When SW conducted a massive watch test last year, I proclaimed my favorite to be Momentum’s SLK ti Chronograph, a small timepiece with bare-bones functions that I could operate without consulting the manual.
After the test, my colleague Tony Bessinger encouraged me to spend some time evaluating a far more advanced watch, the Suunto Mariner. Designed specifically for sailboat racing, the Mariner sports a digital compass, barometer, thermometer, rotating bezel, and several memory-intensive features that give Suunto every right to refer to the device as a “wristop computer.”
I swallowed my pride and read the owner’s manual front to back (no easy feat considering the tome is translated into eight languages). The Mariner has four main modes, Time, Sailing Timer, Compass, and Barometer. Each of these modes has up to five sub modes. For instance, beneath the time and date display in Time mode are sub modes for three alarms, a stopwatch, a basic countdown timer, and dual time. Compass mode has a sub mode for tracking your bearing over time. A Barometer sub mode shows you changes in pressure for the previous four days. Bottom line, to get your $275 worth out of this watch, you’ll need to get cozy with the owner’s manual.
While the manual showed me precisely how to use the Mariner, it has taken a season of sailing with it on my wrist to determine which functions were actually useful on the racecourse. The rotating compass bezel is great for determining the favored end of the starting line without relying on your failing arithmetic. Here’s how it works: take a wind reading; rotate the bezel so that the wind direction lies at 12 o’clock; as you reach down the line, find the bearing to the pin; if that bearing falls precisely at 9 o’clock, the line’s square; if the bearing is “later” than 9 o’clock, the pin’s favored; earlier, the boat’s favored. The bezel is difficult to rotate with the tips of your fingers–especially once it gets crusted with salt–but I’ve found it rotates easily if you press the palm of your hand on the face of the watch and rotate your hand.
Of course, as with any racing watch, the most critical function of the Mariner is to tell you how much time until the gun. In Sailing Timer mode, the watch displays both the time of day and a countdown timer. I like having this split screen when sailing around before the start. At a glance, I can tell how long I have until the race committee is supposed to start its sequence and I can verify that I have my timer ready to catch the five-minute gun. Once in sequence, the timer beeps at logical intervals, so you don’t necessarily have to look down at the watch every fifteen seconds. If you were late on the five-minute gun, you can catch the four-minute gun by pressing the sync button, which restarts the timer at the nearest minute. As a fail-safe against accidental deactivation, it takes two firm presses of the start/stop button to halt the countdown. After the start, the countdown timer automatically starts counting up, allowing you to record and recall split times in the Sailing Timer Memory sub mode. This feature might be helpful for tracking waypoints in a distance race or figuring out corrected time in PHRF, but I doubt I’ll ever use it.
Also falling into the doubt-I’ll-ever-use-it category are the Mariner’s barometer and compass functions. The barometer is accurate– I verified it against the numbers provided by the weatherman– but fairly useless for round-the-buoys racing. Similarly, the compass is accurate enough, but without duct-taping it to the deck, I don’t see how you’d use it for tactical purposes. (I did employ it for “You sure we’re on 95 North?” purposes the other day.) The Bearing Tracking sub mode allows you to “lock in” a bearing for future comparison– a function we duplicated on the Shields last Wednesday using a Sharpie and the backside of a bottle of sunscreen.
While the Mariner may have a few superfluous sub modes, on the whole it is an excellent watch for sailboat racing. Key features like countdown timer are easy to reach and easy to use, so you don’t find yourself stuck in Sea Level Pressure sub mode with 30 seconds to go. Water resistant to 100 feet, the watch has a large display, a comfortable, “elastomer” band, and an indigo backlight that will let you read the owner’s manual late into the night.