Shoot to Thrill

Just hit “record” on these user-friendly, waterproof video cameras to bring your next race to your living room—and beyond. "Electronics" from our January/February 2012 issue.

Over the course of a yearlong test of compact video cameras, we recorded hours of racing, and reviewing the results confirmed the adage that our sport involves "hours of boredom punctuated with moments of sheer terror." You can view the highlights here, but we left most of the footage on the cutting room floor, where it belongs.

Of the cameras we tested—GE’s DV1, GoPro’s Hero, Drift’s 170 Stealth, Contour’s HD, and SailPro’s Onboard Camera—each weighs next to nothing and delivers crisp footage, stored on an SD or mini SD memory card. The cameras are either waterproof (GE, SailPro) or come with a waterproof case (GoPro, Contour, Drift).

The differences are in the lenses, the user interfaces, and the mounting options. Cameras with a wide-angle lens (GoPro, Drift, Contour, SailPro) can provide a broad view of what’s happening on and around your boat. Those with detailed LCD screens (GE, Drift) are the most intuitive to operate, since you can scroll through menus with multi-directional keypads, switch between still and video mode, and review your footage. On models without built-in LCD screens (GoPro, Contour, SailPro), testers found it hard to tell whether the camera was recording.

When choosing a camera, consider the type of boat(s) you’ll be sailing, and where you’ll mount the device. In our experience, the most practical location for mounting a camera on a keelboat is the stern pulpit, where it can capture all the action. No stern rail? SailPro makes customized stern mounts. The GoPro, Drift, Contour, and SailPro cameras came with several mounting accessories. The GoPro mounts attach to the camera housing with a system of thumb screws and clips, which worked fine until we lost a screw overboard. Over time, we came to appreciate cameras with a tripod tripod socket (GE, Drift, and on Contour’s waterproof case), which allows more flexibility with mounting accessories.

Of all the cameras in our test, the GE DV1 is the easiest to use. Don’t bother reading the manual; just turn on this Blackberry-shaped gadget and use your intuition—and the multidirectional keypad—to select your desired resolution, toggle between video and 5-megapixel camera mode, and review your footage. A flip-out USB connector lets you charge the device and download videos directly to your computer, or you can power up via the supplied AC adapter and access images from the SD card itself. One convenient feature of this shockproof, waterproof camcorder is the standard, 1/4-inch tripod socket, which gives you unlimited mounting options. The DV1’s main drawback is its narrow field of view.

The GoPro Hero is the most compact camera we found, and it’s no wonder this model is so popular with racers: the image quality is excellent, the wide-angle lens captures all the action on deck, and its waterproof housing can handle even the roughest, wettest conditions. But the absence of a detailed LCD screen means you need to study the manual, otherwise you’ll have a hard time knowing whether you’re in photo or video mode, or whether you’re even recording at all.

As its name implies, the Sail Pro Onboard Camera is built for sailing, combining a lightweight, waterproof, bullet-shaped camera body with stern mounts designed specifically for the Laser, Optimist, Finn, 420, and 470. The carbon-fiber wand provides a coach-boat perspective and stays free of spray—and the mainsheet. The 170-degree, fisheye lens allows you to see the entire boat, distortion-free, and you can see yourself, too, even when fully hiked. One drawback is the difficulty of determining whether the camera is recording. Press the button once, and a green light appears. Hold it down again, and there’s a subtle sound signal and a red light starts flashing. Problem is, the green and red lights are hard to see in bright sunlight.

The Drift HD170 Stealth has all the features we want in an onboard camera: the LCD screen and multi-directional buttons make it simple and worry-free to operate, the 170-degree lens provides a wide-angle view and delivers high-quality footage, and the rotating lens and universal mount let you attach the device to your boat in creative ways. The remote control comes in handy, eliminating trips to the camera in order to start recording. A minor flaw is that it’s not easy to slip the camera inside the waterproof case. The company recently launched a smaller version, the Drift HD.

We put the Contour HD through a workout, strapping it to the booms of a Laser and Sunfish. With its waterproof case, it’s practically indestructible.

Using the supplied software, you can connect to the camera’s preferences and tinker with the resolution (there are four available; a switch on the back of the camera allows you to toggle between any two while filming), adjust the microphone sensitivity, and change the exposure.

The microphone is all but useless when the camera is inside the waterproof case. The lights indicating the state of the camera (on, recording, error, etc.) are tough to see in sunlight, especially, for example,when mounted to the end of your boom. The camera does beep when it changes status, but the alerts can be inaudible when it’s windy and the camera is in its case.

The video quality is crisp, and the shape of the camera makes it easy to mount and unlikely to interfere with your sailing. Since we began our test, Contour has discontinued the HD and launched the upgraded ROAM, which is waterproof to 3 feet without the case.

Looking for more information? Check out Michael Lovett's tips for mounting options and video file storage.