On the cover of the Rolling Stone?
Have you ever felt like you’ve been preparing for something your entire life?
When it happens, then what?
Am I the only one who’s had that nagging feeling for… pretty much ever- the little voice that says, “you can do more”?
When I started at community college, prior to transferring into a 4-year program, Dad gifted me a brand new Canon AE-1 35mm SLR camera, with a couple of lenses. He knew I’d signed up for a photography class and was aware I’d had a latent interest for a while. As it was one of his hobbies, and he loved any excuse to buy toys, it worked for both of us. That gift started me on the path to a passion.
Followed by more cameras- More Canon’s, a Nikon at one point, small and large, Panasonic, Fuji… I’ve left a trail of discarded photo tech scattered across the timeline and landscape for over 40 years. I ended up initially studying photojournalism and ultimately transferred into a Photography & Graphic Design program. Days spent out shooting, nights in the dark room. That became the rhythm in school. I loved it. Color, B/W, 35mm, 120mm, large format- it didn’t matter. I loved every step in the process of creating images.
Once graduation came though, there was a crisis of confidence. Making pretty pictures is one thing. Making a living at them is another entirely. I’d briefly harbored dreams of a life as an adventure photographer – traveling the world for one of the big magazines- Nat Geo was high on the list- but economic downturns, life’s unexpected twists, said it wasn’t in the cards.
For a period of several years, I put the cameras on a shelf. It felt like a fresh crisis of time and commitment shifted the priorities again. Other pursuits took over and for most of the 90’s, image creation was a rare thing. Flyfishing and sailing became the preferred outlets. By the summer of 2000, the trigger finger had atrophied. The eye for shape and color and line of composition were just moldy concepts without application.
Just when I thought I’d passed through the creative phase and replaced that urge with other interests, we learned there was going to be an addition to the family! It was early days in digital photography. While I was skittish about learning the new language of ISO (Remember ASA?), DPI, Pixels, not to mention studying the plethora of rapidly evolving digital tools that were tantalizingly just out of reach of the new family budget, I also knew we couldn’t have a new baby without a shiny new camera to record and share every moment with out of state family.
I finally settled on a Canon pro-sumer (another new word) camera and worked at dusting off the shutter finger muscle memory , rewiring a brain that had thought all that was in the past. There’s nothing like a baby to generate inspiration. Suddenly I had the one thing every photographer dreams of- an ever-present, ready and mostly willing subject!
All that time spent on sailboats and waving a stick while standing in a stream through the late 80’s & most of the 90’s, had gone mostly unrecorded. I hadn’t had a camera. Not even a cell phone- remember kids – they hadn’t been invented yet! Having a baby put a camera back in my hands and suddenly, there were image creation opportunities everywhere. A new phase started: the ever-present camera stage. We were about to make up for some lost time, in a major way.
Thousands of photos. Terabytes of files. The beauty, power, and tech of digital photography evolved. Along with the baby came new financial realities and a job change. Leveraging my photography degree, in 2000 I took a sales position at a major West Coast photo lab, here in Seattle. ProLab helped refine my knowledge of the tech and terms. We processed and output large format images from some of the biggest names in photography – Art Wolf, Getty Images, and the like.
I was working at ProLab when the Twin Towers came down. Getty Images was my client. The order came in to output a set of enormous 24” x 36” images shot on the dust and debris-filled streets of New York. 20+ years later, I can still feel the tears and tightness in my chest, watching those huge prints spool off the machines. I have copies in a tube that I pull out occasionally. The emotions never diminish. The power of images crafted in the crucible of life events.
The power of imagery. Since about 2009, I have crewed with a family of sailors in races all over the Sound. I’ve joined a few other boats on occasion as well, but until last year, I was a regular on the deck of their old boat, Family Affair, and helped bring their new boat, Hula Girl, up from San Francisco. They retired this spring and are preparing for a global circumnavigation starting next year. More on that later. Their retirement has opened up a new, unanticipated opportunity. After years of sneaking photos between my duties on deck, risking equipment and the wrath of my fellow crew, not to mention bodily harm, I finally decided to take a flyer.
My favorite race of the year has become one of the largest in the PNW. Round the County takes place in the San Juans. On even years, the race runs clockwise around the islands, reversing direction every year. Until 2021 (COVID canceled the 2020 race), I’d always looked forward to spending the weekend on deck in whatever the weather threw at us. Having finally invested in some higher end gear, knowing I’d never want to risk it or myself on the deck during a race, I reached out to my brother, Dan.
Our youth was spent on commercial fishing boats in Kodiak, seining for herring and salmon in the long summers. I worked on deck, starting in my Sophomore year of high school, first gillnetting and then later on seiners. Fish put us through college. At 15, Dan had become the skiff man for a cape seiner. This meant his days were spent getting knocked around in the slop while dragging 150 fathoms of net and a 58’ fishing boat around sideways, tethered to a raving madman, screaming at him from 100’ away. There isn’t a better finishing school for the guy who’s driving your photography platform.
Dan flew out from his home in Phoenix to join me in the quest for adventure and photos. Sitting at a desk as an engineer, he needed a shot of salty fresh air. That first year was the shakedown. Learning the boat, figuring out the course from a smaller, bouncier deck, and finding the shooting angles. Got some nice images but it was mostly about the education. And the freedom of being able to do just one thing: shoot. Nobody expected me to grab a line, grind a winch, get out of the action- nothing. It was all about me and what I wanted to put in the lens.
