The Beckertime Comparison Series: The Rolex Yacht-Master II Vs. The Ulysse Nardin Marine Regatta
I have to admit, being the uncultured swine that I am, that I have never competed in a regatta. Nor, for that matter, have I ever watched one, I don’t think. (In fact, I am so far removed from that entire world, if it wasn’t for MS Word’s little red line, I would’ve spelt it with one T).
But while football is much more my speed (soccer, to all you ungrateful colonials) there is apparently enough of a global fan base for yacht racing that a hatful of high end luxury watchmakers have created models specifically for it.
Names like Panerai, Maurice Lacroix, Audemars Piguet, Hublot and Girard-Perregaux all produce watches designed around the sport, with each one’s major USP being some sort of complication to help skippers time a regatta’s convoluted starting sequence.
It’s quite obvious when you think about it, but it just isn’t possible for a whole bunch of boats to all line up on a starting grid as, say, Formula 1 cars do before a race, waiting for the off. The constant motion of the waves, wind and currents rule that out, so instead the yachts have to maneuver back and forth in front of an imaginary start line for a set period of time. That can be either five, seven or 10 minutes, with all the boats jockeying for optimum position but trying to avoid incurring a penalty by inadvertently crossing over.
So perfect timing is clearly vital to make sure your boat is in exactly the right spot as the countdown ends and so a highly accurate, dedicated timepiece becomes an essential ally.
Two other big brands also have regatta pieces in their lineups; Rolex and Ulysse Nardin.
Called the Yacht-Master II and the Marine Regatta respectively, both are big, striking and complex beasts, which do the same job but in slightly different ways.
Below we take a look at the pair and see just how impressive they are.
How They Work
The Rolex Yacht-Master II
Rolex’s Yacht-Master II stems from 2007 and was, at that time, the most complicated watch the manufacture had ever made. While it may share a name with the original Yacht-Master, the two are alike in no way whatsoever. The first YM is essentially a Submariner in a fancy suit, with no particular features to equip it for a life on the ocean waves.
The sequel however is setup to be the ultimate skippers’ tool, and the one which introduced us to Rolex’s Ring Command bezel which would also be a principal component of the Sky-Dweller released a few years later.
On both of those watches, the bezel is intrinsically linked to the movement and acts as an analogue switch of sorts, locking and unlocking the model’s various applications.
On the Yacht-Master II, it grants access to the industry’s first programmable countdown with a mechanical memory.
Rotating the surround through 90° opens up the operations and turning the crown sets the duration of the timer; 10-minutes, for instance. Once the bezel is reset to its neutral position, that time is locked in and memorized. The top pusher then starts the procedure, with the elapsed seconds indicated by the central chronograph hand as usual and the minutes by the red arrow on the inner horseshoe-shaped scale. So far, so good. But why is a memory so important?
For that, we have to go back to a regatta’s starting sequence.
There are actually several distinct phases to the beginning of a race. The main countdown is usually marked by a gunshot, and that is followed by a further two signals at precisely observed intervals which allow crews to coordinate their timekeeping and approach to the line. This understandably requires absolute split-second accuracy, and so the Yacht-Master II’s complication allows for the wearer to synchronize the countdown with the official race clock, on-the-fly, at any time.
If the timer has been set underway too late or too early, simply pressing the lower pusher on the side of the case causes the seconds hand to ‘fly back’ to its starting position, while the red arrow hand also resets to the nearest minute to compensate for any inconsistency.
That something so technically sophisticated emerged from Rolex, a brand most definitely not known for their complicated watches, makes it all even more remarkable.
Yet, the Marine Regatta from Ulysse Nardin might well have it beat.
The Ulysse Nardin Marine Regatta
The Marine Regatta carries on a long and proud tradition Ulysse Nardin has with all things nautical.
