Royal Ocean Racing Club Ltd.
20 St James's Place, London, SW1A 1NN | +44 (0) 20 7493 2248

Through the Lens – Beken of Cowes

Thomas Sopwith’s J-Class Endeavour in 1935 © Beken of Cowes
Beken of Cowes Over 130 years of sailing photography - from 1880s to 2015
Kenneth Beken is the last in the line of three generations of Marine Photographers known as Beken of Cowes. His grandfather Frank arrived on the Isle of Wight in 1888 and was immediately captivated by the grand yachts that sailed the Solent waters outside his bedroom window. Frank readily admitted he couldn’t paint, so he set about using the cameras available at that time. He soon realised that they were not practical at sea, so he invented his own box camera using twin lenses and a shutter fired by a rubber ball held in his teeth! His sailing portraits were so good that yachtsmen, including King George V on Britannia would study his daily results to see where they were going wrong!

rsz beken frank 14837 2sFrank Beken © Beken of Cowes

Frank’s son Keith followed on from the mid 1930s in time for the J-Class and Big Boat era. After a brief spell captaining an Air Sea Rescue boat during WWII, he saw the company through the post war years with the introduction of ocean racing & IOR. Not content with just Cowes and the Solent, he started travelling to international regattas on both sides of the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean, increasing the scope of the Beken archives from traditional sepia monochrome studies into modern colour photography. He earned his ‘Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society’ in 1951 and the ‘Royal Warrant’ from Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Keith’s son Kenneth started photographing afloat in 1970 and for over 45 years would be seen in his Boston Whaler capturing the sailing scene. Ken reckons the best of times were those earlier years of IOR when designers were more experimental, enabling him to capture some ‘interesting’ studies! It was a 7-days-a week job, very reliant on the weather. Black Solent skies meant you were frantically busy shooting before the inevitable rains came.

He travelled to worldwide regattas with his trusty Hasselblad cameras; from hanging out of helicopters shooting powerboats off Key West, to America’s Cup 12-metres off Perth, and swimming in shark-infested Hawaiian waters shooting windsurfers with underwater  Nikonos. Although his own boat has never let him down, he hasn’t always been so lucky on other craft. A leaking speedboat very nearly sank underneath him in Sardinia (when he had to use his own camera bag as a makeshift bailer), and  he survived a light aircraft crash landing in Antigua (when it lost all power over the water!)

He does remember though being struck by lightning during the Swan Europeans off Cowes in 2005: “On seeing ominous approaching black skies and bearing in mind I was standing on top of 50 gallons of high octane fuel, I made for a moored coaster and stopped in her lee thinking lightning would strike it first. It did, but the bolt shot through my boat too, up my arm, flinging my mobile phone to the deck!”

rsz dihard 8346632sDihard © Beken of Cowes

In 1991 I realised that 2001 would mark not only my 50th Birthday, but also the 150th Anniversary of the 1851 America’s Cup. I wrote to the Royal Yacht Squadron suggesting a re-run of the original £100 Round the Island Race. (Note it’s 100-Pounds. An RYS member told me “Guineas are for horses, Pounds are for yachts.”) The resulting regatta (and birthday treat) was truly memorable!

rsz velsheda 0115048The magnificent J-Class yacht Velsheda was built in 1933 and rebuilt in 1996 © Beken of Cowes

Sadly, with the proliferation of digital cameras making everyone a ‘photographer’, the Solent and the commercial market had become so crowded that marine photography had, for the Bekens, become commercially untenable and they stopped photography afloat. However, with close-on 1 million images in their amazing historical archives, there’s plenty to keep them busy…    

Beken of Cowes - web: www.beken.co.uk 16 Birmingham Road, Cowes, Isle of Wight PO31 7BH, UK. Tel: +44 (0)1983-297 311  - Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.    

RORC Office Locations Map
Royal Ocean Racing Club
(General Enquiries, Membership, House)

20 St James's Place
London
SW1A 1NN
UK

 +44 (0) 20 7493 2248
 +44 (0) 20 7493 5252
 http://www.rorc.org
Royal Ocean Racing Club
(Racing Enquiries)

82 High Street
Cowes
Isle of Wight
PO31 7AJ
UK

 +44 (0) 1983 295 144
 +44 (0) 20 7493 5252
 http://www.rorc.org
RORC Cowes Clubhouse


The Parade
Cowes
Isle of Wight
PO31 7QU
UK

 +44 (0) 1983 293581
 +44 (0) 20 7493 5252
 http://www.rorc.org
RORC Rating Office
(Seahorse Rating Ltd)

Seahorse Building, Bath Road
Lymington, Hampshire
SO41 3SE
UK

 +44 (0) 1590 677030
 +44 (0) 1590 679478
 http://www.rorcrating.com

Royal Ocean Racing Club - since 1925

The RORC was founded in 1925 to encourage long distance yacht racing and the design, building and navigation of sailing vessels in which speed and seaworthiness are combined. Today the club encourages ocean, long distance and other forms of yacht racing and yachting activity.