While the watchmaker’s association with yacht racing is well known, Rolex’s support of pioneering nautical adventurers—like intrepid solo circumnavigator Francis Chichester—is another story altogether

The sponsor of numerous regattas and yacht clubs, Rolex boasts a long association with the world of competitive sailing. The bond stretches back to the 1950s, when—at the same time the company’s newly launched Submariner dive watch was beginning to find favour with serious yachtsmen—Rolex forged its first formal partnership in the nautical realm, allying with the New York Yacht Club.

In the nearly seven decades since, it has built many other such relationships with prestigious clubs, including Britain’s Royal Ocean Racing Club and Royal Yacht Squadron, the Yacht Club de Monaco, the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, the Yacht Club Costa Smeralda, Société Nautique de Saint-Tropez, Yacht Club Argentino and the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia.

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The brand’s green and gold livery resplendent on banners, scoreboards, sails and prows, Rolex’s sponsorship of yacht racing captures plenty of attention. Perhaps less known is that, as in other areas of exploration—famously, Edmund Hillary’s pioneering climb of Everest—Rolex has long supported adventure on the high seas.

The spirit of adventure

In the most notable case, Rolex provided British yachtsman Francis Chichester with a Rolex Oyster Perpetual to help keep time during his 1966–67 attempt to become the first person to sail solo around the world from west to east along what’s known as the Clipper Route.

This is the sea path between Europe and Asia, Australia and New Zealand that was used by the great clipper-class merchant ships of the 19th century, harnessing the powerful winds of the Roaring Forties.

Though Chichester was the son of a Devon clergyman, his uncle Edward, ninth baronet of Chichester, was a rear admiral in the Royal Navy, naval aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, and admiral superintendent of the Naval Establishment, Gibraltar. The sea was in Chichester’s blood. He was also a talented pilot who literally wrote the book on Royal Air Force fighter aircraft navigation during World War II.

Described by The Guardian newspaper in 1966 as “brave, a little eccentric, intensely individual,” Chichester was 65 when he set out on the formidable round-the-world journey of 46,000 kilometres in his custom 16-metre ketch Gipsy Moth IV. The adventurer had named his four vessels for the De Havilland Gipsy Moth aircraft he’d flown as a young aviator. In one such plane, in 1931, he’d become the first person to fly solo across the Tasman Sea from New Zealand to Australia.

One close call after another

No stranger to death-defying challenges, in 1958 Chichester had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given six months to live. He ignored doctors’ advice and had a lung surgically removed. He was nursed back to health by his wife, Sheila, who placed him on a vegetarian diet. Thus macrobiotically fortified, Chichester sailed from Plymouth to New York in 40 days in 1960, winning the world’s first solo transatlantic sailing race in Gipsy Moth III.

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His momentous 1966–67 trip from Plymouth, around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, across the Indian Ocean to Sydney (the journey’s only stop) and back home across the Pacific around Cape Horn, took 226 days of sailing time—and nearly claimed Chichester’s life on numerous occasions.

Though she’d successfully made the fastest voyage around the world of any small vessel, Gipsy Moth IV had been unwieldy, prone to capsizing and the cause of endless strife. “The boat was too big for me,” Chichester wrote in Life magazine. “Gipsy Moth IV has no sentimental value for me at all. She is cantankerous and difficult and needs a crew of three.”

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The resilience of Rolex 

The intrepid seafarer was far happier with another piece of equipment: his watch. “During my voyage around the world in Gipsy Moth IV, my Rolex watch was knocked off my wrist several times without being damaged,” he wrote in a letter in 1968. “I cannot imagine a hardier timepiece. When using [it] for sextant work and working the foredeck, it was frequently banged, also doused by waves coming aboard; but it never seemed to mind all this.”

Chichester used a simple time-only, three-hand Oyster Perpetual, but already by the 1960s Rolex had begun producing a handful of watches specifically for sailors, dubbing these nautical chronographs Yacht-Master.

The Yacht-Master as we know it today wouldn’t be launched until 1992, however, when Rolex gave that moniker to a new sporty time/date watch in a 40mm case of 18-karat gold. In 2007, the company released the Yacht-Master II, a flyback chronograph featuring one of the more specialised complications in watchmaking, a regatta timer, which allows a captain to time their yacht’s launch across a regatta starting line.

Any damn fool can navigate the world sober. It takes a really good sailor to do it drunk.
Francis Chichester

As someone who spent much of his life competing against himself or the clock, Chichester, were he sailing today, would no doubt be drawn to the initial time/date iteration of the Yacht-Master. This year, Rolex launched a new 42mm edition in a case of 18-karat white gold with a “stealth” matte-black ceramic bezel insert, powered by the self-winding Rolex calibre 3235.

New and improved

The modern variant eliminates Chichester’s issues with his watch being knocked off his wrist—the new Yacht-Master is borne on the innovative Oysterflex bracelet, comprising flexible metal blades overmoulded with high-performance elastomer. Tough, secure and highly resistant to knocks, the bracelet is also incredibly comfortable, its Glidelock extension system allowing on-the-spot sizing adjustments in increments of 2.5mm.

Naturally, both case and bracelet are highly water-resistant—great for a guy like Chichester, who was not known for being “dry.”

“Any damn fool can navigate the world sober,” he said. “It takes a really good sailor to do it drunk.” 

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