The brand, founded in 1846, made its name manufacturing marine chronometers, highly accurate timepieces which were essential navigational tools before the days of satellites and GPS. Their pieces were used by more than 50 of the world’s navies in the first half of the 20th century, and the maison, still based in Le Locle, Switzerland, has won 4324 certificates, 2411 special prizes and 18 gold medals for their work.
The Marine Regatta simply added to that impressive haul when it was awarded the Sports Watch Prize at the GPHG (Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève) on the year it launched, 2017.
As with the Yacht-Master II, it is a watch designed solely for racing, and includes a flyback complication of its own.
But unlike the Rolex, it also features an ingenious reverser mechanism which kicks in at the end of the countdown phase and instantly transforms the watch into a time tracking chronograph with no input from the wearer.
Made with the direct involvement of Loïck Peyron and Iain Percy from the Swedish Artemis Racing Team, its timer is set in one minute intervals with the pusher at the 10 o’clock and activated by the two o’clock button. The yellow-tipped central hand starts running counterclockwise until the end of the preset time, at which point the reverser is automatically triggered and the hand immediately switches to traveling clockwise like a conventional mechanical stopwatch.
It is a brilliantly executed and completely relevant complication and gives the Marine Regatta a ‘set-and-forget’ advantage, freeing up the skipper’s hands so their full attention can be focused on the race itself.
The Rolex Yacht-Master II
The atmosphere aboard a yacht during the starting portion of a regatta is obviously going to be hectic (again, one assumes) and so both watches have been penned with a focus on the utmost legibility.
When the Yacht-Master II first appeared it was the most un-Rolex-like design they had ever put forward. The brand has long been at the more conservative end of the watch styling spectrum, and so this big, brash, in-your-face effort yelling its own name across its bezel was about as wild a departure as you could imagine.
Predictably, it was a controversial entry into the annals. The traditionalists, a very tricky bunch to keep happy at the best of times, were horrified—as they have been at pretty much everything since the late 50s. Rolex’s departure from their tool watch roots is lamented loudly by brand purists and, although the Yacht-Master II could certainly be described as a tool watch itself, regatta racing is just not down-and-dirty enough of a job to be tolerable.
It did, however, find a loyal following, although not necessarily among the nautical set. The model’s enthusiastic externals proved ideal for those who merely enjoy getting their watches noticed, whether or not they also owned a yacht—and there’s nothing wrong with that. As the only piece of jewelry most men wear, a timepiece has plenty of heavy lifting to do to display its wearer’s personality. And if that personality is the outgoing, larger-than-life type, it’s a perfect match.
At 44mm, the Yacht-Master II has the same diameter as that Kraken of a Rolex, the Deepsea, making them the two biggest watches in the contemporary lineup. But it manages to stay commendably slim at 14mm, an impressive achievement considering all the mechanical gubbins going on inside. (The Deepsea is a sleeve-snagging 17.7mm).
All the information, of which there is plenty, is displayed as neatly and cleanly as you would hope for and expect from Rolex. The 1-10 numerals on the bezel are unmissable, as is the semicircular scale kissing the lower parts of the square hour markers. A small running seconds sub dial nestles at the six o’clock—however there is no date display as there is on the Ulysse. The hour, minute and chronograph hands are standard sports watch fare, although the minute hand is skeletonized to give a better view of the gauge beneath, and the countdown hand receives a large, red outlined arrow tip which stands out well.
The current series consists of four models; in steel, Everose Rolesor, and one each in 18k yellow and 18k white gold.
All but the last of those have the trademark bright blue Cerachrom bezel, with engraved digits color coordinated with their specific metal type. The white gold model is the most understated, its surround in luxurious platinum, making it a more opulent variant of the brand’s Rolesium.
While there is little subtlety to any of the range, the looks seem to have matured over the years, and the combination of brushed and polished elements keep the watch on the right side of overcooked.
The Ulysse Nardin Marine Regatta
The Marine Regatta is another watch you are unlikely to forget you’re wearing. Also measuring 44mm in diameter, it adds another mil in thickness on the YMII, taking it up to 15mm.
