The Sailor’s Chronograph: The Rolex Yacht Master II In Action

Find out how a Rolex Yach Master II is actually used to time a countdown in a regatta.

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If you’re part of the rarified strata of people who can afford a Yacht-Master II, surely one could understand if you kept it on land during its lifespan, placed carefully in a safe like wearable art, with its striking blue bezel making an appearance on only the grandest of occasions. However, to really see the chronograph in it’s finest moments, living out it’s born purpose, you should race a sailboat with it.

I learned this firsthand at the Rolex TP52 World Championship in Cascais, Portugal this July, where dozens of the world’s best sailors, including numerous Olympians and America’s Cup winners, competed against each other on nine nearly identical 52-foot carbon fiber racing yachts (Rolex has been involved in the yachting world for over 60 years). Because the boats in this class are so similar, and the sailors so accomplished, the entire race is often decided by tiny adjustments and critical moments–the most notable of which is the starting sequence. In fact, a race really begins five minutes before the opening flag, with boats performing a delicate ballet for prime starting position, weaving and circling within feet of one another. The goal is to cross the starting line at maximum speed the moment the countdown hits zero, but not a second early.

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Here’s how it works: two boats, helmed by race officials, position themselves across a small span of ocean and drop anchors to mark themselves as the starting line. Once they are anchored in place, a voice arises through a crackling two-way radio, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1,” it says, counting down to a group of eager sailors ready to synchronize their clocks to the official race timing. Then, a horn sounds, a flag is raised, and the voice declares, “5 minutes.”

At this moment, the boats begin showing their strategy for the first time. Some are already far removed from the starting line, moving forward at a measured speed and finding their pace. Others, like the American-owned boat and eventual winner Quantum, broadcast a more unique strategy, crossing the starting line exactly at the 5-minute warning, before soon circling back and aggressively butting into a line of their competitors moments before the official start.

During the countdown, the navigator of a boat is interpreting a variety of factors, like true wind angle, current, boat speed, and GPS location to deliver updates to his team about its ideal path to the starting line, and he’s doing all this while watching the clock. “10 seconds early,” he may chime in – or, ideally, he will say nothing at all.

“The start of the race is where the cards are dealt,” five-time Olympic medalist and helmsman of the Onda, Robert Scheidt told me. “And a quiet boat is a fast boat.”

The Yachtmaster II was designed with this exacting sequence in mind. When set, the watch displays the countdown in a way that is easily legible. The running seconds appear on a central sub-dial, and the countdown minutes are indicated by a red-tipped hand that points to an inner minute scale. Because not all regattas have a five-minute starting sequence, Rolex engineers spent 35,000 hours devising a new movement, the calibre 4161, that allows the watch to adapt to countdowns of between 1 and 10 minutes in conjunction with the rotating bezel and the crown. The watch then mechanically “memorizes” the programmed countdown time and will return to the same duration after reset.

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Further, the Yachtmaster II features flyback/forward synchronization that allows for maximum accuracy; in addition to standard flyback operation, the Yachmaster has the ability to fly-forward the fourth hand to the nearest minute at the push of a button while the countdown continues (this is useful if, for instance, the race officials give notice via a pistol shot of a certain number of minutes remaining and the user has to synchronize the watch).

“The start of the race is where the cards are dealt,” five-time Olympic medalist and helmsman of the Onda, Robert Scheidt told me. “And a quiet boat is a fast boat.”

In the Atlantic Ocean, about one nautical mile offshore from Portugal, race officials have just issued the 1-minute countdown in the final race. The air is tense, and almost eerily silent near the starting line. The only noise is the creak of drum-tight carbon fiber sails as the boats zig and zag towards the starting line, approaching speeds of 25 knots. Quantum sneaks in next to another boat and takes a daring left turn to cut it off and claim its patch of ocean. Then, officials chime in, “3, 2, 1″ – at this moment, with mere feet separating the nine boats from one another, they cross the starting line, and the race is underway. Quantum has found open air, the ballet concludes, and the seconds glide by.

“The rich get richer,” is often said in sailing to describe the importance of a lead at the start, meaning that the leading boat will enjoy clean wind, open sea. and unobstructed turning angles. Even the smallest differences at this starting moment can feel like a foregone conclusion for the race – for example, after a disappointing 8th place-finish on the penultimate day of the regatta, Platoon owner Harm Muller Spreer gave a simple post-mortem. “We missed the start by 30 meters,” he said…

The key to victory, it would seem, is indeed in the countdown.

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