Soon after Richard Mille founded his eponymous watch brand in 1999 he adopted the slogan “A racing machine on the wrist”. The catchline reflected both his passion for historic Formula One cars and the commitment to build his watches to similar standards of precision and technical ingenuity. Boats, however, left him cold — until he discovered the joys of classic yachts through a friend.

“Benoît Couturier is a renowned restorer of historic Porsches who has worked on nine or 10 of my cars,” says Mille. “One day he took me to see an old racing yacht he had bought, called Mari­quita. I was so impressed by her beauty that I decided to buy one myself — and now I’m completely converted.”

Mariquita is one of the world’s most celebrated vintage yachts, an elegant 19-metre beauty built by William Fife III of Scotland and launched in 1911. The one Mille bought — another Fife-built yacht called Moonbeam IV (pictured above) — is equally elegant and similarly famous, having hosted many a celebrity under the ownership of Prince Rainier of Monaco.

But Mille is well known for his belief in putting objects to the use for which they were originally intended. That is why he likes to see his brand’s expensive sports watches being worn by elite athletes “at work” — and why owning Moonbeam IV inspired him to establish a long-distance race for classic yachts.

The Mariquita came second place in the cutter class of the inaugural Richard Mille Cup. . .  © Mike Hewitt/Getty Images for Richard Mille
. . . while the 108-year old schooner, Mariette was crowned the overall winner. © Mike Hewitt/Getty Images for Richard Mille

The Richard Mille Cup had its first running this summer, with 11 yachts — built between the 19th century and the 1930s — battling it out from Falmouth, in the south-west of England to Le Havre in France. “Classic yachts have become another passion,” Mille says. “I wanted to carry on their racing tradition, but in a genuine way — which is why we chose to hold the regattas off the English coast, repeating similar events of the 1900s, rather than doing something in a typical glamorous location such as the south of France or the Caribbean.”

The success of the inaugural invitation-only Richard Mille Cup means it is set to become an annual event and, for next year’s edition, Mille says a dedicated watch will be created to combine the brand’s high-tech engineering with the “strong personalities and considerable emotion” of the century-old yachts. British heritage jeweller Garrard created the handcrafted cups for the winners.

Two men holding trophies on stage, surrounded by other men cheering for them
The Richard Mille Cup trophies were designed by British heritage jeweller Garrard © James Robinson Taylor

But with some of the fastest racing yachts in the world battling it out next year in Barcelona for the 37th America’s Cup, Mille’s watch is unlikely to be 2024’s only sailing-inspired release.

The present holder of the cup is Emirates Team New Zealand, which has been partnered by watchmaker Omega since 1995. The brand is also the event’s official timekeeper and produces special editions to mark what is the world’s oldest international sporting trophy where competing teams need budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. The other challengers backed by watch brands are Alinghi Red Bull Racing, partnered by Tudor, and Luna Rossa Prada Pirelli, for which Panerai has produced four new models featuring the team’s livery, including the £41,400 Chrono Carbotech Luna Rossa, a 37-piece limited edition that gives buyers the option to sail on Luna Rossa off Sardinia.

The Alinghi Red Bull Racing team trains for next year’s America’s Cup starting in August 2024 © Enric Fontcuberta/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The first dial name to recognise the PR power of the America’s Cup, however, was Heuer. It provided handheld yachting stopwatches to the crew of the New York Yacht Club’s yacht Intrepid in 1967. Intrepid won all four races, in celebration of which Heuer produced a special version of its Carrera driver’s chrono­graph called the Skipper, featuring a sub-dial adapted to count down the 15-minute regatta pre-start time in three five-minute segments. Each segment was a different colour, with orange used for the final five minutes, light teal to represent the boat’s rigging, and green replicating the colour of its deck.

Original versions of the watch have fetched as much as $80,000 at auction, but Tag Heuer recently launched a £5,900 modern-day Skipper that chief executive Frédéric Arnault says will be the first of a whole new series of maritime models marking the brand’s return to the world of yachting.

That yachting is largely a pastime of the wealthy is of great attraction to watch brands, and many have produced designs that offer specific marine functionality or are simply up to life at sea.

The Panerai Chrono Carbotech Luna Rossa
The Panerai Chrono Carbotech Luna Rossa
A wristwatch with round bezel and three knobs on the side
The Tag Heuer Skipper

Among the latter, the Rolex Yacht-Master is perhaps the longest-standing, having been introduced more than 30 years ago and since been made available in steel, gold, bimetal and, as the Yacht-Master II, featuring a complex, mechanical countdown function. At this year’s Watches and Wonders show, Rolex released an £11,800 Yacht-Master in RLX titanium — a metal ideally suited to sailing since it is light, strong and corrosion-proof. Among its many mechanical rivals are Corum’s Admiral’s Cup models, Audemars Piguet’s hefty Royal Oak Offshore, IWC’s Portugieser Yacht Club and Breguet’s Marine range.

But while all these may look the part, serious sailors are increasingly turning to high-tech smartwatches designed specifically for their sport. Notable models include the Breitling Exospace Yachting, the Tissot Sailing-Touch and the Timex Intelligent Quartz Tide Temp model.

To date, however, the king of sailing-specific smartwatches is Garmin’s Quatix 7, which contains a collection of nautical gadgetry to control a boat’s helm and instruments, as well as provide tide and navigational data.

All these features would have been welcomed by the crew of the 11th Hour Racing Team in this year’s 60,000km Ocean Race. But 11th Hour (which won the challenge) was backed by Ulysse Nardin, a traditional watchmaker with links to the sea dating back to the mid-19th century, when it first supplied ship’s chronometers to the world’s navies.

Patrick Pruniaux, the watchmaker’s chief executive, says he was moved to position Ulysse Nardin as an Ocean Race partner, after experiencing five years of success as a main sponsor of the Vendée Globe, the single-handed, nonstop, round-the-world race.

“These events are not so much about being first to the finish, but . . . the endeavour that goes into them,” says Pruniaux. “Something that also really appealed to us with the Ocean Race is the sustainability dimension. Not only does it use a pollution-free form of propulsion, but it places a focus on what is happening to our seas — and the Ocean Race includes a whole scientific aspect because the teams were collecting samples around the world.” For its part, Ulysse Nardin produced a pair of limited edition Diver watches to mark the event, a three-hand model and a chronograph — both made with recycled materials. And, Pruniaux says, they sold quicker than you can say, “man overboard!”

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