Let’s face it, we’ve gotten soft. The modern world of smartphones, paddle shifters and electric bikes have removed us from the capabilities that make life adventurous. Could you build a fire without a match? Didn’t think so. How about navigating in the wilderness without a GPS? Better update your will. In the absence of these core skills honed over millennia of human survival, men reach for surrogates to assuage their shortcomings, symbols of adventurous days of yore. But what you need to get started reclaiming your inner Shackleton is not a bigger SUV or an over-proportioned dive watch. No, we suggest you start with the elegant timepiece you see pictured here — the Glashütte Original Senator Observer — and a sextant.
In 1969, while men were approaching the first lunar landing, Robin Knox-Johnston was rounding Cape Horn alone in a small boat, on his way to becoming the first man to sail solo nonstop around the planet. Radio contact was sporadic, satellite phones and GPS decades in the future. Knox-Johnston found his way solely by his own fortitude and skills, navigating the same way sailors had since the late 1700s — by calculating his longitude using the angle of the sun and the known time difference between his present position and the time back at his home port. It was the same way Roald Amundsen found his way to 90 degrees south in 1911. The watch Amundsen used for his navigation was a deck watch built in Glashütte, Germany, a mechanical ancestor of the new Glashütte Original Senator Observer.
Before the advent of radar, LORAN and GPS, navigation itself required the sextant and an accurate timepiece, whether at sea or crossing Antarctica. Most commonly, the navigator would take a “sun shot” with his sextant and then do some math involving the angle of the sun and the time difference between his present position and his home port. The timing was critical; a few seconds fast or slow could mean a navigational error of many miles. The timepiece used for a reference onboard naval vessels was a marine chronometer, a highly accurate clock but one that was inherently fragile. The marine chronometer typically resided below deck in the navigator’s quarters, away from the salt spray, rain and possible damage up top. This presented a problem, since the navigator needed to be on deck to take his sextant reading. Therefore, a watch was needed, one that could be set to the chronometer reference below deck and also survive the conditions on deck, either in the pocket or, later, on the wrist. These watches were logically called “deck” watches or “observation” watches and the ones from Glashütte were some of the best, used by the German navy and by polar explorers and pilots over decades of exploration.
How a Sextant Works
Despite the prevalence of GPS, sextants are still in wide use by sailors, kept on board as backup devices should a GPS malfunction. Even if you never find yourself lost at sea, there’s something satisfying about knowing how to use an instrument from the 1700s. Essentially, a sextant measures the angle between two objects — in most cases, the sun and the horizon — using mirrors, an eyepiece and a calibrated scale. Once you get the hang of using it, read up on how to navigate with it using your nautical charts and an accurate watch.
(Image courtesy PBS.org)
Glashütte Original has paid tribute to the history of its hometown’s deck watches with the Senator Observer. Besides their accuracy, deck watches were prized for their legibility, and it is a trait carried forward with the Senator Observer. A broad matte black dial is demarcated with Arabic numerals and a railroad track minute ring, both circumnavigated by broad, sword-shaped hands that leave little doubt as to the time. The early observation watches were hand-wound and often had power reserve indicators so that navigators could maintain adequate mainspring tension for optimum accuracy. Although the Senator is a self-winding watch, it still sports a large “Ab – Auf” (Up/Down) scale tracking the watch’s 55 hours’ worth of power reserve. The Panorama date aperture at 6:00, with separate discs for the digits, is a Glashütte Original hallmark.
Powering the Senator Observer is the Calibre 100-14, manufactured in GO’s Alterbergerstrasse factory, which is visible through the sapphire case back. The movement has a traditional Saxon construction, with a striped three-quarter plate and screw-mounted gold chatons to secure the jewels. A beautifully skeletonized rotor efficiently keeps the mainspring wound as you move your wrist.
The Senator Observer no doubt tilts towards the dressier side of the wristwatch spectrum, but don’t be fooled. Its polished and satin-brushed 44mm steel case is water resistant to 50 meters, which should be more than adequate even for a deck awash in sea spray as you’re rounding the Horn. There’s nothing saying that reclaiming your adventurous capabilities means forgoing a little refinement.
Now, about that sextant.