Kite Aerial Photography

by Doug Whitman

Last Fall, I purchased a "coffee table book" called Tall Ships an International Guide, by Thad Koza. It is an excellent book which has photos and short descriptions of 150 active sailing vessels (The Rose is on page 130). However, I was disappointed with some of the photographs; they were good, but not great. Distracting backgrounds, missing sails, or poor lighting were evident in most of the pictures. Why weren't there better pictures of these beautiful sailing vessels? The reason, I decided, is that in order to get a great picture you need a number of simultaneous conditions: good illumination, wind (5-15 knots), favorable point of sail, no rain, small clouds, lots of sails, and most importantly, you need to be on another boat (or helicopter if you're wealthy).

After some thought, I decided that the best way to take pictures of a sailing vessel is from the deck of that vessel, using a remote controlled camera and a kite to lift it into the sky. When there is enough wind to fly the kite, then there is enough wind to fill the sails. Since the kite is downwind of the vessel, the camera will capture the buxom beauty of billowing sails (my wife, Salli, thinks photographs taken from the windward side look "inside out"). A photographer sailing on the vessel for several days is able to wait and watch until all conditions are acceptable, but most important, photos taken from high above have a very simple background: the wide blue ocean.

I got on the internet and found a great website devoted to KAP (Kite Aerial Photography) I had discovered my home project for the year! I spent the next several months assembling my kit. I built a lightweight large format camera. I modified some R/C aircraft equipment to control the tilt of the camera and to release the shutter. I also installed a miniature video camera and transmitter to act as a view finder using a small hand held TV. KAP is not for the mechanically challenged.

To lift this 5 pounds of hardware, I selected a train of three 7 foot delta conyne kites. These kites are very stable and are forgiving of the turbulence I expected to find on the leeward side of sailing ships. I was ready to go sailing.

This would be my third time sailing on the Rose. I took my daughter Emily the first time on a trip in Long Island Sound in April 1996; the third morning we awoke to an inch of snow on the deck (very unusual and very authentic). June of 1998 I took Emily and my son Joshua on a trip from Norfolk VA to Glen Cove Long Island; there were other sailing ships in Glen Cove and it was a pleasure to visit them all. This year our trip took us from Rockport Maine to Boston. I was accompanied by Josh and Emily again (now 15 and 13) As well as my high school (and grade school) friend Peter Mueser and his nephew Jake Mueser.

When I talk about the Rose to other people, I generally get one of two reactions: The most common reaction is a silent: "Why would anyone want to use up good vacation time working on an old boat?" Less often I hear: "Wow! That sounds like fun!". My standard sound bite is to explain that the Rose is like a summer camp for adults. I have always enjoyed sailing the standard varieties of sailing boats, but I have also read all of Jack London's books. The Rose is one of the few opportunities today to actually experience that romantic life we have thus far experienced only in the movies, and it is a real experience, not the phony-simplified experience of the windjammer fleet. There is no Lido Deck on the Rose. But this is what you get:

  • Trainees and paid crew are assigned to one of three watches. Each watch is supervised by an officer and is on deck for 4 hours and is off duty for 8. Some times your watch is clear and sunny, and some times it is dark and rainy (bring rain gear tops and bottoms). Sometimes all hands get called when there is lots of work or when the work is urgent.
  • If you are over 20 years old, you will be asked to do things by people who are younger than you are. Initially, you will be adrift in a sea of unfamiliar terms and tasks, and you will be glad to have access to the skill of these experienced sailors.
  • You will get dirty, but no one will care.
  • You will get to meet and make friends from all walks of life. For 6 days, your watch will be your family.
  • There is no drinking on the Rose (while underway). You can make up for this while in port.
  • If you want, you will be climbing way up in the rigging. The main reason ships with square sails fell from commercial use was that the square sail handling takes a large crew. This is what makes the Rose an outstanding training ship; there is lots to do.
  • You will get to heave the capstan with the entire crew. The anchor is very heavy and there is no other way of getting it up.
  • Hunter, the cook, is a true artist; meals are eaten in shifts with your watch.
  • Beds are simple, but comfortable (no hammocks) and trainees sometimes get as much as 8 hours sleep. Privacy is respected as much as possible where 12 people share the same cabin. Single women should not feel uncomfortable.
  • Typical trainees: Men in their 40's (I fall in this category). Couples in their 20's and 30's. Usually a few children and one or two seniors.
  • Typical crew: Men and women in their teens and 20's. Many taking a year long break from school or more conventional work. Quite a few are women.
  • Typical officers: Men and/or women in their 30's with substantial ocean sailing experience.
  • Although friendship is part of the Rose experience, it is no romantic cruise; their simply isn't enough privacy. To talk privately, you can always climb the 80 feet to the fighting top.

Yes there is a radio on the Rose and radar and a depth sounder and GPS, and even a television and a cell phone and 120 VAC power and two diesel motors, but the experience of "signing on" a sailing vessel with strangers, getting to know them and learning new skills is as authentic today as it was 200 years ago. It is called "learning the ropes" and it is fun!

