Discover more about the iconic Heuer Skipper, the yacht at the heart of its story and a multitude of Heuer Skipper regatta timer alternatives...
It's September 1967. Cunard's QE2 is launched, Bobby Gentry and The BoxTops dominate the US charts and introduction of the Heuer Skipper regatta timer still lies ahead. Meanwhile, near Brenton Reef Light, off Newport, Rhode Island, New York Yacht Club's Intrepid (US-22) beats Australia's Dame Pattie to win the Auld Mug in the twentieth America's Cup. The Heuer Skipper legend is about to begin. Read on for more about this legendary yachting watch and some of its alternatives...
Thanks to links with P. Douglas Grewer, Heuer's US country manager, members of Emil 'Bus' Mosbacher's crew aboard the 12-metre,Olin Stephens-designed Intrepid also made watch-industry history that September. How? Not just by wearing Intrepid-branded Heuer Aquastar Regate yachting chronographs with their distinctive disappearing-red-balls countdown displays, but because their race success prompted Heuer to introduce a now-iconic sailing watch.
To celebrate 1967's victory, Heuer launched a new manual-wind, twin-register yachting chronograph, the Heuer Skipper ref. 7753/54. The first, very rare, version (seemingly, only around 20 exist), with its colour references to Intrepid, featured an adapted Valjoux 7730 movement in a Heuer Carrera case. Later, this prompted the 'Skipperrera' nickname for a watch that now commands auction prices approaching £100k.
Subsequently, the Skipper - now with 40mm 'Waterproof Guaranteed 330 Feet Under Water' compressor case, modified colour scheme and larger, more legible, tri-segment red, white and blue countdown timer - evolved further. In doing so, it became one of the most distinctive, sought-after, sports timers ever.
The most famous yachting chronograph?
By the early 1970s Intrepid had beaten Australia again and Heuer's Skipper had changed further with a new C-shape case (ref. 73464) and automatic movement (the Cal. 15 powered ref. 1564). Then a 6 o'clock date window came aboard and, with 1972's ref. 15640, a left-hand winder in another modded Autavia case. By 1974, when Intrepid came within one race of being the only three-time defender in America's Cup history, Heuer's Skipper was on course to became, arguably, the most famous yachting chronograph ever.
The importance of yacht timer watches
So what's the big deal with yacht timers, regatta watches, sailing watches or whatever you want to call these specialised maritime tool timepieces? Yacht racing isn't like motorsport, another field of sporting endeavour that delivered so many iconic 1970s timepieces. You see, yachts, whether dinghies, classic 12m America's Cuppers, or massive maxi trimarans, don't start from static grids or Le Mans-style rolling starts. Instead, whether it's two America's Cup contenders or dozens of dinghies, they battle for position all the way to a start line between a committee boat and a buoy. Races are often won or lost by the yacht's timing to that line as the starting signal sounds after, typically, five, 10 or 15 minutes' countdown. Crossing the line just as the signal sounds takes tactical skill, intimate knowledge of your yacht, finely-honed appreciation of wind and tides - and precise timing. To see what's involved, watch Team New Zealand vs. Prada in Race 3 of the Omega-timed 2000 America's Cup.
From Aquastar to TAG Heuer Hodinkee Skipper
To cross start lines perfectly demands accurate countdown timing. Until the 1950s, this was typically done with hand-held or wrist-mounted stopwatches such as Heuer's Yacht Timer range. Later, after early experiments with rotating bezels, specialised yacht timer complications were added to wristwatches.
By the late 1950s, according to Mark Reichardt's Regatta Yachttimers website, Aquastar was 'the most important manufacturer in this [water sports] field.' Then came the Regate, collaboration with Heuer, the America's Cup and the Heuer Skipper. The rest, including recent Heuer Skipper relationships with Hodinkee and Revolution, is yacht timer history. Thought the name no longer features in TAG Heuer's range, the Heuer Skipper legend sails on.
