Rolex Works Hand in Hand with Sailing Legends


Sailing legends Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, Sir Francis Chichester and Bernard Moitessier all wore a Rolex during their pioneering sailing feats of the 1960s, which still inspire sailors in today’s leading offshore races.


It is a relationship born of a natural affinity with a sport that exhibits time-honoured values and a dynamic spirit. Six decades into its partnership with yachting, Rolex is the committed supporter of the some of the world’s most prestigious yacht clubs, races and regattas.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston used his Rolex Explorer watch during his victory in the
Sunday Times Golden Globe Race in 1969, when he became the first solo sailor to complete a non-stop circumnavigation

Rolex is the committed supporter of the some of the world’s most prestigious yacht clubs, races and regattas.Rolex can trace its connection with the sea back to the company’s origins in the early 1900s, when founder Hans Wilsdorf envisaged a pioneering watch that would be robust, precise and reliable, sharing the highest standards of excellence with the custodians of yachting’s finest spirit.

The strength of this association would be cemented by the feats of three extraordinary individuals, which helped confirm Wilsdorf’s perceptive understanding that increasingly active lifestyles demanded a wristwatch chronometer that was accurate, self-winding and, significantly, waterproof.

The 1960s was a period that added considerable impetus to the sport of yachting and particularly the discipline of offshore racing.

The challenges faced by today’s sailors may appear a world away from those encountered in the middle of the last century, but those heading to sea and out of sight of land for extended periods are still inspired by the characters and achievements of that era.

 Sir Francis Chichester relied upon a Rolex Oyster Perpetual during his solo circumnavigation aboard Gipsy Moth IV in 1966-67

Advances in technology, materials and design continually improve navigation, fitness for purpose and comfort, but the open ocean remains an unforgiving environment. Until the beginning of the 20th century, offshore racing had been the preserve of large yachts with paid crew. The 635nm NewportBermuda Race, first held in 1906, became the catalyst for the 605nm Rolex Fastnet Race, founded in 1925, and opened the door to racing offshore in yachts of 30ft and upwards.

When the 628nm Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race was founded in 1945, the discipline had truly come of age. Other races of about 600nm would follow including the Rolex China Sea Race in 1962, the Rolex
Middle Sea Race in 1968 and the RORC Caribbean 600 in 2009.

Passion was the key element in the early editions of these races, with small numbers of enthusiastic participants.

A series of accomplishments would add the allure of adventure and testing oneself to the simple concept of competition, thereby broadening the appeal of offshore sailing. In 1960, the first solo transatlantic race was won by British yachtsman Sir Francis Chichester.

The route of Chichester’s west-to-east circumnavigation in 1966-67 from Plymouth, which included rounding the three great Capes

Such was the success of this inaugural race that four years later it was held again with more than twice as many participants. Chichester would finish second on this occasion. Spurred on to greater heights, this unassuming man, also an entrepreneur and an aviator, epitomised the spirit of sailing and adventure, and became the first person to sail around the world alone from west to east, along the fastest route available – the clipper route.

Setting off in 1966 aboard his 55ft ketch Gipsy Moth IV, Chichester counted among his ‘crew’ a sextant and a Rolex Oyster Perpetual chronometer, which absorbed the same drenching and scrapes as him.

He wrote in a letter in 1968: “During my voyage around the world in Gipsy Moth IV, my Rolex watch was knocked off my wrist several times without being damaged. 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.”

After 226 days, including a stopover in Australia, Chichester returned to Plymouth, United Kingdom, having rounded the three great Capes: Good Hope, South Africa; Leeuwin, Australia; and the Horn, Chile.

He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for “sustained endeavour in the navigation and seamanship of small craft”. His epic feat, undertaken in his mid-60s when most are considering retirement, inspired still greater achievement.

Wearing a Rolex Oyster Perpetual GMT-Master certified chronometer, Bernard Moitessier was leading the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, but the Vietnam-born Frenchman elected not to return to Plymouth and instead sailed south of Africa, Australia and New Zealand for a second time before settling in Tahiti

The clipper route, embraced by Chichester, is the favoured course followed by the most challenging round-the-world yacht races, all of which came into being after his venture. The first of those races was established only a year later.

In 1968, nine yachtsmen took on the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, the first non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race. The level of the unknown that such a voyage presented then is difficult to comprehend in this age of digital mapping, mobile communication and satellite navigation. More was understood about heading into outer space.

When the French sailor Bernard Moitessier and British yachtsman Sir Robin Knox-Johnston were among those setting off to prove it was possible for man and machine to sail around the earth without stopping, few believed they would succeed.

Like Chichester, they had to rely on their seamanship and determination to survive whatever the oceans threw at them. Conserving resources and protecting their yachts were key concerns.So, too, was navigation, which remained reliant upon the time, sun and stars to plot position with any degree of precision.

