Flying High

Panerai sails into the high-tech world of America’s Cup sailboats.

By: Elizabeth Doerr

Oracle Team USA training.

The boats sailed in the America’s Cup race, the world’s oldest trophied sporting event, have evolved substantially since the watch world became heavily involved in the sport alongside the Swiss team, Alinghi, in 2003. From that point on, these vessels have matured to become the lightest and fastest foiling catamarans in existence.

“Foiling” is a sailing term that describes the act of a boat flying above and across the water’s surface. With current boat technology, this requires at least about seven knots of wind. This is a tricky proposition even under the most advantageous circumstances. And its successful implementation is the result of fine-tuning the engineering and hydrodynamics of the catamarans every single day. The teams constantly evaluate and analyze physical data and modify the materials and shapes of the boat components to get the best possible results.

The Panerai Luminor 1950 Regatta Oracle Team USA 3 Days Chrono Flyback Automatic Titanio.

“We’re essentially trying to fly a boat with no engine, and we’re not in a cockpit. We’re going 50 mph with 20 mph winds, so it feels like 70 mph,” describes Jimmy Spit
hill, two-time America’s Cup winner and skipper of the defender, Oracle. The team’s new America’s Cup Class Yacht AC50 is one of the world’s fastest catamarans.

“Its power-to-weight ratio is probably better than any other boat out there,” Spithill said of the six-man vessel weighing 5,291 pounds. The only other boats possibly able to catch up with it are, of course, Oracle’s five experienced competitors: SoftBank Team Japan, Artemis Racing, Emirates Team New Zealand, Land Rover BAR, and Groupama Team France.

“This is shaping up to be the closest America’s Cup ever,” Spithill continues. “The teams are so good and the boats are so demanding on the athletes that any mistake is very costly. The winning team will be able to hold their heads high—they’ll definitely have earned it.”

Oracle Team Captain Jimmy Spithill.

As one may imagine, this undertaking is complicated in ways that are hard to understand without an engineering degree—and this complexity sheds light on why the America’s Cup is often called the Formula 1 of the seas. But there is one parallel that ought to be familiar to fans of fine watchmaking: foiling and sailing are both accomplished using manual power created by the crew and the wind—no engines or batteries in sight—not unlike a mechanical watch movement. The teams rely on partners either  to contribute technology and/or engineering, funds, or even timing capabilities. And partners from the world of horology seem to be especially popular.

As Oracle Team USA is the defending champion after winning in San Francisco last year, it’s up to this team to defend the title in 2017, when the America’s Cup lands in Bermuda. The “defender” is also in charge of organizing and putting on the entire America’s Cup event, so this means that partners of Oracle Team USA are official partners of the “event authority” by default.

The hydrofoiling Oracle AC50.

Over the last two years, throughout the preliminary Louis Vuitton America’s Cup World Series, British watch brand Bremont served as the official timing partner for Oracle Team USA, and as such it became the timing partner for the whole America’s Cup. Bremont was on a two-year contract during this time, and it was known to all parties that the contract would either be renegotiated or issued to another brand when 2017 signaled the start of the final rounds of the Cup in Bermuda.

The contract for Oracle Team USA’s official timing partner and sponsor of the final races of the 35th America’s Cup has now been awarded to Officine Panerai. But Bremont is not unhappy; the marque has been given leave to continue making official timepieces in honor of the event.

Yes, this does mean that there are two sets of official America’s Cup watches. But it also means that there are even more beautiful and functional timepieces for fans of good watchmaking to choose from.

Perhaps this is why Panerai opted to sponsor a second team—SoftBank Team Japan—and manufacture a total of five official timepieces in honor of the races and the two teams, including three official watches for Oracle Team USA: Luminor 1950 Oracle Team USA 3 Days Chrono Flyback Automatic Ceramica 44 mm (PAM00725), Luminor 1950 Regatta Oracle Team USA 3 Days Chrono Flyback Automatic Titanio 47 mm (PAM00726), and Luminor Marina Oracle Team USA 8 Days Acciaio 44 mm (PAM00724).

An aerial view of the Oracle AC50.

The Luminor Marina 1950 SoftBank Team Japan 3 Days Automatic Acciaio 44 mm (PAM00732) is the official watch of SoftBank Team Japan, and Panerai’s Luminor Marina 1950 America’s Cup 3 Days Automatic Acciaio 44 mm (PAM00727) is the Italian/Swiss brand’s official watch of the 35th America’s Cup. These watches were unveiled at SIHH earlier this year.

The upcoming double set of round-robins known as the Qualifier and Challenger Playoffs kick off in Bermuda on May 26 and will last two weeks. This set of races will determine the finalists, who will duel in match races on the weekends of June 17-18 and 24-27, 2017, to determine who will emerge as the next champion of the America’s Cup. Can Oracle Team USA achieve a hat trick after winning the last two with a new good-luck charm on the sailors’ wrists?

“It’s about putting yourself second and really thinking about the team and your teammates,” says Spithill, who is also an Olympic gold medalist. “We’re pretty fortunate that we’ve got great people, and that’s what wins the America’s Cup.”

That and good timing, of course.