At this Spring’s Baselworld, Rolex launched its new Yacht-Master. The largest (by 2mm) and sleekest (think polished white gold meets matte black Cerachrom) iteration of this model yet.

But where many brands may create a new watch design to salute something which, frankly, may have very little to do with the heritage of their brand, Rolex is celebrating a decades-old partnership.

Rewind to 1925, and the first ever 605 nautical mile Rolex Fastnet Race took place. This now famous biennial offshore yacht race was organised by the Royal Ocean Racing Club, and was named after the Fastnet Rock, which the race course rounds. It was the catalyst for a whole host of international races, opening the door to racing offshore in yachts of 30ft and upwards.

By the time the 628nm Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race was founded in 1945, the discipline had come of age – and has continued to develop, with the Rolex China Sea Race in 1962, and the Rolex Middle Sea Race in 1968 being two renowned successors.

Of course, sponsorship is just the public facing element of this partnership. What matters more are the men on board – and the watches on their wrists.

Pioneering Spirit

Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf was one of the first to grasp that increasingly active lifestyles demanded a wristwatch chronometer that was accurate, self-winding and, significantly, waterproof. So when it came to hitting the high seas, he made sure that yachtsmen would naturally turn to Rolex.

In 1960, the first solo transatlantic race was won by British yachtsman Francis Chichester. 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, he then set about proving it was possible to sail solo around the world from west to east in a time faster than the three-masted clipper ships of the 19th century.

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.

In one captioned picture from the voyage, he noted that “Gipsy Moth IV needs running repairs after capsizing in the Tasman Sea, but the Rolex ticks on happily.”

After 226 days, including a stopover in Australia, Chichester returned to Plymouth 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 at an age when most are considering retirement, inspired still greater achievement. 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.

All Around The World

When the French sailor Bernard Moitessier and British yachtsman Robin Knox-Johnston set off to prove it was possible for man to circumnavigate the earth solo, few believed they would succeed.

Of the nine sailors to embark on the challenge, only one completed the full course. Moitessier 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 passage by any yacht.

Knox-Johnston persevered with the quest, arriving back in Falmouth in April 1969, some 312 days after his departure. As the winner of the Golden Globe, he entered the history books as the first person to successfully circumnavigate the planet solo, non-stop. And the watches both men wore on their wrists? You’ve guessed it: Rolex.

Originally bought for diving, Knox-Johnston laid great store by the characteristics of his Rolex Oyster: “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.”

Writing to Rolex in 1969, Moitessier advised that: “Your watch has done me great service – it never left my wrist, even during difficult manoeuvres. Serving me throughout the trip as a navigational chronometer, it was one of the important elements of this voyage, thanks to its precision and its robustness.”

Testimonials don’t come much more genuine than that.

The Have Yachts

The Yacht-Master itself was the first watch to be created specifically with sailing in mind. The case was waterproof (to 100m, but if it ever reached those depths, you were well and truly overboard) – and its rounded design was fashioned to avoid snagging rigging or sails.

When seemingly every ‘first’ has been achieved, what’s next? For Rolex, it’s more about perpetuity: supporting clubs, races, and racers keeps a hard-earned heritage alive.

Only seven yachts raced in the first ever Rolex Fastnet Race. This year, 478 boats competed across five classes with 30 trophies handed out. In 1925, the winner completed the course in 147 hours; today, yachts are competing to beat the monohull record of 42 hours 39 minutes made in 2011.

According to John Markos, past Commodore of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia, one of the prizes has attained legendary notoriety: “The engraving 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. While a trophy like the Tattersall Cup is awarded each year, the Rolex watch is personal, owned and carried by the winner. It’s become a recognised symbol of success and achievement.” 

For more information, see