Many brands have offered yacht timer chronographs
Over the years, many watch companies have offered yacht timer chronographs. From Alpina and Atlantic, through Lemania and Piquot Meridien, to Wyler Vetta and Yema, regatta timers' colourful countdown displays have entered many brands' visual vocabularies. Even if, like 'desk divers', they're not used in anger, yacht timers' links with sailing's history, romance and salt-sprayed aura transcends mere practicality. No wonder they're so sought-after by yachting folk and landlubbers alike.
Pre-owned examples of Heuer's Skipper (please note, not to be confused with Atlantic's later Skipper) range in price from a few thousand pounds to £80k-plus, depending on model and provenance. Recalling Intrepid's America's Cup years, here are some interesting alternatives to the Heuer Aquastar Regate or Heuer Skipper from the Intrepid era.
Heuer Skipper alternatives
From 1967, the year of 'Bus' Mosbacher's crew's successful America's Cup defence in Rhode Island Sound, Omega's Chronostop Regatta, Yema's Yachtgraf or Breitling's Ref 7660 Co-pilot Yachting are possibilities. From 1968? How about the Le Phare Regatta Starting Chronograph with its distinctive single countdown window? Or the same year's Keltek Champ Europe 5.5 JI Neuchatel yachting chronograph wristwatch?
Now jump forward a year and check out Tissot's Seastar ref. 40508. Or the rather 'Poguesque' Wakmann 9804 regatta chronograph. It's got enough complications to keep any becalmed skipper amused until the wind picks up.
And so to 1970 and Intrepid's famous second America's Cup defence against Australia's Gretel II. How about a hand-winding Cal. 861, Omega Seamaster Soccer Timer Yachting Regatta Chronograph?
A luxurious and rare regatta chronograph
It would be 25 years until Omega's first official America's Cup involvement. However, even as the 1970s began, with the quartz crisis just over the horizon, the brand staked a solid claim to a piece of regatta timing history. A couple of years on, Ebauches Electroniques SA had trademarked Memosail and launched its 'Olympic Yachtsman's Chronograph' with manual-wind Valjoux 7737 and two-pusher 10-minute regatta countdown. And Omega had consolidated its yacht watch position with the Seamaster Yachting (ref. 176.010) that Monochrome describes as 'a luxurious and rare regatta chronograph from the 1970s'.
Read more about regatta timers and Heuer's Skipper
These are just some contemporaries of the early Heuer Skipper. For more on everything to do with yachting watches, visit the encyclopaedic Regatta Yachttimers site. For the Heuer Skipper, Henrik Schreiber's HeuerChrono and Jeff Stein's excellent, 'The Voyage of the Skipper' article in Revolution are essential reads.
The story of Intrepid, the America's Cup and Heuer's Skipper is possibly the most famous tale linking yacht races and watches. However, as the arc of the regatta timer story continues, yacht timers remain part of many brands' ranges. And not necessarily at luxury watch prices either.
Affordable regatta timers
Not all yacht racers are millionaires with the means - or desire - to wear a Rolex Yachtmaster II or £150k Richard Mille RM 60-01 Regatta Flyback Chronograph on the water. From my sailing days in the 1970s, I recall expensive watches - including, on one occasion, a Rolex - being lost in Northern Ireland's Strangford Lough. For yachties wanting accurate start countdowns without breaking the bank, plenty of affordable analogue, digital and smartwatch regatta timers are available. For starters, check out products from the likes of Timex, Casio, ESA Watch, Optimum, Gill (Regatta Race Timer), Tissot (Sailing Touch), Garmin (Quatix), Ronstan (Clear Start), Suunto and Citizen (Marine Yacht Timer). And, of course, whether for a budget regatta timer or luxury automatic yachting chronograph, check out WatchGecko's watch strap and bracelet range for replacement straps.
