As a member of the British Army's elite Parachute Regiment, Mark O’Connell followed an unusual and rather eventful path into yachting.
His years at the sharp end of the army nurtured a lifelong love of photography and when he quit the military due to a skydiving accident for a second career as a sea Captain, he was able to build on that passion, taking pictures of Superyachts and their surroundings while sailing all over the world.
In the last 20 years, he has been Captain of motor yachts like Princess Mariana and Maridome and Relief Captain of M/Ys Attessa IV, Pegasus 5 and Turmoil as well as overseeing construction of Mosaique in Istanbul and White Rabbit in Australia.
The fruits of his labours are now available to see in the 2015 Superyachts in the Mood calendar, a dazzling array of colourful images Mark has been lucky enough to capture during his time in yachting.
‘There are so many calendars out there but I couldn’t find one featuring Superyacht mood images,’ explains Mark as we chat over a coffee at The Blue Lady in Antibes. ‘Many brokers buy calendars for their clients every year so I decided to publish my own using photographs I’ve taken while travelling to sell in book stores and on Amazon.’
After his desire to go to art school was over-ruled by his father, ‘whose idea of an art student was pretty accurate - long hair, John Lennon spectacles and drugs’, Mark rebelled and at 17, he left his home in Surrey to join the military, where his photographic training began.
‘My father wasn’t happy about that either,’ he recalls. ‘I was trained as a photographer by the military. The Royal Air Force does all the photographic training for the military regardless of whether you go into the Royal Navy, the Army or the RAF. Part of the course sees you flying in aircraft, taking pictures at around 12,000 feet using infra-red film at night.’
During his five year long army service, Mark completed four tours of duty in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. ‘It was the worst possible time to be there,’ he recalls. ‘It wasn’t very nice. I lost a few friends in Ireland, you never knew who the enemy was.
‘Walking down the main street in Belfast was like walking down Oxford Street with a machine gun in your hand. People would walk past you as if nothing unusual was happening. Every day there were shootings and bombings.’
Mark’s career in 2 Para ended abruptly when he fractured his spine in a sky-diving accident. ‘They did the transition from round parachutes to square parachutes which changed everything,’ he explains. ‘You can control square parachutes and go into the wind, whereas the old ones just went wherever the wind took you. They were very new and we didn’t know much about them. They should be tailored to you but we would just pick one off the shelf and jump it.
‘The one I had that particular day was not suitable for me. I stalled it out, fell 25 feet and landed on my backside.’
Mark spent three months in hospital, six months in plaster and a year in recovery but counts himself lucky. ‘I had a big operation to fuse the L4/5 vertebrae in my spine which was very fortunate as otherwise I could have been paralysed. I was no good to the military anymore and I thought, what am I going to do? My army career just went down the tubes.’
A friend introduced him to a top dinghy sailor who was assembling a race crew for a yacht he had just bought. After a party night out in Brighton, Mark woke up seven miles offshore on the boat and his fate was sealed. ‘I had no experience but the owner wanted to train up a crew from scratch,’ he adds. ‘I thought, this is a bit of fun.’
Mark was made a director of the Brighton Marina Yacht Club and fate intervened again when one of his fellow race crew invited him to join the 130 ft S/Y Aiglon, which was owned by wealthy German businessman Prince Johannes von Thurn und Taxis and moored in Mandelieu-la-Napoule.
‘I started as a deckhand,’ he recalls. ‘It was a shock to come from 30 footers to a yacht of 130 ft with a 125 ft mast. I saw a new career for myself so I went back to school and went as far as I could in those days, earning my Ocean Yachtmaster. I took a 50m yacht on a round the world trip on that ticket whereas now you can’t even get a bosun’s job with it. So much has changed but I had the experience and at that time, the new MCA certificates weren’t available.’
It was on his round the world voyage from Turkey via Madagascar that Mark started taking photographs to record his travels. ‘Madagascar was stunningly beautiful and I used the boss’s camera to take some shots before eventually buying my own camera. My boss thought my pictures were better than his so he gave up taking pictures on holiday and asked me to take them instead. Anytime he went ashore, I went with him. It was great.’
He received so many compliments about his images that he set up his own website, http://markoconnell.photodeck.com//, which features a wide variety of images, paintings that have been created from photographs and splash colour shots - where a shot has been reduced to black and white and then had colour added back to make one aspect stand out. He also specialises in digital art photography, sketch and watercolour style shots.
His work is gathering attention from advertising clients and Mark has just been asked to supply a set of black and white photographs to decorate a leading designer’s flagship store in New York.
‘Yachting is still my main career - I am waiting to hear about several new builds which could take me away for up to a couple of years - but if photography starts earning me a good living in the future, I might do it full time,’ he says.
One of his favourite images was taken from Attessa IV while she was anchored by the Statue of Liberty in New York. Another is of the S/Y Maltese Falcon, taken just as the sun was setting in St Barts. ‘I was in the bridge and noticed this brand new yacht coming behind us under full sail just as the sun was going down so I rushed to get the camera as I knew I didn’t have long. I didn’t have time to get the settings right but I got the shot.
‘I often convert photographs into paintings using a special programme. I sold one of Soul Mates in Atlantis in the Bahamas within 10 minutes of it being delivered. It was bought by a friend from Fraser Yachts and he also bought a second one of the Maltese Falcon.’
With a poster book of yachting images called Boys and Their Toys also planned, Mark sees his body of work as a great set of memories. ‘The photos are a record of my time at sea. I really have had some fun over the years.’
All images supplied by Mark O’Connell.
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