ORACLE TEAM USA AC50 Sailboat From Above

Fly Along With the World's Fastest Sailboats

Drone cameraman Sam Greenfield provides unique views and tactical footage for ORACLE TEAM USA.

Most people would be devastated if a diver had to rescue their sunken drone from the ocean floor. But Sam Greenfield appears elated. “We were able to save the footage off the card,” he smiles. “It’s all part of the game.”

But when working around high-intensity sailors on multimillion-dollar racing yachts, salt spray, 40-knot winds and the occasional drowned drone come with the territory. Greenfield’s role as ORACLE TEAM USA’s media producer originally saw him capturing jaw-dropping visuals around the defending America’s Cup champs. But the paradigm has quickly shifted toward OTUSA using his drone footage for strategic review and analysis by the athletes and coaches.

ORACLE TEAM USA AC50 Sailboat from below
The below-the-boat shots take drone-flying skills© Sam Greenfield/OTUSA

Regardless, we were intrigued by the fact that he’s flying these cameras at top speed while producing one-of-a-kind views of the world’s fastest sailboat. And Greenfield pushes his drone about as hard as the sailors push the AC50, going above, beyond and even below the yacht to nail the shot.

We caught up with Greenfield leading up to the 2017 America’s Cup for a chat about what it’s like to document OTUSA while they aim to defend their title.

ORACLE TEAM USA AC50 Sam Greenfield video
Greenfield isn't afraid of going the extra mile© Sam Greenfield/OTUSA How did you get into filming and photographing the world’s fastest sailboats?

Sam Greenfield: I started out doing some funky storytelling about sailing with a DSLR in 2012 and eventually ended up getting on a boat with the Chinese team as an onboard reporter in the 2014-15 Volvo Ocean Race. But it happened by chance after I finished the Volvo and out of nowhere I got a call from Jimmy Spithill.

What makes it a challenging task?

Aside from having to keep the gear alive in saltwater, it’s all about relationships. It’s about trying not to piss off people while doing your job … Getting the sailors and administrators to trust you. When you’re flying a drone around a multimillion-dollar yacht, you need people to trust you.

At what point did you start shooting with a drone?

It seemed like a dream at first — shooting the Volvo with a drone because no one had done it before. I bought my first drone the year before and had been practicing. Then I got on the third leg and tested it in the middle of the ocean with no wind. When I sent the clips back, nobody had seen that type of footage up until then. But those first attempts are night and day to what we’re doing now. We’re flying the drone in 30- to 40-knot wind.

ORACLE TEAM USA AC50 Sailboat salt spray
Salt spray and cameras don't always mix© Sam Greenfield/OTUSA

How has the drone changed the type of content you’re able to get for OTUSA?

It’s changed everything because before we were limited to a place on shore or a boat on the water. Now you can be a ghost and fly above, on the side and even beneath the sailboats. It’s opened up endless possibilities.

At first, it was just about making pretty pictures but now the designers and sailors are looking at it and using it as a tool for the coaches. It basically changed my job as a media guy to a coach’s assistant. Now we use the drone for every single practice, running it four to five hours a day until the battery dies and it falls out of the sky. It’s the most rewarding part of the job because I’m able to contribute to performance. I’m not getting in their way anymore. I’m helping.

ORACLE TEAM USA AC50 Sailboat From Above
Greenfield flies his drone from follow boats© Sam Greenfield/OTUSA

Describe what it’s like being on the performance boat, doing 50 mph and operating a drone all at the same time.

It’s hectic and it takes a lot of practice to be comfortable with it. First, you have to get used to flying the drone, but now you’re getting splashed while trying to keep an eye on the drone. Training yourself to operate this thing in really tough conditions is essential. The name of the game is don’t hit anybody or anything.

Following the world's fastest sailboat isn't easy© Sam Greenfield/OTUSA

What's it feel like to out run the world's fastest boat with a drone?

I can only out run them downwind. That’s my little secret. Upwind I’m just trying to keep up. But it’s so cool to be able to pull up along side of them or look down on them. It’s really fun because no one else can get this view.

When you’re flying a drone around a multimillion-dollar yacht, you need people to trust you.Sam Greenfield

You’ve often joked that playing video games as a kid helped with your understanding of flying a drone.

When I was a kid I was obsessed with flight simulators. I’d have my parents buy me Microsoft Flight Simulator … even though we didn’t have a Microsoft computer. So I’d go to my neighbor’s house and play it there. I always wanted to fly but I’m sort of color blind, so I didn’t pursue that career path. Then drones came around and the barrier for entry was less than getting a pilot’s license. You need to be comfortable with a joystick and how movement and angles work. The whole goal is to make the viewer forget that they’re watching a drone. Video games help with the motor skills needed to pull that off.

Describe what went into flying the drone under the boat for the first time.

I always wondered if I could fly my drone under the catamarans and we finally got the right conditions last week. I knew if we didn’t do it before the [America’s Cup] campaign I’d get a lot of crap from the guys. There’s two shots we got. We flew behind the boat and then gunned it. Then we got one flying backward up wind and then back towards the boat, under the bow and out the back. The footage looks like you’re going to a place you shouldn’t be going. 

[Stay tuned for these clips in an upcoming episode of Red Bull’s Raw 100.]

ORACLE TEAM USA AC50 Sailboat foiling
OTUSA foiling in Bermuda's crystalline waters© Sam Greenfield/OTUSA

How many drones have you lost to Neptune?

So many! If you’re not losing them, you’re not pushing it. I’ve lost one to a motorboat wake. I’ve lost another on a really windy day flying it two feet off the water. It was blowing 20 knots with a lot of salt spray. A diver went down the next day and we were able to save the footage off the card. Another time a giant wave came and took it out. So three so far and one on Volvo.

Greenfield has lost four drones to Neptune© Sam Greenfield/OTUSA

With the inclusion of drone footage, do you think helicopters will become obsolete in sailing media?

That’s a really good question. Drones are so much more accessible with flight time and filming length. But can a drone fly at Cape Horn? I don’t think so. I think you’ll see them more and more, and as they get stronger and more adaptable they’ll be giving helicopters a run for their money.

ORACLE TEAM USA heads in after a long day© Sam Greenfield/OTUSA

What are you most excited about for this year’s AC?

I’m just so stoked to see the team get out there and defend the Cup. Everyone’s been working their asses off for this campaign. Bermuda is such an incredible place and the energy is going to be off the charts.

Want more sailing? After the America’s Cup has wrapped up, be sure to tune in to the finals of the Red Bull Youth America’s Cup June 20-21 at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT on Red Bull TV.

By Mike Cianciulli