Like the Rolex, it is all about readability, the deep sunburst blue fascia a descending series of circles within circles.
Hour markers ring the perimeter—Roman numerals at the 3, 9 and 12, with trapezoidal batons everywhere else.
Inside that is the bright yellow countdown timer, going from 10 to one. Then, superimposed over the lower portion, is the chronograph monocounter tracking minutes and hours on a single sub dial. And finally, a small Quickset date display sits at the bottom. The circular theme is further expanded on in the center, with a motif showing the lines of latitude and longitude.
The handset is highly stylized, with an almost Plongeur-esque style minute hand, and another arrow-tipped regatta indicator.
All is enclosed within an aggressive-looking, deeply knurled bezel with rubber inserts lining each recess for easy gripping with wet fingers. Similarly, the crown is coated with the same tough blue rubber.
While there’s no doubting its luxury watch credentials, the steel-cased Marine Regatta is certainly a robust piece of engineering and something which looks more than capable of handling a significant knock or two onboard a racing yacht.
It also wears well, with its sharply curving lugs keeping it centered and steady on the wrist despite its impressive bulk, while the thick strap is secured with a titanium buckle.
Again, although it is an award winner, it wasn’t in the understatement category, but there is a definite restraint to the watch which sets it apart as a handsome and capable class act.
Visuals aside, clearly the most impressive aspect of both these watches is to be found on the inside.
Powering the Rolex Yacht-Master II is the manufacture Cal. 4161, a caliber loosely based on the Cal. 4130 found in the Daytona.
Like that engine, the Cal. 4161 features a column wheel-controlled chronograph with vertical clutch, ensuring precise and wobble free starts and stops.
The product of more than 35,000 hours of development, it is comprised of some 360 separate parts, with many made by UV-LiGA, a fabrication technology using ultraviolet light to form microstructures. Equipped with the brand’s own Parachrom hairspring and conforming to their Superlative Chronometer certificate for timekeeping precision, it is an extremely reliable and highly accurate engine.
The Marine Regatta also gets a homegrown movement, the Caliber UN-155.
Beating at 28,800vph like the Cal. 4161, it can’t match the Rolex for power reserve, coming in at 60-hours over the Yacht-Master II’s 72.
However, its escapement is crafted from an extraordinary blend of silicon and diamond known as DIAMonSIL, a revolutionary nanotechnology produced in conjunction with fellow Swiss manufacturer, Sigatec. Remarkably strong but especially lightweight, DIAMonSIL eliminates friction and cuts out the need to lubricate the escapement.
A sapphire case back allows you to watch the movement in action, although sadly the captivating reverser mechanism is on the dial side so isn’t visible. But it’s always nice to see a well-finished caliber do its thing, and the UN-155 includes two polished and chamfered anchors on the winding rotor, plus a third anchor medallion, as a nod to its seafaring pedigree.
The asking prices for both watches aren’t a million miles from each other. On a like-for-like basis, the Yacht-Master II ref. 116680 (all steel with Cerachrom bezel) costs $18,750.
The one and only Marine Regatta example, the ref. 1553-155-3/43, is $15,900.
Of course, you can get a whole lot more expensive over at Rolex, with the top-of-the-line ref. 116689 (white gold and platinum) retailing at $48,150.
I’m only basing this on my own narrow-mindedness, but I’m assuming the average racing yacht owner wouldn’t baulk at any of those prices, so which is the better watch?
Well, they each do a difficult job with great aplomb, although I’ll admit I can imagine the Ulysse Nardin’s reversing party piece coming in useful in a whole host of non-boating applications as well.
As far as looks go, neither are well suited to the shy and retiring wallflower, although the most expensive platinum-topped Rolex could be considered somewhat discreet.
In the end, both models are massively impressive, as well as just massive, and wonderful examples of the watchmaker’s art. The ‘best’ one is the one that appeals to you the most. Whichever you decide, you are guaranteed plenty of attention.
— Featured Cover Photo: BeckerTime’s Archive.