With a little practice, any sailor can capture great photos from aloft.
June 10, 2020, By Ronnie Simpson
In the past decade, drones have completely revolutionized how we see sailing. Just a handful of years ago, capturing airborne images of a sailing yacht, a regatta or a harbor was exclusively the domain of professional photographers or well-heeled amateurs who could afford a helicopter and were equipped with a pricey long-lens camera to capture the moment.
Due to the nature of sailing and the constantly changing seascape in which it takes place, being able to achieve this aerial perspective is invaluable to telling the story of a cruise or racing yacht and its crew, and the places and conditions in which it travels.
Now, literally millions of people around the world carry a small, unmanned drone that can be easily launched into the sky and commanded to take photos and video; some even have the ability to distribute these images live onto social media. Due to the nature of sailing and the constantly changing seascape in which it takes place, being able to achieve this aerial perspective is invaluable to telling the story of a cruise or racing yacht and its crew, and the places and conditions in which it travels.
With the recent proliferation of drones, most sailors have undoubtedly seen or heard a drone buzzing around their boat or marina at some point. And many of us probably have a friend who owns a drone and has a good crash story. As an experienced, commercially licensed drone pilot and drone enthusiast, time and again I’ve heard a variation of this tale: “I got a drone once, and I wrecked it the first day. I decided that drones are not for me.”
To which I say: Imagine if you went for a sail once, with no experience and no proper instruction, and had a mishap while docking and decided that sailing just wasn’t for you. Don’t sell yourself short. Owning and operating a drone is far easier and more practical than many sailors think.
With about a thousand bucks, or less, and just a bit of practice, you too can capture beautiful high-resolution videos and photos of your boat at anchor or under sail in no time. For less than the price of the smallest, cheapest sail on your boat, you can have a device that has the potential to deliver incredible imagery that can allow you to share your sailing adventures with your friends and loved ones, add value to the eventual for-sale listing of your boat, and capture that incredible image of your boat as a gift or focal piece in your home.
Commercially available drone technology has improved by leaps and bounds since the original drones began to hit the market several years ago. Now, as then, one company has established itself as a leader in the industry and gained the lion’s share of the market: #DJI. When this Chinese-based company first released the Phantom series of drones, they completely revolutionized sailing media and photography almost overnight. While there are several other reputable drone-makers on the market, virtually every single licensed professional drone pilot I have worked with (including myself) relies on DJI products. Disclaimer: I am not sponsored or paid by DJI in any way (but I wouldn’t be opposed to it!).
One of the first pieces of advice I can offer is to not buy a knockoff drone or the cheapest one you can find online. Like most things, you truly do get what you pay for. In the past couple of years, a number of DJI Mavic-like clones, oftentimes for crazy-low prices ($90, shipped), have popped up on the market. If you ever actually receive your drone, you will almost undoubtedly be disappointed in the product. My first drone was a cheap one, about $200; it was a liability and somewhat likely to crash itself or create some type of drama nearly every time I flew it. Operating off a boat? Forget about it. One of the best moves I made was to upgrade to my first DJI Mavic Pro drone, which now retails for under a grand. Overnight, my drone game was elevated significantly from the $200 beginner model.
When operating around boats and the water, turning off all of the auto and safety features is almost universally agreed upon by any experienced drone pilot. If you launch from a moving boat, for example, the drone will oftentimes try to “return to home” and land at its point of takeoff when the battery drops to a certain percentage. This can obviously be catastrophic when flying from a moving boat. Also, returning for a landing is usually met with resistance because the drone won’t want to come within several meters of the boat and its rigging, making landing impossible. Turning off all the safety and auto sensors also improves battery life and performance.
When going through the drone’s initial setup, “swinging” the compass—just like on a sailboat’s autopilot—is one of the first required steps. This is best done in a grassy field or at least 50 yards away from your house, and definitely not on a hard, paved surface.
Before launching off a boat, it is quite critical to become familiar with your drone and how it operates and handles. A wide-open grassy space with no other people, trees or structures is ideal. Concrete and steel structures (e.g., buildings) in particular wreak havoc on the compass of a drone. When going through the drone’s initial setup, “swinging” the compass—just like on a sailboat’s autopilot—is one of the first required steps. This is best done in a grassy field or at least 50 yards away from your house, and definitely not on a hard, paved surface.
Once you have practiced and feel confident in operating your drone—having practiced launching and retrieving it by hand—it’s time to move on to the boat. A drone with legs, such as the DJI Phantom series, is the undisputed champion of boat-based operations. Due to its portability, however, DJI’s Mavic line of drones has become increasingly popular. Though these Mavic drones are less ideal to catch on a moving boat, it is doable, and it was interesting to see that several of the top onboard reporters in the recent Brest Atlantiques race were using Mavic 2’s. Aftermarket 3D-printed handles, or homemade versions, can make the task of catching a Mavic easier; online research is very helpful.
