PHOTOGRAPHING THE GOVERNOR’S CUP YACHT RACE 2014/15 | Darrin Henry
“First yacht at ten miles,” said the voice on the phone. It was half past midnight; I’d been asleep for just an hour. Photographing the finish of the Governor’s Cup Yacht Race was not the blue skies, sunny afternoon, glamour assignment some might imagine. First yacht over the line was Banjo, at 1.53am, and this set the trend of night time arrivals.
Shooting in the dead of night, out on the ocean in a small, semi-inflatable boat was going to require some photographic agility. Focusing, obviously, represented the biggest test. The auto-focus on digital cameras is pretty good, but they still need some source of light to lock on to at a distance. Yachts at night travel dark to aid their night vision; not good for me. Luckily, the tiny light at the top of the mast was just enough to work with.
It’s surprising how quickly the human legs adjust to counter the bobbing boat movement. Sea spray, however, was a regular nuisance. The lens did a fine job of attracting tiny particles of salty mist that I couldn’t even feel on my skin.
I decided against taking a telephoto lens at night. It was pointless. The flash would only reach about 20m or so. The 24-70mm wide angle lens also allowed for the tall sails in close proximity. For extra lighting reach I decided on two flash units. One attached to the standard fitting on top the camera working as the master, the other on an extender bar as a slave. This set-up meant a longer reach without whacking the flash batteries too hard.
The first Governor’s Cup took place 18 years ago, sponsored by the Governor of St Helena. It has grown into a prestigious fixture on the sailing calendar, taking place every two years, starting in the month of December. Yachts race the 1,700 miles up the Atlantic to St Helena from False Bay Yacht Club, in Simon’s Town, South Africa.
An online tracker charted progress of the entrants, with updates a few times a day. Ten miles off St Helena yachts established VHF radio contact with the island and the race reception team would mobilise, beginning with phone calls.
Julie George was the voice at the other end of the phone that night, co-ordinating the St Helena operation. I sacrificed coffee for fear of being late and made my way to the sea front. (Turned out I had plenty of time).
The official race boat was a sleek looking, rigid inflatable with two, no nonsense looking engines on the back. Our driver, or coxswain to use the technical name, was Craig Yon. Nine of us in total snuggled into lifejackets and off we went, into the night.
We rendezvoused with Banjo, perhaps a mile and a half out. It’s difficult judging distances at night. For a while the tiny white mast light appeared a long way off; then suddenly we were just 10m away and calling out to the three sailors outlined by the dim navigation lights. A couple of small, extra lights were now visible on the yacht and focusing at this proximity was much better. I began snapping away. It occurred to me I was probably ruining the Banjo crew’s night vision.
Cheering from our boat were Diane and Saskia, wives of two of the Banjo crew. The ladies had come to St Helena ahead of the race and were clearly thrilled to finally be within vocal distance of their husbands again.
After escorting the yacht for a few hundred metres, cheering and taking photographs, we then sped ahead to the finish line; a buoy with a red flag anchored about half a mile out in the bay. Capturing a good finish line photo was now going to rely on a little luck, as well as skilful boatmanship from the Banjo crew. Race rules required yachts to cross in a westerly direction, between the buoy and the shoreline, which meant a rather wide finish line. I needed the yacht to pass as close to our position at the buoy as possible, otherwise the flash would never reach.
Again, distance at sea at night was difficult to estimate. Banjo suddenly breezed out of the darkness, bearing down on our position with sails full. It was going to be a quick finish. At that moment our boat swung around a bit and everyone onboard had to readjust their position for a good view. A moment of panic! I remember frantically trying to train the camera’s focus point on one of Banjo’s navigation lights and waiting for it to lock. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, a flash of red in the viewfinder and the confirmation beep – focus locked – I started shooting as rapidly as I could. Other camera flashes on our boat were also going off and now it was my night vision that was gone. A second later it was all over amidst loud cheering. Did I get the shot? I really wasn’t sure. A quick check on the display and there it was, the perfect finish line shot, including the buoy flag alongside the yacht. Lady luck was on my side.
After that it was more of the same. Phone calls in the early hours from Julie, a “ten mile” warning, then heading off to the sea front. Only now I was sure to take coffee in my non-spill Bud Light mug.
The only yacht I photographed finishing in daylight, turned out to be the overall winner of the Governor’s Cup. Black Cat conveniently arrived at 9am. The beautiful yellow hull set against the deep blue sea, wind in the sails and warm sunshine – that was more like it. Craig manoeuvred the race boat to help me get a good shot.
My favourite picture though, came a few nights later, with the arrival of Vulcan 44. We met this yacht at about the same position, a mile and a half out, but right on dusk. The natural light was fading fast as we approached the yacht and a constant spray was whipping off the large swells. Once again, Craig was super helpful, positioning the boat so the orange sky backlit the yacht. I worked quickly as the light deteriorated even between shots. A minute or two later, darkness had descended and I was back to the flash guns. Experienced photographers know not to get too excited too early. Sometimes what appears sharp on the camera display is actually out of focus when viewed on a higher resolution computer screen. In this case though, when I got home and checked, it was perfect.
The Governor’s Cup has been another fantastic photography adventure for me. In total I shot seven of the yachts from the 13 that finished.
But there’s far more to the experience than just the photographs; the little stories that can’t be told in the pictures.
The yacht Entheos had to finish twice! Because they crossed the line on the outside of the buoy, race rules meant they had to go back around and do it again. Seemed a bit strict to me, but rules are the rules. Entheos was a catamaran, or multi-hull to use the technical speak and onboard was one of the two Saints in the race, Kerry Furniss.
Yacht Vulcan 44 also had a Saint crew member onboard. There was a second boat out to meet this yacht with us. The family and friends of Tommy-Lee Young had organised a welcoming party aboard the ‘Enchanted Isle’ and the noise of hooters, air horns and even a vuvuzela, along with the cheering, was great fun. The RMS St Helena was also anchored in the harbour that night, and Captain Andrew Greentree, joined in the celebration by sounding the ship’s horn as Vulcan 44 crossed the finish line.
There was a regular humorous conversation topic on our race boat – food. None of us ever remembered to take snacks, but we were always hungry. Craig’s face fell in disappointment each night when he realised we had arrived empty handed, yet again.
Perhaps one of the most surreal experiences was the night we met the yacht, Avanti. The sea was flat calm, very little breeze; it was warm and a full moon overhead. We were out early that night so had to wait around a bit for Avanti to draw closer, but what an incredible night to be on the ocean, laughing and chatting. Just one of the many memorable moments, photographing the Governor’s Cup Yacht Race.