This Rolex Made the First Solo, Nonstop Sail Around the World
And developed a beautiful tropical dial during its 312 days at sea.
Originally published by Jason Heaton on Hodinkee.
These were not your typical excuses for a tardy e-mail response, but then again this e-mail was from none other than Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, so I was willing to cut him some slack. In 1969, Knox-Johnston became the first person to sail single-handedly around the world without stopping. He completed his record-setting, 312-day circumnavigation in April of that year, only three months before another team of voyagers set sail for a different round trip into the unknown. The Apollo 11 Moon landing had the full weight of the NASA “machine” behind it, making available the most cutting edge technology of the time. Knox-Johnston’s voyage, on the other hand, was entirely more low-tech, self-funded, and entirely analog. He was, at times, cut off entirely from contact with the rest of the world, in a 32-foot sailboat he built himself, navigating by the stars and sun, using a sextant and chronometer. On his wrist? Fittingly, a Rolex Explorer.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a story about the Rolex worn by Sir Francis Chichester, who completed own solo circumnavigation in 1967, with one stopover in Australia. Chichester’s accomplishment was groundbreaking but it left one thing yet to be done: sail around alone, without stopping. The Sunday Times newspaper announced a race, the “Golden Globe” to see who could do it, and offered a £5,000 prize to the winner. Nine sailors entered the race. Six of them retired or lost their boats, one man went mad and jumped into the sea, and one abandoned the race to continue sailing to Indonesia. This left only Knox-Johnston to finish, sailing back to England to become the winner of the race and the first person to knock off this “Everest of sailing.”
It’s difficult to overstate the difficulty of solo circumnavigation in the 1960s. It was, in most respects, no different from attempting the feat in the 1860s, or the 1760s. No GPS or even radar navigation, no Gore-tex, carbon fiber, LED headlamps, Red Bull or GoPro. Knox-Johnston built his Bermudan ketch, Suhaili, while living in India in the early 1960s, using locally sourced teak wood. His only sponsors for the race were a British chocolate company and a beer company, who both paid him in product. He decided to enter the race when he heard that a Frenchman, Bernard Moitessier, was competing, and thought it would be good if an Englishman won.
Knox-Johnston told me that he acquired his Rolex Explorer, reference 6610, in Kuwait in 1961. He was serving in the merchant marine at the time, sailing the Indian Ocean between Africa, the Middle East, and India. It would have been a logical choice for a man who needed something sturdy he could set and forget during long trips at sea in the tropics. No date, no fuss, with water resistance to spare. By that time, the Explorer had been in Rolex’s lineup for seven years. It was evolved from, and inspired by, the Oyster Perpetual worn on the British expedition to summit Mount Everest in 1953, and strongly related to the watch that fellow British sailor, Chichester, wore for his exploits.
I asked Robin Knox-Johnston if he used his Rolex for navigating during his historic long way round. “No, I did not use my wristwatch for this timekeeping; that was kept for my daily schedule,” he replied. “I used a sextant for sun and star sights and I had a chronometer aboard and obtained time signals when I could but kept a record of its errors so I could rate them.”
We all like to romanticize watches, picturing Knox-Johnston up on deck, glancing down at his Rolex before taking a sun shot with his sextant. But in reality, it was another humble piece of gear that likely never left his wrist and used for more ordinary purposes. I can imagine him rolling over in his bunk after catching an hour of sleep to squint at the luminescent hands before going up on deck to check that Suhaili remained on course. Or jotting notes in his log, noting the time he passed Cape Horn, or maybe timing a pot of pasta he had boiling on the small Primus stove for his dinner.
The Explorer, along with Suhaili and Knox-Johnston himself, survived tremendous challenges during his 312 days at sea. At one point, in the Southern Ocean, a wave nearly capsized the boat, knocking out his two-way radio and flooding the freshwater tanks with saltwater, forcing Knox-Johnston to collect rainwater to drink for the rest of the voyage. He wasn’t sure how close the boat had come to flipping until later, when he found a coin wedged in a ceiling beam.
Physical challenges aside, spending close to a year away from dry land and completely alone, on the move at sea, is something few people can relate to, perhaps only prisoners in solitary confinement. Knox-Johnston was unable to send or receive radio updates after his near-capsize, prompting an air and sea search until a passing freighter spotted him in the middle of the Atlantic, heading back towards England. He arrived in Falmouth a celebrated hero, went on to write a book, become knighted, and is still sailing today, at age 79.
Looking at his Rolex Explorer, you can see evidence of its tough life at sea, most noticeably in the dial, which has faded almost entirely from its original black to the point that the Arabic numerals are all but disappearing. There are various theories about why some dials go “tropical” like this: faulty paint, temperature, or exposure to sunlight. Given the time this watch spent on the wrist of a sailor who has spent perhaps more time than anyone on the deck of a boat in hot sun, I’m inclined to side with the UV light theory. It’s a dial effect collectors yearn for, and pay more for, but one that must be earned on the wrist, doing adventurous things in the elements. This one now enjoys a dry retirement in Rolex’s Geneva archives, still fitted on its original riveted Oyster bracelet.
To me, this watch is up there with some of the most prized “adventure” watches of all time, worn during some of mankind’s greatest exploration achievements, such as Hillary’s Rolex or Aldrin’s Speedmaster (wherever it may be). Sailing might be a little too arcane for most people to grasp, and Knox-Johnston’s feat perhaps not fully appreciated in our age of sat-nav. It was almost certainly overshadowed by the Moon landing the same year, which had the advantage of a live television feed. But the first solo, nonstop circumnavigation remains one of the last great achievements on planet Earth, along with reaching the Poles or Everest, or flying across the Atlantic solo.
Interestingly, Knox-Johnston’s primary competitor in the Golden Globe, Bernard Moitessier, also wore a Rolex during the race, a reference 1675 GMT-Master and it could be seen in several photos of him onboard his boat, Joshua. The whereabouts of that watch are currently unknown. Moitessier became more philosophical and mystical during the course of the race, ultimately choosing to abandon to continue around the globe a second time, even leaving his wife waiting for him back home. So perhaps he found time itself, and possessions, irrelevant and cast his watch into the sea. That’s my theory anyway. I hope I’m not right.
2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the Golden Globe race and, to commemorate, a new version of the race is being contested, starting July 1st in Falmouth. Since the 1968-69 race, other round-the-world sailing races have been contested, from the Vendée Globe to the Whitbread, and the Volvo Ocean Race. But the Golden Globe 2018 is unique in that it aims to recreate the conditions Sir Robin Knox-Johnston faced when he pushed off from Falmouth’s docks in 1968. Boats must be of similar size and build as Suhaili, and competitors can only use technology of the era, from sextants and chronometers to Dacron sails, film cameras and wind-up watches. As Knox-Johnston told me in his e-mail, he will be sailing the renovated Suhaili itself to Falmouth for the race start July 1st. It’s unclear if any of the competitors will wear Rolex Explorers, but at least if one does, she’ll know it’s been proven to perform.
I asked Sir Robin Knox-Johnston if anything has been lost in the modern, more digital age of sailing, where navigation relies more on GPS, satellite communications, and up to the minute weather forecasts. His reply was pragmatic and optimistic: “GPS has opened up short and long distance sailing to many people. Yes, there used to be satisfaction in a good landfall using a sextant, but there were far fewer of us out there then.”
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