Interview with a Volvo Ocean Race Onboard Photographer

The Volvo Ocean Race is an adventure photographer’s dream; it’s a thrilling around-the-world sailing race starting in Alicante, Spain, and ending in Gothenburg, Sweden, nine months later.

To thoroughly document the October 2014–June 2015 event, the race includes an Onboard Reporter (OBR) for each boat. More than 2,500 multimedia reporters and adventure photographers vied for positions as OBRs this year, but only seven of the best were chosen. The lucky and talented photographers and videographers who won spots on the vessels sail around the world with the racers and chronicle life on board. They’re not allowed to sail or race the boats; instead, they spend their days photographing, interviewing, reporting—and cooking and cleaning:

I was fortunate enough to connect with one of these these elite photographers, Chicago-based Matt Knighton, who is braving extreme temperatures and conditions—just keeping his lenses dry is an achievement—while working as an embedded reporter on the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing team’s boat.

What was the process for being chosen as an Onboard Photographer?

“I’ve been working towards this job for the last 4 years. This is the 3rd race that they’ve embedded photographers onboard with the teams and the application process was intense. Volvo Ocean Race received over 2,000 applicants 2 years ago for the 7 OBR positions. Initially, I knew I had made the cut into the top 20 percent but then this past spring it looked like it might not happen. There weren’t enough English speaking teams. Then in May I got a message asking me if I was still interested—a position became available—and within one week I was flying to Cascais, Portugal to ‘try out’ with Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing on their training sail across the Atlantic. When we arrived in Newport 10 days later, I got the job.”

matt knighton volvo ocean race photographer

Photographer Matt Knighton at Work

What does a typical race day look like?

“The sailors operate on a watch schedule, 4 hours sailing followed by 4 hours of sleep, and alternate so there’s always a team on deck racing day or night. My schedule is much more dependent on daylight, which can be difficult given that we sail across timezones and seasons so the timing is always changing day to day (the west to east legs are the worst since the sunrises keep getting earlier). I typically set my schedule based on magic hour in the morning and evenings and then ‘fill in’ other shots throughout the day and night as events happen onboard. I’m always sleeping with my camera next to me ready to go.

I also take care of the nutrition of the guys and make sure they’ve got enough food and water, which takes up plenty of time during the day. Usually I’ll wrap up my shots by sunset and then spend 3-4 hours editing the photos and video from the day, before getting a few hours of rest. That is unless there’s moonlight on deck…then you can shoot all night as well.”

volvo ocean race

Photo by Matt Knighton

What gear do you consider essential for this assignment?

“We all shoot with DSLRs for photo and video with GoPros as practical cams. Saltwater management is the toughest part of the job, so you’re constantly trying to keep the fine mist of the ocean from getting into the camera. I carry several Canon 5D Mark IIIs onboard plus a Sony A7s for low-light. I’ve got a splash housing for the days when the waves are crashing over the deck that I’ve rigged up with a waterproof mic. I trimmed a windshield wiper to use as a squeegee that is excellent and cleaning spray off the housing glass after each wave. Aquatech rain covers are a must as well as UV filters on all the lenses. I imagine that weatherproofing has never been tested so much, we send the cameras to Canon at each stopover for cleaning just to keep them functioning!”

photographing volvo ocean race

Conditions at Sea as Photographed by Matt Knighton

Is there a shot that you’re particularly proud of? How did you capture it?

“So many favourite pictures from each leg, but one of my favourites from Leg 4 is a shot of a massive roll cloud that was approaching the boat in the middle of the South Pacific about 4 days out from Auckland, New Zealand. It looked otherworldly, like a spaceship taking up the entire sky. The shadows of the cloud and the speed of the water accentuated by a slow shutter speed make this shot for me.

around the world sailing race

A Favorite Photo Captured by Matt Knighton

One of the coolest parts about this job is the personality the sky and weather play in all the photos. Nowhere else can you see the sky from horizon to horizon, unobstructed, and you get to see entire weather systems play out. This shot was taken with a Canon 8-15mm fisheye to capture the full width of the cloud—it was almost above the boat at the time of the photo. I climbed up on the aerial mast that holds our satellite dishes to get enough elevation to see the boat underneath and cloud above—this meant I was actually hanging off the back of the boat above the water with one hand to snap this.”

Thanks for taking the time to share your story with us, Matt. What an incredible experience—happy sailing!

You can follow the latest photography from all of the Onboard Reporters at instagram.com/volvooceanrace.

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