Luxury watches and yacht racing
That said, the close fit between luxury watches and the glamour of top-level yacht racing is unavoidable. It's no surprise then, that so many brands associate themselves with the sport in general and the America's Cup in particular. They include Zenith, Omega, Bremont, Panerai, Audemars Piguet, Rolex, Ulysse Nardin and France-based MATWATCHES. And, of course, Heuer and, more recently, TAG Heuer, whose Aquaracer 500m Cal. 72 Countdown Chronograph was made until 2015.
The 2021 America's Cup approaches
At the time of writing, March 2021's America's Cup in Auckland draws closer and with it Emirates Team New Zealand's defence against the AC75-class winner of the Prada Cup, January-February's challenger selection series. As the high-tech foiling monohulls do battle, it'll be nearly 54 years since Intrepid's first America's Cup win and the birth of the Heuer Skipper legend.
Since then, many aspects of yacht-race start timing have changed beyond recognition. Today's perfect starts are as much about GPS and software (such as B&G Sailing Electronics' Deckman, or the SailRacer app) as watching the disappearing red discs or tricolour countdown registers of the Skipper era. Just as Formula 1 timing with Heuer-laden clipboards evolved into computerised timing and telemetry, so battling for regatta starts has become technology-led. Read this article by seasoned navigator Mike Broughton in Yachting World to see what I mean.
Capturing the romance and history of yacht racing
Nowadays, the functionality of racing chronographs, dive and pilots watches is often supplanted by computers. Arguably, the attraction of tool watches is often more about association with the specialist activity prompting their invention than practical use for their original purpose.
Similarly, I sometimes wonder whether the appeal of many regatta watches is now as much - or more - about connecting with yachting's romance and adventure than serious race timing. Regardless of how you'll use yours, alongside desirable vintage watches such as the Skipper, you'll find plenty of new sailing timepieces at all price points. From entry-level to prices more eye-watering than a howling Force 9 gale, there's something out there for you.
You'll need deep pockets for a Heuer Skipper
As we've seen, if your heart's set on a Heuer Skipper, especially rarities such as the Skippererra, your Helly Hansen or Musto yachting jacket may need seriously deep pockets. However, when I looked for a Heuer Skipper for sale, Chrono24 revealed 25 ref. 73463s, 73464s, 15640N Cal. 15s, left-hand-crown Ref. 1163s, 1564s and Autavia 7764s dating back to 1968. The asking prices for these collectable vintage watches, which include several black dial Skippers? They ranged from the price of a new Omega Seamaster to over £20k and the tantalising 'Price on Request'...
More yacht timer alternatives
If you have the budget, but prefer something newer than these vintage Heuers, how about considering a blue dial Ulysse Nardin Marine Regatta 44mm, Bremont's Regatta AC or Corum's Admiral's Cup AC-One 45 Tides. Alternatively, maybe Panerai's Radiomir or Luminor Regatta, Omega's limited edition Seamaster Planet Ocean America's Cup Edition or Breitling's Exospace B55 Yachting?
Don't overlook Frederique Constant's Yacht Timer Regatta Countdown either - with its five countdown disks redolent of the Aquastar Regate worn by Intrepid's 1967 crew. Or, instead of your Rolex Submariner for Cowes Week, how about a YachtMaster II on the marine-friendly stainless steel bracelet that's often preferable to a leather strap at sea?
To end our seafaring tale, and as coda to the Heuer Skipper story, you may be wondering what became of Intrepid, Dame Pattie and their 1967 America's Cup skippers.
Though Emil 'Bus' Mosbacher Jr and Dame Pattie's Alexander Stuart 'Jock' Sturrock passed away within weeks of each other in 1997, their yachts sail on. Apparently, Dame Pattie now cruises the azure waters of the French Riviera. Meanwhile, you can charter Intrepid, one of the most famous racing yachts ever, out of Newport, RI. Of course, every booking comes steeped in America's Cup history, vintage Heuer significance and the importance of one yacht's unique place in the Heuer Skipper story.