Renowned marine photographer Onne van der Wal has always been a sailor. His early sailing career, a good bit of it as a professional, took him literally around the world and then some. But like many who’ve lived their lives subject to the whims of the wind, he reached a moment where he thought he might like to step aboard, cast off the lines, turn a key and go, no matter the weather.
“One afternoon, we were heading into a southwesterly toward Newport,” says the Jamestown, R.I. resident. “I said, ‘I think I’m ready for something different. I want to change it up a little bit.’ Since I came to the U.S. in 1980, I’ve always loved the look of Down East trawlers. ‘Someday, I’m going to get one,’ I said to myself.”
That day came in 2020 after a surveyor friend, who’d looked at several trawlers for him, found a 1986 Grand Banks 32 that seemed perfect.
Van der Wal’s plan was to undertake a refit on a suitable boat that didn’t need major work. The single-stateroom 32, Snow Goose, seemed ideal. “The surveyor called and said, ‘Onne: It’s a gem of a boat. Just buy it.’”
He didn’t hesitate. The idea was to do most of the work himself with some help from his wife, Tenley. He’d previously done a refit on a 1972 Pearson 36 sailboat that he and his family cruised in New England for five years. His earlier life as a professional sailor and a marine-savvy photographer informed that work and would come into play with the trawler project.
At 65, van der Wal shows little of the wear a lifetime of exposure to the wind, sun and sea can impart. He was born in the Netherlands, but his subtle accent evokes his years growing up in Cape Town, South Africa. He’s a big man, deliberate in his movements, loaded with stories and quick with a laugh—the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with after a tough race or a lazy day on the water.
His expertise in documenting the marine milieu has earned him many awards and accolades, including being chosen for the prestigious Canon Explorers of Light program, which comprises a group of “the most influential photographers in the world, each a master of their creative specialty.” He’s done a TEDx talk, and he conducts photography workshops around the country, both as part of the Canon Explorers of Light program and on his own.
His photography career began as crew on the sailing yacht Flyer II, which won the 1981-82 Whitbread Round the World Race (now The Ocean Race). He was hired as the engineer and bowman for the race, but on a layover during a transatlantic practice run before the start, he’d connected with the publisher and editor of Sail magazine, who looked at his photos and gave him an assignment to document the race while on board. Sail published his first magazine cover—a shot from the end of the spinnaker pole as Flyer ran downwind in heavy weather in the Southern Ocean. He went on to build a business in editorial and commercial marine photography and videography. He and Tenley own a photo gallery that she manages on Newport’s Bannister’s Wharf.
Snow Goose was on the hard when he took ownership in fall 2020. Having bought her without a sea trial, he was concerned about how noisy the engine would be, how fast she’d go, and how she’d turn and handle in a quartering sea. But he knew the owner and trusted him implicitly.
He worked on her through that winter, both in the boatyard and in his home workshop, until she splashed in June of last year.
“The launch day was awesome,” he recalls. “It was great to watch her go down the ways with Tenley by my side at Clark Boat Yard and Marine Works in Jamestown, and then go out to her on the launch and go for a spin, hear the engine and feel the old lady ride the swells.”
He describes the Snow Goose project as a cosmetic refit. “No fiberglass, no bulkheads, no plywood,” he says, “but plenty of elbow grease.”
That elbow grease has included wiring upgrades; a new water heater and other plumbing; lighting upgrades; a new windlass, anchor and chain; new refrigeration; new AGM batteries; new upholstery; some hatch repair; and replacement of fixtures in the head. Extensive painting, varnishing and teak refreshing belowdecks accounted for a substantial amount of the work. Projects to be completed before relaunching this season include installing new solar panels, improving the sound insulation in the engine room, more detail painting, repacking the stuffing box and installation of davits for the dinghy.
The Raymarine electronics suite is extensive (some might argue overkill) for a 32-foot boat, but in practice, it’s a mariner’s dream package. Among other things, it includes Quantum 2 doppler radar; a FLIR thermal camera system; an AR200 augmented reality camera pack; a i70S Wind Bundle Pack with displays for functions such as wind speed, depth, boat speed, water temperature and waypoint information; a Ray90 VHF radio; an AIS700 Class B transceiver; an EV-400 autopilot with a Type 2 rotary drive unit; a p70Rs autopilot controller; an RVX1000 3D side-scan sonar; and a FLIR AX8 infrared engine room camera. Most systems are channeled through Axiom Pro 12-inch touchscreen displays at each helm.
“It’s the best tricked-out little GB 32 on the market,” he muses. “More like a Soviet Union-era ‘fishing vessel.’”
With most of the components’ brains hidden from sight and running through the multifunction displays, both helms are remarkably calm and shipshape. And for all the digital horsepower on Snow Goose, the ancient mariner in van der Wal still shows through. Along with the multifunction display and autopilot controller, the lower helm has space in easy reach forward of the wheel for a chart kit, dividers and a parallel rule, an old-school magnetic compass and a logbook. One additional piece of analog equipment just below the throttle is a bottle opener, “to open the Coronas.”
The engine, a 6-cylinder, 135-hp Ford Lehman marine diesel, required little attention. With 3,000 hours on it and well cared for by the previous owner, it looks and functions as if it were just installed. Its gentle purr below the floorboards may not be as calming as reaching along at 8 knots in a sailboat, but it gets the job done without the physical strain. Snow Goose does 8 to 8½ knots all day, in all conditions, while burning just 2½ gallons of diesel an hour.
With decades of hands-on experience on and around the water, including the more extensive refit on the Pearson, van der Wal was able to handle many of the challenges the refit presented, but he acknowledges his limits. His extensive contacts in the industry allowed him to call friends for advice and installation help when he needed it.
“I didn’t wing it,” he says. “I didn’t want to start cutting if I didn’t know what I was getting into. If I were stuck, I would call friends or marine industry specialists. It’s such an advantage for me because I’m a shooter in the trade.”
Cruising, obviously, is one of the appeals of Snow Goose. Another, and just as important to van der Wal, is that the flybridge and the shallow draft make for a superior photography and video platform. “I love to shoot from up there, and I love to drive from up there,” he says.
Van der Wal had done commercial work for Grand Banks over the years, but he never thought he’d own one. “Now, I have to pinch myself,” he says. “I’m standing on my own Grand Banks. Even though it’s the smallest one, it’s still a quality boat.”
His plan for this fall is to take Snow Goose down the Intracoastal Waterway and escape the New England winter, maybe spending some time in the Bahamas.
“It’s really met all my expectations,” he says. “And the best thing is, my wife really loves it.”This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.
This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.