2022 was a bluebird year. Which is nice if you’re skiing. Mt Baker blessed us with her pristine white silhouette as a backdrop to brilliant sails. But with very moderate winds, the photos were again “nice”. Not exciting. The action factor was minimal. After crewing for so many years through some intensely dramatic weather, I was determined to capture some of that in my images.
Sometimes it’s wise to be a little cautious in what you wish for…
The forecast for 2023’s race weekend was spicy. Or as the sailors call it, “Sporty”. We later learned that one of the competitors didn’t make it to the starting line. They lost their 33’ Hobie sailboat on the delivery. She went down in the heavy seas crossing. Fortunately, all 5 crew were rescued by the USCG. That was not the weather I’d ordered. But it was what we got.
Saturday morning winds were kicking up to over 20 knots with gusts to 25. That was actually an improvement. Friday morning we’d been told to anticipate winds to 40, which could have cancelled the race. We woke to a small craft advisory. We were in a small craft. Good thing I have a driver who’s done this before. We packed the 21’ HewesCraft with our gear and headed out. It’s a 45-minute run from Friday Harbor out to the starting line at Lydia Shoal, just to the east of the southernmost tip of Orcas Island. We hit a little chop but were able to get to the line with about 20 minutes to spare.
At the starting gun, we were seeing steady winds to 25 knots with occasional gusts to over 30. Definitely sporty. Sailboats love a stiff wind. Get too much, put a reef in the main, and reduce the size of your jib. Get more, do it again. Most sailboats have at least 2 reefs available to reduce their sail area. Some have 3. But this was a downwind start- meaning the wind was at their backs and spinnakers were flying! There are few things more beautiful, terrifying, and chaotic than a sailboat race that starts on a downwind leg. Flying spinnakers is a delicate dance between power, speed, and balance, requiring the full attention of all involved. It has been said by more than one sailing instructor that the spinnaker is the one sail that can sink your boat.
For a sailing photographer, spinnaker starts are spectacular! With strong winds and spinnakers flying, the potential for disaster is heightened. The first 30-40 minutes were relatively uneventful. Then the fleet hit a wind sheer that crossed the course at nearly a 90-degree angle. Spinnakers, like giant balloons, don’t like winds at 90 degrees. Suddenly, sails were blowing up all around- literally. Tattered pennants whipped by the breeze threatened to capsize boats suddenly dwarfed by the raging rags overhead.
Cherokee, a Cal 33 operated by shirttail relatives of mine, was one of the first to feel the wrath. Snap. Snap. Snap. The 10 frames per second capacity of my camera seemed barely adequate to capturing the scenes unfolding around us. Soaked crew were suddenly fighting to stay onboard, struggling to control a sail gone mad, in seas whipped to a froth. Then it was Blade Runner, followed closely by Dulce Domun and Runaway. Kinetic, then Tigger. We watched Tigger’s derailing from a track directly off their stern. Spinnaker in the air. Then in the water. Then deep in the water. Like a deep-sea fishing expedition gone wildly wrong. With a stunningly brilliant double rainbow to frame the scene. Dramatic skies, angry green seas and a rainbow!
In quick succession, we’d seen 6 boats confront the beast. Like wind-whipped pollinators, we’d flitted from one crash scene to the next. Once we’d confirmed the safety of each crew, I could relax and let events unfold for my lens. It was exhilarating. Thrilling.
After leaving one of my favorite backdrops, at Patos lighthouse, we started the slog toward the finish line. Steep, confused seas had built to nearly 5’ when we heard the call on the radio from Ratfish that they’d been hit by another boat and were in need of assistance. Interference on the VHF combined with engine noise and the whipping wind and sloshing seas made it challenging to make out their location, but we determined they were now about 40 minutes behind us. Seamanship is defined by the camaraderie of looking out for each other. We couldn’t tell if they were taking on water, but knew we had to make the effort to get to them as quickly as possible.
Turning back meant a following sea, which was much easier to tolerate than the pounding we’d been taking heading into the steep seas in the direction we’d been going. It also was much faster. Which meant when we got the call that another boat had already arrived on scene about 20 minutes into our return, we were not inclined to reverse course back into the teeth of the combined current, seas and wind. We made the decision to head back to town rather than continuing on to the finish, as the slow progress we’d make toward the finish was likely to mean we’d arrive well after most of the fleet had already crossed the line.
Sunday’s race was much different. The weather forecast had originally sounded severe. Again, starting with winds over 40 knots. Erring on the side of cost and caution, we made the call to give up the rental boat and pursue the race from land, following the fleet down the West side of San Juan Island, from the Snug Harbor start to where we lost sight of them rounding Cattle Point. As it turned out, we could have easily managed the weather and seas. The wind was from the NE, rather than the forecast NW, and only to 25 knots rather than the 40 originally called for.
Following a sailing race from land is kind of like chasing rabbits in a car. They don’t go in a straight line and get lost from sight in all the nooks and crannies of the coastline. It’s not a very effective method, but it is a lot safer, cheaper and quicker than the boat. But safety and speed weren’t the goal- we were there for photos.
As it turned out, we’d already gotten the bulk of the photos for the weekend, by the time we turned around Saturday. We’d also already captured the photo that inspired this essay. In spite of the drama caught in Saturday’s wild action scenes, it was an image of one of the race organizer’s boats at full send that made the cover of Pacific Sailing Magazine for January. It feels incredibly satisfying to have that result come out of the multi-year investment of time and gear. It’s not the cover of Nat Geo, but it’s a cover. And it’s sailing- in my home region. That counts, right?