A word about children: My personal complaint about life in the industrialized world is that children are no longer welcome in the workplace. Sure, they see teachers and people who work in stores, but they don't get to see the big picture. In a sailing ship the big picture is very small. Everyone has a job and it is easy to see what that job is, and what it would be like if that job were not done. Everyone helps each other and a job poorly done affects the comfort and even the safety of others. This relationship is much more apparent on board a ship. My children go to a school where everything is safe; they are not allowed to take glass containers on the bus, and can be expelled for bringing a butterknife to school. The Rose has an excellent safety record, but face it, part of the experience of sailing an 18th century sailing ship is simply being careful. Safety is not a catch phrase on the Rose; it is real. Safety is discussed and lived and it is apparent everyone that each person's safety depends on his or her actions and on the actions of all other crew members. This is a very adult concept and the children get it right away. Finally, the thing I hate most about being a parent is telling my children to do things (they hate it too). Although the Rose is not a day care center, the watch structure places everyone, adult and child, under the orders of a watch officer; for six days, someone else tells my children what to do. This is wonderful, a true vacation, and a good opportunity for photography.

I wasn't quite sure how Captain Bailey would take to the idea of me dragging two big boxes of stuff out on deck and taking over the quarterdeck for 3 hours. After we were under way the first day, I explained my project to him and he told me it would be OK. (after all, I am a good customer) My first task was to fix my camera. The shutter release lever had been damaged during shipping, and there was no camera store open in Rockland on Sunday, July 4th when I discovered the damage. Fortunately, I was able to disassemble the lens, find a broken pin, and solder it back where it belonged. I wouldn't have the luxury of taking a test picture; I could only hope I had reassembled it right. The conditions didn't come together until the fourth day out when we had a 15+ knot wind with a light cloud cover and all seven square sales set. My only concern was the direction of the sunlight; it would be shining into the camera.

The end result: The Rose from a Kite's eye view! You can see the kite string on the left side.

Kite Aerial Photography normally involves flying a kite up to an altitude of a few hundred feet above the ground, Attaching a camera (usually a point and shoot 35 mm camera), Exposing a whole roll of pictures by some kind of remote control, and bringing everything back down. This can be difficult enough, but I had some additional complications: First of all, I had to conduct this project over water; I was so concerned about this that I showed the camera to my friends at work the week before my trip, because I wasn't at all sure I would still have it the week after the trip.

Second, I was using 4x5 inch camera. This dimension refers to the size of the negative, not the size of the camera. This large format film can make breathtaking enlargements (Ansel Adams normally used an 8x10 camera); I was hoping to enlarge my photographs to see the seams on the sails and the planks on the deck. The penalty was twofold; I would only be able to take one picture at a time, and I would be risking every mistake possible on a very manual camera. This camera represents the cutting edge technology of the 1860s; very authentic for a sailing ship

The third difficulty was the turbulence of the airspace directly downwind of the sails. I would be flying my kites there, and there was no way for me to learn from the experience of others, I simply had to screw up my courage and try.

As it turned out, I had no trouble with the water or the turbulence. The Spanker (aftermost fore and aft sail) was not set, so I was able to stand on the wheelbox, lean against the Spanker boom and send my train of kites up to about 300 feet. I then attached the camera and sent it up another 200 feet. There was little turbulence and I found I had a very stable platform. It took about 3 hours to take six pictures, spending most of the time hauling the camera back in to change film and cock the shutter. My friend Peter was a great help and took some pictures of my efforts; he is visible in all my pictures at the end of the kite string. I am visible in Peter's pictures wearing a fishing vest with assorted electronics hanging out of the pockets. I had to go below deck to be able to see the TV-viewfinder without glare, so I am not in any of my own pictures. As the day went on, the wind gradually increased, causing Capt. Bailey to reduce sail, and causing me to get a series of pictures each with fewer sails than the preceding one.

The last day was also a good photo day with winds at 15 Knots and excellent lighting. I attempted four exposures, Unfortunately, I forgot to change the film between the first and second picture, so I got a double exposure. The shutter didn't release on the last picture because my batteries ran down. I got one good exposure this day, the one displayed on this page. The small boat at the top was a surprise; I never noticed it when I was shooting the picture. For you photographers, I used: f/5.6, 1/100 second, Kodak PRN 100 ASA, 150 mm Tesar, no coating, no filter. The pictures from the fourth day came out well, but the back lighting didn't show the Rose nearly as well as this picture did.

As I write this, I have more negatives at the photo shop of the Miss Mavis, a Ketch run by the Boy Scout Sea Base in the Bahamas where Joshua and I took a week long trip with our Troop 7 the middle of August. Her captain wants me to take photos of his own ketch back in Florida. Nevertheless, I am not yet ready to quit my day job. There is a huge sailing event next year called Sail 2000. European ships are sailing to Bermuda, up the east coast of the US, where they will meet up with much of the US sailing fleet, sailing to Boston, Halifax and back to Amsterdam. This will be a great sailing and photo opportunity. I have always wanted to take a long sailing voyage; if the Rose does one of the Transatlantic legs, I will be on board, and if there is room in my bunk, I will bring my two big boxes of stuff.

Doug Whitman

September 1, 1999

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Last Updated: 9/13/99

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