Rick Tomlinson is one of yachting’s most accomplished photographers, but he is also an accomplished sailor. We recently traveled to his studio in Cowes, on England’s Isle of Wight, to find out more about his career.
How did you get into sailing?
I grew up on the Isle of Man, a small island in the middle of the Irish Sea. The only way to get off it was to sail, so I learned to sail.
What got you hot on the Whitbread Round The World Race?
When I was in school, my biggest ambition was to do the Whitbread. The people who did the Whitbread were really the mavericks of sailing. I realized that if I stayed on the Isle of Man, it was never going to happen. So I got myself to the South Coast. You’ve got to embed yourself with the team to the point that when the boat sets off, you’re just one of the crew. Then I met Skip Novak. He was brought into project manage what ended up becoming Drum. Eventually, Skip said, “Yeah. Okay. You can be on the crew.” I was a trimmer and pitman.
How did you become the unofficial photographer on Drum?
I literally just started taking pictures on board that boat. I had 20 rolls of Kodachrome and a basic, simple Nikon.
To do what you do, you have to be open to opportunities and be brave and flexible enough to go and seek those things out. Did you find that sort of thing happened in your career?
Definitely. I only had two proper jobs in my life, and they added to the sort of person that I am and the sort of experiences that I’ve had. I was pretty late getting married too, so I didn’t have those commitments and was able to follow my leads and make spur of the moment decisions.
You were a crucial member of the sailing team on the Drum. When did you have time for photography?
I would do it off watch. As soon as I knew there was going to be a sail change, I’d get out of my bunk, put my gear on, go up on deck and photograph it.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue photography?
I went back to the race every four years because that was what I enjoyed doing. And I got paid a proper salary to do it. In those days, you could spend the whole year doing events. You would sell enough pictures to the magazines to cover your costs. Then you would sell some pictures to the manufacturers. That was your profit. Nowadays, the magazines don’t have any budgets, so it’s all about being commissioned and paid to take pictures.
Who inspired you on the photography side?
Frank Hurley and the Shackleton expedition. On Drum, I was taking pictures at night and doing long exposures. That’s exactly the same sort of thing they were shooting 100 years ago.
As for modern photographers, I’m probably most inspired by Alistair Black and Christian Février. Also, Onne von der Wal, in Newport. Like me, he started doing the Whitbread and then became a photographer.
Your website mentions that you sort of created the modern role of a media crew member.
Yes. On Justitia, I was still processing film on board. The biggest thing was when they started putting satellite communications on the boats. We’d scan the photos using a portable scanner that we hooked up to the satellite communications using a modem. We were the first to transmit pictures from the Southern Ocean. And then, four years later, digital cameras came out. That slowly became the end of the art of processing film on the boat.
Is the technology of digital photography that much better, or is it much more convenient?
It used to be that you would wait at the windward mark for boats to come around. You’d be on film frame 24 of a 36-roll film, and you’d have to change your film. There would be times where you’d miss shots. Now, you never run out of film or time. The quality of the digital image is so good, much better than film ever was.
Did you find it hard to make a career out of something you love?
It’s very hard to say what your rate is or what you’re worth. This day there’s always somebody around who’ll do it for less. It was easier when it was just film. There were fewer rules in the sponsorship world. I’ve lived through an era that was sponsored by alcohol, tobacco, credit cards and debt agencies. None of those people are allowed to advertise anymore.
How did you wind up doing most of the photography for Hallberg-Rassy?
About 17 years ago, I married a Swedish girl. We decided to spend time on the west coast of Sweden, so our child would be born in Sweden. I wrote letters to all the boatyards up there. Magnus Rassy replied and said, “Come into the yard on this date. Twelve minutes to seven.” He had one boat there and said, “We’ll go sailing at 2100. Before that can you take some interiors.” When I took in my processed films, he said, “Hmm. That’s quite good. Okay. We will photograph our boats now.” Over a period of three or four days, I think I photographed them all. We’ve gone up every year since then.
You travel a lot for your work. How did it work, especially when your son was younger, to be away from that?
When they’re very young, it’s not as hard. I was doing official photography for Volvo in the 2001 race when he was two, and he traveled around with us. Later, in 2005-2006, we did it again, and he went to the traveling Volvo school. But once they start full-time school until they’re 15 or 16, it gets quite hard. Emotionally you don’t want to be away from your kids; you want to see them grow up. But I have to earn money. That’s the bottom line, and most of my work is traveling.
You’ve done this your whole professional career. You’re still going strong. What’s next?
I am certainly not ready to retire. I’m 58 years old, so what would I do? I’d probably go around the world taking pictures. I would like James, my son, to go into the business. He’s good at photography and talented at sailing, but he’s got to get proper qualifications first. That way, if it doesn’t work out, he’s qualified to do something else.
Is there anything you would like to recommend?
I think my favorite book is Times World Atlas. I always have the atlas with me, and I refer to that a lot. When you start looking through an atlas, it is so tactile.
Hear Andy’s full interview with Rick Tomlinson via the sailing podcast On the Wind. Visit 59-north.com/podcast for details, or subscribe for free on iTunes.
Photo courtesy of Rick Tomlinson