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Through the Looking Glass

How a photographer performs a floating face-lift.

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Steve Haefele illustration
“The boat’s motion had simulated small-craft warnings in the hot tub, and as the water surged from side to side, the models struggled to avoid being washed overboard onto the deck.” Steve Haefele

“It’ll take a miracle to make this sled appealing,” my photographer pal Tim groused. Over the years, he’d shot a fleet of boats, but times were challenging. “Coyle, I’m no art critic, but this subject was hard on the eye. I flew circles around her in search of a good angle, but you can’t fix ugly.”

Tim began shooting boats in the 1980s, when fat art budgets and technology were changing up the craft. Pioneering photographers were moving from chase boats to choppers. Their perspective changed the way we looked at the sport. While drones are now the rage, they’re no substitute for a shooter’s eye and good glass.

I recall clinging to the bridge of a 65-footer in 10-foot seas as an angler reeled in a “blue marlin” (actually a 5-gallon bucket). With a chopper’s rotor swooshing just a few yards away, Tim, tethered in a harness and balanced on the chopper’s skid, snapped shots as the waves brushed past his feet.

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This sort of chopper play could draw attention. Following another shoot, I was greeted dockside by WWE-size Drug Enforcement Administration agents armed with sledgehammers. As the boat’s angry builder readied to enter the ring, the lead agent recognized the brand—likely thanks to a photographer.

Nowadays, Tim’s challenge is often the boat, not the seas. As is typical, he still arrives before sunup to position the props, primp the models and get a feel for the design. The first sign of trouble on this shoot was that the captain was missing in action. “Given the boat, I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d bailed,” Tim grumped. “Coyle, the damn thing looked like a pagoda screwed atop a coal barge—a sooty coal barge.”

Tim had expected a bit of poofing, but the weathered boat looked like it had just arrived from Europe on its own bottom. Tim had watered the dried-out teak decks and topped off the hot tub by the time the captain showed up. “Ready to go?” the captain offered cheerily. Tim grunted, handed him the float plan and headed for the airport.

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An hour later, Tim was hovering above his subject as it wallowed in a modest sea with a distinct port list. The boat’s motion had simulated small-craft warnings in the hot tub, and as the water surged from side to side, the models struggled to avoid being washed overboard onto the deck.

“Skipper, can you straighten her up a bit?” Tim shouted over the VHF radio.

“Sorry, no can do. The tabs and stabilizers are on the fritz,” the captain replied.

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Tim delivered the photos, but the builder was grumbling. “It’s like he’d just realized what he’d built was ugly,” Tim said.

I’d seen Tim’s food shots. He could make a cardboard box stuffed with day-old fast food look appealing. “Cut and paste her into trim, and touch up those blemishes,” I offered. “If the tabloids can make a Hollywood idol look like a scarecrow, you can turn that soot-stained sled into a showgirl.”

I wonder what they charge for a face-lift in Hollywood.  

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