused seas which often catches a number of competitors out and for us photographers provides some interesting action also.

On the Island, the Old Battery above the Needles, St Catherine’s Point or from Cowes for the finish also provide good vantage points. Aa an alternative, never underestimate the advantage of the extra height provided by the ferries for photography as they ply you as a passenger across the Solent to or from the Island.

If you are fortunate enough to be photographing the race from a boat, this adds an all new dimension to the images. Most of my yacht photography is undertaken from a press boat nowadays or a chartered boat, RIB and skipper for the day. For the past two years, (and again this year), I charter a 40 foot motor launch to cover the event. The boat is licensed to carry 12 passengers, so I offer a number of places for clients to ‘Join Me’ and capture the action, although I limit the number to just 6, allowing plenty of photography room on board and space in the cabin for a coffee, flapjack or simply to sit down for a while. You can read about the Join Me yacht events on the Workshop page of the site.

So what’s it like photographing on board? Well, the first thing is that you are moving, the boat is moving, not just forward or back but up and down and side to side! Add in the fact that the yachts you are photographing are also moving up and down and side to side whilst driving through the waves and you can see that tripods are not required!

First and foremost, you need to be warm and dry so a good number of layers and waterproof clothing and footwear are de rigueur. If there is the slightest possibility that you may feel unwell with the motion, then a trip to your doctor or pharmacist for some suitable anti sea sickness pills is required and then follow the advice to enable them to work. They usually need a good few hours to kick in.

Once on board, accept a safety briefing by the skipper, before setting off into the Solent to photograph the racing. I take my own life jacket, but if you don’t have one, take heed where the boat’s life jackets are – it may save your life!

On the way out, I will usually fire some test shots on passing boats to get my eye in. The actual position chosen for photographing depends on the conditions of both sea state and wind direction. If the crews are beating into a south westerly for instant, then sitting off Alum Bay can be good as they tack up to the Needles.

Again the conditions dictate the camera speeds. If everything is moving around greatly then fast speeds in excess of 1/1000th second are generally required, but if it is a little more sedate, then slower speeds may be tolerated. I have my camera set on aperture priority and usually find that F5.6-F8 provides the depth of field necessary, with occasional forays opened up to F2.8 for other images. If the speed isn’t fast enough with these apertures, then I will increase my ISO accordingly as the third part of the exposure triangle. Generally, as most of the racing takes place in daylight, then very high ISO are not required.

I frequently check the histogram and adjust exposure accordingly to avoid burnt out areas whilst accepting that the odd sparkly highlight is to be expected – it’s what we see. Also, I religiously check focus by zooming in on the monitor. Movement is the biggest problem so getting a handle on the acceptable speed to avoid blur is very important.

I use a mixture of auto and manual focus but don’t use focus tracking as the waves can cause issues I have found. Likewise, personally I don’t use continuous shooting mode preferable single shot but that’s just me. Other photographers do and the sound of 10 frames per second from their cameras does become rancorous sometimes.

I recommend getting some form of waterproof cover for your camera. This can be as basic as a plastic bag or sophisticated as a bespoke breathable cover – it’s your choice. I have covers but usually don’t use them, but then I shoot professionally and the cameras are tools of the trade. That doesn’t mean I am blasé about them, but generally not as precious about them as some are, understandably. I do however use electrical tape over all the doors, covers and especially the flash area including over the hot shoe itself as protection from ingress and get my cameras serviced quite often! (Any adhesive left by the tape can be removed afterwards quite easily.)

A chamois leather and/or a towel is also good to wipe down your camera with together with dry lint free wipes or lens cloths. If the camera does get a soaking, the towel is usually the first choice in soaking up the initial excess.

As salt in the sea water is an abrasive, you don’t want to be constantly wiping the expensive coating off the lens front element itself! Therefore, I recommend a sacrificial clear or UV filter is placed on the lens. These are easier and cheaper to replace than you lenses.

The most used lenses will likely be a standard zoom (24-70mm) and mid telephoto (70-200mm). I will add to this a wide angle in the 18-20mm (on full frame) range but I try to limit swopping lenses for obvious reasons. I will therefore use two camera bodies to share amongst the lenses. Plenty of memory cards and fully charged batteries and spare go without saying. A polariser is very useful and for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t use neutral density graduated filters.

All my photographic kit is kept in a bespoke foam lined Overboard waterproof bag. Normal photographic bags get wet, even with waterproof covers because the covers are not all enveloping generally. Some people use Peli type flight cases or ice boxes (think about it, totally waterproof), but I find them too cumbersome.

A good pair of sunglasses is useful as it does get very bright and also, if you do wear spectacles or sunglasses, tie them onto a cord to put around your neck so they don’t fall off into the water.

As a general safety note, no image is worth endangering yourself, so in that vein, always have the availability to have three points of contact with the boat.

Yacht photography is very satisfying and when you get a good image, that really makes the effort worthwhile. I love it. With the Westward Cup in the bag already, the Round the Island tomorrow, down to Falmouth next week for the Pendennis Cup, Back in the Solent for the Panerai British Classic Yacht regatta, then the magnificent J class yachts, Superyacht Cup, Aberdeen Asset Management Cowes Week, before the Olympics before setting off for the Mediterranean and the Regates Royales at Cannes, it is a busy year.

Keep Practicing

I am

Ian Badley