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A history of exploration’s forgotten watches

A history of exploration’s forgotten watches

The history of humankind is filled with epic stories of exploration and adventure, on land, sea, air and space. Some of these great deeds penetrate the global psyche and remain forever etched into our minds; amazing feats like the summiting of Mount Everest in 1953 or the first moon landing in 1969.

Yet other incredible accounts of great adventures get obscured by time, and, along with it, the timepieces associated with those journeys. Here are ten explorers, expeditions and their watches, all of which you may or may not have heard of before.

Roald Amundsen – The first man to the South Pole, 1911

The first man to reach South Pole, to navigate the Northwest Passage, and to fly over the North Pole in an aircraft, Roald is something of a legend of polar exploration. On his historic 1911 crossing to the South Pole via dog sleds, he used an incredibly precise deck watch made by Julius Assmann of Glashütte, Germany. Deck watches were traditionally used as a means of transferring time from the ship’s chronometer up to the deck, where it could be used to time sextant measurements for navigation.

Sylvia Earle – Deepest women’s solo free dive, 1986

An oceanographer with an explorer’s heart, Earle holds the depth record for untethered dives, going down to a depth of 3,281 feet (1km). Earle was the first National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and has helped to research and protect some of the most threatened underwater ecosystems. Earle’s diving companion is a Rolex Oyster Perpetual, a watch she has worn for many decades.

Charles Lindbergh – First flight across the Atlantic, 1927

At just 25 years old, Charles Lindbergh went from relative anonymity to worldwide superstar overnight by making the first nonstop flight from Long Island, New York, to Paris. Over the course of 33 and half hours, he covered 3,600 statute miles (5,800 km) alone in a single-engine purpose-built Ryan monoplane, Spirit of St. Louis. It was the first solo transatlantic flight and the first non-stop flight between North America and mainland Europe. There is much debate about what timepiece he used during flight, with top contenders being either a Bulova Conqueror or an on-board Waltham 8-Day clock.

Ellen MacArthur – Fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe by sail, 2005

On 28th November 2004, Ellen MacArthur began her attempt to break the solo record for sailing non-stop around the world – a challenge which only 6 sailors had previously embarked upon. She completed her epic journey in a total of 71 days, 14 hours, 18 minutes and 33 seconds, beating the world record by 1 day, 8 hours and 35 minutes. MacArthur was accompanied on her voyage by an Omega Seamaster wristwatch, as well as an Omega master clock installed inside her yacht.

Thor Hyderdahl – Crossing the Pacific Ocean in a hand-built raft, 1947

Seventy years ago, Thor Heyerdahl and five comrades sailed from Peru to French Polynesia in a pae-pae raft they’d made from balsa wood and other natural materials. The journey, named the Kon-Tiki expedition, demonstrated that primitive rafts could cross the Pacific ocean and suggested the possibility of ancient contact between South America and Polynesia. During the expedition, Thor and every member of the team are reputed to have worn an Eterna watch.

Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni – The first ascent of K2, 1954

The first ascent of Everest is well known, with both Rolex and the former watch company Smiths having claims of association to the British expedition led by John Hunt in 1953. By comparison, the first successful ascent of the world’s second highest mountain – K2 – is largely over-looked. But it shouldn’t be: K2 is a much more dangerous and difficult mountain to climb than Everest. In fact, prior to 2014 the death rate was 10%: one climber killed for every 10 who summit. On July 31st 1954, Italian climbers Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni reached 8,612 metres wearing Vulcan Crickets.

Alexi Leonov – The first person in open outer space, 1965

Yuri Gagarin made history by becoming the first person in outer space in 1961 (wearing a mechanical Sturmanskie watch). But lesser know is Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov, who on June 12, 1965 became the first person in the history of humanity to do a space walk, making the first timepiece ever to experience the harsh vacuum of outer space a Strela. He was outside the space craft for 12 minutes and 9 seconds, connected to the craft only by a 5.35 meter tether, beating American Ed White’s walk by three months.

Colonel John Blashford-Snell – First vehicle-based expedition to traverse both American continents north to south through the Darién Gap, 1971

At the age of 35, then Major Blashford-Snell set off with a small team to undertake the 29,000km British Trans-Americas Expedition. The route would see them travel from Anchorage to Cape Horn in a pair of specially prepared Range Rovers. At the time, the notion of sponsorship for modern day adventuring wasn’t really a known thing, but the expedition still secured food from Heinz, clothing from Marks and Spencer – and watches Zenith. The hardest part of the journey was crossing the Darien Gap, a 250-mile no-go jungle between the two ends of the Pan American highway.

Ranulph Fiennes – The Discovery of the Lost City of Ubar, 1991

No list would be complete without making mention to the legendary explorer Ranulph Fiennes. His exploits in the polar regions are well known, including The Transglobe Expedition – the first to circumnavigate the world on its polar axis. Less well known however is his expedition in 1991 to discover the lost trading city of Ubar, locating it in the ‘Empty Quarter’ of Omanr. Ranulph Fiennes was a wearer of Rolex at the time, although he is now sponsored by Kobold.

Struan Chisholm – First ascents in Central Asia, 2013

Led by Struan Chisholm, Team Horsepower travelled by horseback through remote Kyrgyzstan, climbing several new unclimbed peaks in the process – showing that the spirit of exploration remains strong even today. The team even climbed a new 4,436m peak ‘Mount тризуб’ (Kyrgyz), for Trident”, after the Christopher Ward C60 Trident 300 they took with them on the expedition.

Jamie Maddison is a British explorer. This September he will attempt the first on-foot crossing of the Saryesik Atyrau Desert by running 100 miles in one push, supported by the Christopher Ward Challenger Programme. Find out more about the journey here.