Race Watches Tell More Than Time

For racing, a good watch should tell more than time; we review the 12 best. "Tech Review" from our December 2007 issue.

Optimum OS463 watch 368

Read our latest sailing watch review from our Nov/Dec 2012 issue!

Deep into our watch testing session, SW editor Dave Reed looked up from the watch he was fiddling with and said, "Watches made specifically for sailing are the watches worth buying." With that one statement, he'd done my job for me and summed up our test results. He's right; of all the watches we tested, those designed to help you hit a starting line on time turned out to be the watches best suited for the task. Timex disciples out there may disagree-the Ironman series is near legendary in racing circles-but what it all boils down to is there are only a few things a racing watch really needs to do. They need to countdown; they need to have a stopwatch and/or an elapsed-time indicator; they need to be able to be reset with a minimum of button pressing, and they need to wake you up in time for boat call. Any features beyond these are gravy. Granted, some extras are useful, especially tides, compass headings, and GPS position, but they can add a level of complexity that's too much for the average user to deal with or ultimately use.

Our selection process was simple: we included watches we know and like, watches designed for racing, and watches we knew people were using out on the racecourse. In all, 12 watches made by 10 companies made the final cut and were extensively tested. We asked testers to first see how easy it was to set the correct time and date, how visible the dial is, how many steps it takes to get to the countdown timer, whether or not it was possible to set the watch with gloves on, and how easy it is to reset or synchronize the timer. We also looked at useful features like backlights, if the watch has to go to the shop to get the battery replaced, and how comfortable the band is. Things like weight, size, and comfort also came into the rating process. Most importantly, our first session with each watch was without the manual. We feel it's a tribute to good design when a watch can be used without referencing the manual. Some watches were difficult to set without referring to manuals, which isn't necessarily bad if you wear the watch all the time. But if you only wear the watch for racing, complicated functions will likely require you to reacquaint yourself with it each time you put it on.

We'll start with the largest, and the most truly dedicated racing watch, the Ronstan Clear Start, which is made for Ronstan by watchmaker Optimum Time. It has a huge digital display, perfect for aging, or sun-blasted eyes. It has multiple start sequences, including the 5,4,1,0 start sequence, audible alarms, a 24-hour clock, stopwatch, large function keys, a strong, stretchy wristband, and an adapter for mounting on a mast or boom. It was easy to set, easy to use, easy to see, and easy to hear. The only drawback is its size; it's not something you'd wear outside the boat park. Optimum Time makes three similar versions, their Series 3 Starting Watches, with some minor differences, but all are terrific for racers. www.ronstanusa.com, www.optimumtime.co.uk

Optimum Time makes quite a few other sailing watches, including the Series 3s mentioned above. We picked one of our favorites, the Series 4 OS463 Starting Watch for testing. It scored very well in ease of use, and visibility, but has no stopwatch feature. The starting timer rolls over, which is great for large events with many starts, and the countdown timer is easy to synchronize if you miss the first gun by a few seconds. We liked the tide feature, and appreciated the backlight. Although the Series 4 is huge, it's light, and the strap is comfortable. This watch has been designed solely for racing, and it shows. www.optimumtime.co.uk
represented by the U.S. by APS Ltd., www.apsltd.com

Gill's Regatta Master has large digital numbers, which stand out well on the watch's light green face. There's a countdown feature with multiple settings, a count-up timer for figuring deltas at marks and finishes, a digital compass, backlight, and a rotating bezel. It scored well on setting time, countdowns, and synchronization. Most water-resistant watches incorporate some type of seal that necessitates professional expertise when replacing batteries, but not the Master. To replace the battery, you use a coin or screwdriver to open the battery compartment, pop in a new battery, and close the compartment. This is another terrific racing watch. www.gillna.com

Citizen's Sailhawk watch resides at the higher-priced end of the racing watch spectrum, but several features make this watch worth the price (especially if you shop aggressively). First off, it's one of Citizen's Eco-Drive watches, which means it "never needs a battery." As long as you expose the Sailhawk to light (sunlight is best), the battery will never run down. This is a great-looking watch, and a favorite of many sailors; it has all the features you'll need for racing, but a small face, no light, and an easily scratched crystal are among the drawbacks. Wear this one to work and look like a racer. www.citizenwatch.com

Casio's G-Shock watches have a great combination of useful features, pricing, and durability. While no G-Shock is designed for racing, they're all well suited for the task. We chose a basic G-Shock, the G2310, which is solar-powered, has countdown, stopwatch (with elapsed time, split time, and first- and second-place times capability), and even a small databank for names and phone numbers. With its recessed buttons, the G2310 won't be susceptible to accidental pushes, but it may be hard to set if you're wearing gloves. We liked the audible tones of the countdown timer. www.casio.com

Timex's Ironman line of watches are relatively inexpensive, easy to find, and eminently user-friendly. The Ironman is a great choice for less picky racers who don't need fancy features or looks. Even without the manual, both models we tested, the T5E251 and T56371, are dead-nuts easy to set, have easily readable displays, and excellent backlighting. The stopwatch has four splits with memory, and it takes only two steps to get to the countdown function. There are no audible tones during the countdown, and there's no way to sync if you miss the gun, both drawbacks of watches not designed specifically for racing, but the price is right. www.timex.com

Wenger, makers of the Swiss Army Knife, is a Swiss company, so making watches isn't too much of a stretch. We looked at the AquaGraph Yacht Racer, a $450 watch that, for a racing watch, is pretty basic. There's a 10-minute countdown timer, a race timer, and an alarm. Our judges liked the fact that it takes only one step to get to the countdown function, and that the elapsed time starts automatically. It has a solid feel, and will be a perfect watch for those unwilling to wear a high-tech watch. $450, www.wengerna.com

The Freestyle Mega Shark Predator is among this watchmaker's best sellers. Designed for outdoor sports, it has all the features you'll need on the racecourse, including 30-lap memory, a countdown timer and stopwatch with split-screen display, and split total elapsed-time function. Other features include dual-time display and a backlight. We liked the protected buttons, the nylon/Velcro band, and the easy-to-see display. Most of all, we liked the price, which is even lower than comparable Timex models. www.freestyleusa.com

Suunto watches, or "wrist-top computers" as the company itself describes them, are well-known in the world of yacht racing, and we chose two of their most popular models, the Yachtsman and the Mariner, to examine. Feature-wise, both watches are stuffed with useful tools, including an audible countdown timer (that doesn't roll, but you can start it anywhere from 120 minutes on down), stopwatch, two split times, compass, barometer, thermometer, backlit display, and low battery warning. The Yachtsman comes encased in a shockproof aluminum body, (rather than plastic, as is the case with the Mariner), and a mineral crystal glass face, making it an altogether more durable watch. It will take you only a short amount of time to get the basics of these watches, but calibrating the compass may be challenging for some. It is, however, a cinch to re-sync the countdown timer and set the alarm. www.suunto.com

The SLK Chrono TI, by St. Moritz, is an all-around sports watch that scored surprisingly well with our testers as far as ease of use and features. While not specifically designed for sailing, it does have most everything a racer needs, including an easy-to-sync countdown timer, stopwatch, and a backlight. Another surprise about the SLK Chrono is both the case and the band are made of Titanium. If you like running under the radar when it comes to bling, and appreciate a good watch, the Chrono is for you. www.st-moritz.com

Read our latest sailing watch review from our Nov/Dec 2012 issue!