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Ingrid Abery: The Right Place at the Right Time

by Mark Jardine on 6 Jan 6 January 2017
The Wally 80 Tilakkhana spears Ryokan 2 at Les Voiles des St. Tropez © Ingrid Abery / www.ingridabery.com

Ingrid Abery is one of yachting's top photographers. She has a canny knack of being in the right place to catch the key moments at events, and also the presence of mind and calm nature to take the photos at exactly the right time.

Mark: In 2016 at Les Voiles des St. Tropez, you caught an outstanding sequence of two Wally yachts crashing. Can you tell me a bit about the lead up to that and how you got that feeling that something was going to happen?

Ingrid: Yes, it was the penultimate day of racing and I was on the Wally Division course. The guys were going in for the first start of two races that day. The boats were pinging the line and knifing up and down behind the starting line, counting down and getting in closer. Our press boat advanced slowly tucking in just outside of the committee boat. The fleet was approaching the line jostling for a good position. The Wally 80, Tilakkhana, was pointing towards Ryokan 2 and not bearing down. As the start beckoned I watched the bowman and my intuition told me they were heading for drama. My lens first captured him as he held up two fingers signaling, 'Go forward.' My focus stayed with him. "They are too close here," I thought.

In my next frame he was signaling, "Bear down, bear down" and then in the third gesturing urgently. As our photo boat rolled about in the chop I literally counted down the seconds, 3-2-1 Bam!, freezing each frame through the point of impact as bits of carbon splintered off. The shocked faces of the crew on Ryokan 2 heightened the visual impact.

All photographers strive for that special moment that transcends the subject and place and can be looked at for a long time to come. This I think is one of them.

Mark: You were on a packed media boat, full of photographers. What is the difference that means that you can see a situation unfold where others maybe can't?

Ingrid: The art of observation and some intuition. Being aware of your surroundings, paying attention all the time. I've been doing this for twenty or so years now and you get a sense, maybe a sixth sense. You are aware of so much. Sure your head's down in your Peli case, picking out cameras, interchanging lenses, all at great speeds, but I can do that blindfolded. You've got to keep your wits about you. You have to observe all the time. The press boat is quite often rocking around, spray coming in, a rogue wave perhaps from a passing boat and you're trying to balance yourself. You're handling two or three cameras at a time some 5 or 6kg apiece, stabilizing your horizon, you've got to juggle all of this and be sharp. It's also anticipating what the crews are doing, appreciating the race format, and quite often searching out something special.

Mark: It's not the first time that you've caught a collision in the maxis. Going back to the 2010 Maxi Yacht Rolex Cup in Porto Cervo, you caught a full-on broadside! Can you describe that one to me?

Ingrid: That was a similar incident to be honest. A Maxi start sequence was underway. The fleet of more than twenty yachts was tacking up and down behind the line as the final seconds dropped away. Brandishing my lens I studied the scene unfolding. Bows nosed to windward. In those final moments the 30M Southern Wind yacht Illusion misjudged its distance and ploughed straight into the Swan 90 Kora. Crew were thrown across the deck and one person was catapulted backwards into the water.

My lens caught the whole sequence with a cracking shot of the somersault. Again it was being on the ball, observing, soaking it up. You're 'rubber-necking' watching out for any eventuality, any photo opportunity. And then you get a feeling, "Is this going to be a hit or a miss?" And yes it was a straight broadside into Kora at full pace. Holding my arms as wide as possible taking a V down to the waterline that still wouldn't reach as wide as the hole was in the side of the boat!

Panic reigned. The crew threw laptops into a passing support boat. Guests and the injured owner were quickly transferred. Full sail bags were wedged in to plug the hole as our photo boat towed them back into port.

The key ingredients to mastering another striking image were observation, instinct, anticipation and a calm yet immediate reaction.

Mark: Let's go back to Beijing 2008 with the Olympic sailing competition at Qingdao. On the 49er race course there were very strong winds on the medal race day and you caught Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes having a moment that cost them dear. Can you explain a little bit about that one?

Ingrid: It was a full-on day. Ben Ainslie had won his gold medal in his Finn earlier on. Later we had the three blondes winning their Yngling gold medal, and this was the middle race. We photographed the start in pretty choppy conditions, rain, big breeze - atypical Qingdao conditions in fact. The 49er fleet was on its way to the windward mark when the Danish team of Jonas Warrer and Martin Ibsen, having been donated the Croatian's boat after their mast broke, sailed across the start line in the final permitted seconds.

