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How Rolex’s Lifelong Love Affair With the Yachting World Shaped Modern Watchmaking

By Lynette Kee

A sextant and wristwatch — here, a Rolex Submariner — navigators can calculate longitude at sea.
 
A sextant and wristwatch — here, a Rolex Submariner — navigators can calculate longitude at sea.

It’s safe to say that anyone who is born in the 21st century has been readily exposed to technology and the numerous mechanical marvels it has chartered thus far. Think of a communication device, and a smartphone inevitably comes to mind. The pager or an antenna phone with its black and white pixelated display is almost an impossible concept — nostalgic, at best — to grasp for those born in the ’90s.

Similarly, for wristwatches, which only surfaced in the 19th century (designed to provide ease of movement for men on the battlefield), time-telling was otherwise effected by various form of constructs such as bell clock towers and grandfather clocks.

And for those heading out to sea, sailors in particular, relied on onboard marine chronometers until the beginning of the 20th century to tell the time. When surviving on sea, perfect timing is of the essence. It is an essential information for a captain to calculate longitude and latitude in order to realise a ship’s exact position on the globe, in turn, providing safe navigation for the ship’s crew.

Sir Francis Chichester, the first person to sail single- handed around the world lasting from August 1966 to May 1967.
Sir Francis Chichester, the first person to sail single- handed around the world lasting from August 1966 to May 1967.

The advent of purpose-built wristwatches was when Hans Wilsdorf, founder of Rolex, in 1914, created the world's first wristwatch to be awarded a “Class A” certificate, by the Kew Observatory — a British observatory dubbed the highest authority for precision testing at the time. Right from the start, Wilsdorf, whose passion for adventure resulted in a lifelong relationship with prestigious yacht clubs from all over the world, had a clear vision of watchmaking's future, where accuracy, waterproofness and durability are able to co-exist in a single small form. By combining this achievement and Rolex's patented waterproof Oyster case, he was able to replace the enrooted chronometer stationed at a boat's binnacle with easy time access on the wrist, revolutionising the wristwatch as a functional tool rather than just a mere fashion accessory for telling time.

The World Is Your Oyster

Today, we have watches made to fit every purpose, from lifestyle to sport. With exploration and innovation at the core of its branding, Rolex continues to support 15 international partners in their historical yacht race and regattas while filling its Yacht-Master line with sleeker and more robust new versions.

To Rolex, every problem represents an opportunity. Long before the birth of the first Yacht-Master, Rolex had accompanied various yachting enthusiasts in their journey to explore new routes or attempt new records, often by themselves — much like Sir Francis Chichester, who set sail in 1966, as the first yachtsman to circumnavigate the globe from west to east.

According to Chichester, the Rolex Oyster watch he had on valiantly stood up to the stormy seas. In a letter to Rolex on his experience with the timepiece, Chichester had penned, “I cannot imagine a hardier timepiece. When using [it] for sextant work and working on the foredeck, it was frequently banged, also doused by waves coming aboard; but it never seemed to mind all this”.

The first Rolex Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Master was then launched in 1992 to celebrate the close relationship between Rolex and the world of sailing and regattas. Specially designed to meet the needs of sailors, its emblematic bi-directional rotating bezel and waterproof characteristics were created to withstand the unforgiving elements of nature.

A Way of Life

Like Chichester, several other yachtsmen like Bernard Moitessier and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston were also record-breaking sailors who had completed solo voyages around the world in under a year. French sailor Moitessier set sail in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, the inaugural solo, non-stop round-the-world race at the time. After passing the mid-point (also the furthest point) of the trail before heading back to the finish point back in England, Moitessier decided to venture on to the Pacific Islands, completing a whopping 37,455 nautical miles while deeming the Rolex he had on throughout the journey as “one of the most important pieces of equipment on my boat.” Knox-Johnston, too, made his mark in yachting history when he won the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1969 with a Rolex in hand. His experience with the brand was, however, a more personal one having owned the watch for 8 years, during which he had “dived to over 200 feet, mountaineered, sailed, skied and surfed with,” he said, “and it still keeps good time.”

Seafarer and writer Bernard Moitessier broke the record of longest distance non- stop voyage after 300 days at sea.
Seafarer and writer Bernard Moitessier broke the record of longest distance non- stop voyage after 300 days at sea.
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston won the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1969.
Sir Robin Knox-Johnston won the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1969.

Taking on the ocean demands courage, an innate sense of adventure and most importantly, passion. Yacht enthusiasts prepare themselves well for each sail, while taking into account every possible unfavourable circumstance, such as bad weather and damaged boat parts, among others. Yet it is through extreme conditions they become akin to their survival sport instincts. Rolex has spent decades cementing its watchmaking name in the realm of sporting excellence. The brand’s passion for exacting performance is shared with a sport with a long history, yachting’s discipline to bring a fusion of advance and traditional know how to their watches.

he newest edition of Rolex's Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Master 42 underlines the sporting spirit harnessed by Rolex's relationship with yachting.
he newest edition of Rolex's Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Master 42 underlines the sporting spirit harnessed by Rolex's relationship with yachting.

The latest updates to the Rolex Yacht-Master is the purest expression of the model yet. Now in 42mm, the Yacht-Master 42 is cocooned in an 18 ct white gold case, standing luxe and sturdy, while retaining its robust features and appearance against the black bezel. Cradled within the watch is the calibre 3235, Rolex’s state-of-the-art time and date movement with a high-efficiency escapement at the heart of the watch, commanding speed and power to the watch — proving that like sportsmanship, this luxury watchmaker is one that does not slow down or waiver in tough situations.