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston’s Rolex Explorer watch

Of the nine sailors to embark on the challenge, only one completed the full course. Moitessier, born and raised in Vietnam, looked capable of completing the task and in the fastest time, but chose to abandon the contest, continuing east towards the Cape of Good Hope for a second time rather than heading north once he had rounded Cape Horn.

Moitessier would go on to cover some 37,455nm before coming to rest in Tahiti, the longest non-stop solo voyage.

Knox-Johnston persevered with the quest, overcoming adversities, privations and solitude, arriving back in Falmouth, UK, in April 1969, some 312 days after his departure. As the winner of the Sunday Times Golden Globe, he entered the history books as the first solo sailor to successfully circumnavigate the planet, non-stop.

Sailing prowess aside, Knox-Johnston and Moitessier were both indebted to the resilience and reliability of the Rolex Oyster as an essential tool among the navigational aids on their voyages. 

The annual Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, which starts on December 26, is the southern hemisphere’s leading offshore race

Knox-Johnston laid great store by the characteristics of his Rolex: “It was strong enough to take a bashing and was predictable, which was what I really needed for navigation, particularly when taking sights on deck.

“It was a good, reliable, trustworthy watch. Through all the punishment it received, it just kept going. It was still working perfectly when I got home, which says it all.

”Moitessier, writing to Rolex in 1968, advised that: “Obviously, your Rolex is [much more] sophisticated in terms of regularity, waterproofness and robustness and will allow me to make [more] accurate sights since I will be wearing it on my wrist on deck. It is therefore one of the most important pieces of equipment on my boat.”

The Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club organises the Rolex China Sea Race, which will next start on March 30, 2021

Given this background, it is perhaps only natural that Rolex would seek to partner the most prestigious yacht clubs, institutions and regattas in the world, sharing the highest standards of excellence with the
custodians of yachting’s finest spirit. Rolex stepped offshore to secure relationships with the world’s top 600nm races and the organisations behind them. Stringent examinations of sailing skill and human
endeavour, these classic contests and their organising clubs have, like Rolex, been defined by a spirit of adventure.

The most famous are the biennial Rolex Fastnet Race, run by the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC), and the annual Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, launched by the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia (CYCA). Widely regarded as northern and southern hemisphere equivalents, and both supported by Rolex since the beginning of the 2000s, they are on every offshore sailor’s wish list.

The primary focus for all participants at these races is, first and foremost, to finish. If one has an eye on winning, the focus is doing so in the shortest possible time. Plotting the correct route, maintaining the optimum speed in the prevailing conditions and time-management of resources are essential components of a successful voyage, just as they were for the pioneers of 50 years ago.

Crews have to manage their strategy and resources according to the potential and characteristics of their boat. There is no room for complacency, nor error in judgement, in the pursuit of victory. Every decision has to be
accurate and timed precisely. Taking care of the minute details remains essential, just as it was for Chichester, Moitessier and Knox-Johnston. There is no pit-lane to carry out repairs or replenish resources.

The Rolex Oyster Perpetual worn by Sir Francis Chichester during his circumnavigation from August 1966 to May 1967

Time management in offshore races continues to require robust, accurate timing. Launched in 1992, the Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Master range celebrates the close relationship between Rolex and the world of
sailing and regattas.

The Yacht-Master’s Oyster case, waterproof to a depth of 100m (330ft), features a slightly rounded design to avoid snagging rigging or sails and safely protects the accuracy of the self-winding mechanical movement,
designed and manufactured by Rolex and certified as an official chronometer by the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC).

Simply completing one of the classic 600nm races is rightly considered an achievement to celebrate. Marking the significance of the endeavour and the dedication that is required to prevail, historic trophies are awarded to the successful crews.

According to John Markos, past Commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, one of the prizes has attained legendary status: “The fengraving on the back of the Rolex timepiece awarded to the overall winner means everything. It stamps the timepiece with a unique feature that cannot be purchased.

The next Rolex Fastnet Race in 2021 and the following edition in 2023 will finish in Cherbourg, France, instead of Plymouth, UK

 “While a trophy like the Tattersall Cup is awarded each year, the Rolex watch is personal, owned and carried by the winner. It has become a recognised symbol of success and achievement.”

In a world where shorter competition formats are becoming ever more popular, it is reassuring that some sports continue to embrace their history and traditions. Promoting and guarding the values of offshore sailing remains a core focus of the organising yacht clubs involved.

The success of their approach is confirmed with new record fleets regularly being established at their races: 362 yachts at the 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race and 130 yachts at the 2018 Rolex Middle Sea Race, for

The commitment of Rolex is also long-standing, stretching back sixdecades, but importantly, it is also forward-looking, with multi-year event partnerships in place. The challenge of the open sea is perpetual and, for those willing to take it on and sail in the wake of their heroes, the opportunities to do so are in safe-keeping.

The original article first appeared in Yacht Style Issue 54 (Charter Issue 2020) – see below:
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