Throughout the race numerous teams had turned turtle. It was like shooting goldfish in a bowl! On the second downwind leg I noticed way up the course, while the other photographers were chatting, Stevie and Ben out of control. So I quietly lifted my lens and photographed them take a nosedive. The bow of the boat dug in. It seemed they were nose-down for minutes when it must have been seconds in reality - I kept shooting and froze that magic moment!

Again it was a case of being aware and not switching off. You don't make a photograph just with the camera. You bring to the act of photography all your past on-the-water experiences, reactions, emotions, compositions, style and technical know-how to produce an arresting picture in these circumstances. There was a sense of watching history unfold.

Mark: So once again it's the case where you have an instinct that something is going to happen, and then in the moment can catch the scene where others might panic and not grab the moment. There's another picture of you at the 2008 Olympics, absolutely drenched! This shows the unglamorous side of sailing photography. Sailing, with the salt water, is not kind on you but even less so on your equipment. How do you keep everything together, and working, and in operation at events?

Ingrid: I could tell you plenty of stories about that... things work on a wing and a prayer in a way! There is better protection these days, but a neoprene housing is quite cumbersome. So there are times that you prefer not to use it.

On one occasion many years ago at Cowes Week I and my equipment were absolutely drenched motoring up towards the Needles, pursuing that extra shot. On return one of my pre-digital SLR camera bodies stopped working. I switched on the oven, turned the dial up and when hot, turned it off and opened the door. Opening the back and front of the camera body it was placed in the oven to dry out. Miraculously a couple of hours later the mechanism worked. With digital the effects are detrimental.

Mark: Talking of Cowes, you switched to digital photography in around 2003 and were out with your first digital camera at the Pro V European Championship for power boats where you caught an extremely dramatic moment. Can you describe what unfolded there and how you caught that moment?

Ingrid: Absolutely, it was in fact a day off! I spent a week photographing Cowes Week and remained in the area with friends. The following morning, it was a drizzly rainy day and I thought, "Do I really want to photograph today?" Fascination had gotten the better of me. Joining the press RIB that morning we'd gone out to photograph the start. The fleet of power boats in the Pro V European Championship were to lap the Isle of Wight anti-clockwise. As the leaders came back into the Central Solent our RIB was trickling along past Egypt Point at about six knots to one of the final turning marks. The fleet would do a show lap before crossing the finish line.

The two Italian crew in the lead boat Ceramica Panaria saw a gaggle of camera lenses pointed in their direction. Keen for some extra publicity the pair altered course at about 95mph. Going at such speed they misjudged our wake and it flipped the boat. Our press boat was laden with seven photographers. I had elected to work from the back almost leaning over the outboard engine. When I realized they were coming too close my reaction was 'click, click, click'. The momentum barrel-rolled the 44ft Pro Vee RIB about 25 feet above the water, it landed on its side and was catapulted back into the air continuing along 20 feet upright above the water for what seemed an age, but in truth more like 60 seconds and then it just dropped out of the sky. It was a fantastic sight!

Despite working with a digital camera my finger didn't lazily sit on the shutter. I was taking them with hand/eye intention, counting down the seconds and lapping up the unfolding scenario. It was a thrill!

I had presumed the other photographers where taking pictures too. That's what we're there to do, that's what it's all about! We photographers travel the world to capture the crème de la crème of regatta images to excite, to entertain, to amuse those interested in the sailing world. This was it, the money shot. It felt natural to me to just keep shooting.

After we checked the team was still alive and picked up their engine cover, our driver turned to ask if anyone got the shots. People shook their sorry heads. Every other photographer had panicked, ashen white, jaws dropped and no one else got the shot! I then I put up my hand and whispered, "I did".

Mark: Well Ingrid, your passion for the sport shines through and your instinct for capturing the moment, and being in the right place at the right time, is superb. Many thanks for your time, it's great to get an insight into those shots and your profession.

Ingrid: It's my absolute pleasure, really! Being out on the race course with my cameras, each start a new blank canvas certainly keeps my heart beating as a photographer. And to know that my work is entertaining some of the sailing world adds to the pleasure.

More of Ingrid's work can be seen at www.ingridabery.com or www.instagram.com/studio_abery

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