During retrieval, but especially during launching, anything that can be done to reduce the apparent wind is helpful. When launching off a moving boat going upwind, I generally ask the main trimmer to ease the mainsail and the helmsman to luff up and slow down the boat. Once the drone is away, the helmsman simply falls back off and the main is retrimmed. The one drone that I lost was off the famous 70-foot racing sled Merlin, and it was entirely my fault. I tried to get the drone away without disrupting the team’s racing; had I communicated with the skipper, I would have known that they had one more tack before the mark. I easily could have gotten the drone away at that point. The major lesson learned in that loss of a really nice Phantom 4 was to always be hyperaware of launching off the leeward side of a fast boat going upwind; the turbulence, or “dirty air,” in the lee of the mainsail sent my drone straight into the drink. Launching while sailing downwind tends to be easier because the boat is generally flatter and apparent wind speeds are reduced.
Once the drone is out of my hand, I like to immediately throttle it up and away from the boat.
Learning to fly a drone is just one part of the equation when becoming a drone pilot. It is important to remember that you are acting as an unmanned aerial vehicle pilot, and that you are subject to all kinds of local, state and federal laws. First and foremost, you must register your new drone with the Federal Aviation Administration for $5 per drone per year and comply with all relevant laws; for more information, visit the FAA website (faa.gov). Beyond that, the internet is an incredible resource to learn more, and there are also several good apps, such as the FAA’s B4UFly app, which can help you determine what is legal (and not) based on your location. As well, the DJI drones tend to have basic built-in-knowledge tests and features that will warn of local no-fly zones and restrictions. In many cases, a new DJI drone won’t even take off or fly in prohibited areas.
Once you have gained some drone experience, people might ask you to take drone shots or videos for them. While no license is required to fly a drone as a hobbyist, a license is required before conducting any commercial activity. Should you decide to fly your drone in exchange for money—for real estate agents, home inspectors, a yacht-racing team or anyone else—you will need to become a commercial drone pilot. Doing so is less difficult than you might think. Take an online course, watch some YouTube study guides, and head to your local FAA-approved knowledge-testing center, which is usually at your nearest flight school. The fee for taking the test is $150, and the license is free. Welcome to the world of drones, where the sky is literally the limit.
Ronnie Simpson is a sailing-media professional who has put his commercial drone pilot license to work while covering major events, including the Transpac, the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race, the Pacific Cup and Fiji’s Musket Cove Regatta. A veteran long-distance racer and frequent contributor to Cruising World, he is now based in Fiji.
Your Eye in the Sky
Choosing a drone is just like choosing a boat. You can spend virtually as much or as little as you wish, and what might be right for someone else might not be right for you, and vice versa. As a commercial drone pilot who frequently gets paid to film and photograph boats under sail, I am oftentimes launching off moving boats and am especially partial to the DJI Phantom series of drones. While covering the 2019 Transpac and 2019 Sydney-Hobart Race, every single drone I saw in the sky was a Phantom 4, including my own pair of them (though I never flew both at once, which is illegal).
They were out of production for approximately a year (from late 2018 until late 2019), but DJI’s supply-line issues have apparently been sorted out, and the DJI Phantom 4 Pro Version 2.0 was again back on the market earlier this year. If you are shooting off moving sailboats, this is the king of drones. However, at a starting price of over $1,700 for a new Phantom 4 Pro V2.0, it’s not cheap. That said, there is a strong secondhand market of Phantom 4’s and Phantom 3’s. As mentioned in the story, the legs of the Phantom 4 drone are arguably the model’s greatest quality; catching them off a moving boat is a breeze.
While the Phantom is the king of commercial-boat-based drone use, DJI’s Mavic series is the company’s bestseller. Portable, powerful and easy to fly, the Mavic is the go-to drone for most pilots. I still own two Mavic Pros and almost always have one in my backpack; unless I’m working from a boat, my Mavic is the workhorse. Ranging from the Mavic Mini ($399) to the Mavic Air ($919), and all the way up to the Mavic Pro ($1,149) and Mavic 2 ($1,729), one can spend as much or as little as they wish, and it’s quite easy to see where the money goes in each ascending level.
With the newly released Mavic Mini (above) at under $400, the incentive to purchase a $99 no-name knockoff or a cheaper alternative brand for a couple hundred bucks is less and less appealing. In my personal experience and that of my many friends who fly drones, many of us have tried different brands, but virtually all of us have settled on DJI drones. Like the Phantom drones, there is a massive secondhand market for Mavic drones, as well as the tiny DJI Spark. And remember, along with the drone, you will want a good smartphone. Unless you opt for an expensive controller that includes its own screen, your smartphone will permit you to see what you are filming and where you are going.