From audible and visual countdowns to help ease the stress of starting, to compasses for detecting line bias and getting your bearings, there’s a perfect sailing watch for every sailor. But if you’re buying your first watch, which one do you choose? It helps to have a few sailing watch reviews to get you started, especially if this is a gift for a friend, and we hope our list of the best sailing watches acts as a guide during your buying process.
A good sailing watch has a lot in common with a good crew: dependable, trustworthy, and necessary for the success of any practice, race, or regatta. As a dinghy sailor with a petite wrist, my preference has always been for smaller, more basic watches rather than those with extra sailing-specific functions. The Timex Ironman 30-Lap has been my watch of choice in recent years. It’s easy to start and reset the countdown, plus the option for a rolling countdown makes team race starts easy to follow. While I’ll always appreciate the simplicity of the Ironman, the following five watches made with sailing in mind are, well, better-suited for the purpose.
The Aquastar Match Race line immediately caught my eye with its visual display of the countdown using five small circles above the time. Every thirty seconds equals half a circle, and you’ll see the circles empty from left to right as the clock ticks down. The watch also gives you a double beep every minute and a single beep every second during the final 10 seconds. It was the quietest watch I tested (which can be a good thing if you don’t want a lot of noise in sequence). A double-click of the sync button rounds the clock down to the next minute, and the stopwatch starts after the gun. The Swiss import is simple with a single screen on the mineral crystal display. The back of the stainless steel case is engraved with the time zones for major cities—a perfect bonus for traveling. It was one of the smaller models of the group, but it’s also a little heavier because of the materials it’s made with. My model (9010) has a black rubber band, but the bands also come in navy, orange, and yellow in rubber, leather, and Velcro.
The Gill Regatta Master Watch II takes advantage of its large display in the last minute of the countdown, when the seconds remaining until the start take over the screen. If that visual isn’t enough, the countdown is also audible: It beeps every minute up until one minute, then every 10 seconds, then every second in the last 10. You can then program it to either start a timer or roll into the next start. One button will sync the watch down to the next minute or round to the nearest minute depending on your settings, and a double-click of another button resets the countdown. I was able to calibrate the watch’s compass easily after reading the manual and giving it a couple of tries. The compass has a backward bearing mode and a lock function to save coordinates. You can put the watch in power saving mode with a blank screen after racing. If you forget, you’ll get a low-battery warning when it’s time to recharge. This was the biggest wristwatch of the group (excluding the Ronstan ClearStart Race Timer). However, it was surprisingly lightweight.
The U.K.-based Optimum Time offers a range of sailing-specific wristwatches designed with a "simple is good" philosophy. Their watches have different shapes (round or square), materials (stainless steel or plastic), and wrist straps (Velcro or rubber). Similar to other Optimum Time models, the OS224 that I tried has large digits and features a countdown and an alarm. The countdown is intuitive and gives you the option to roll into the next start afterwards or start a stopwatch. The sync feature drops the clock down to the next full minute with the push of a button. It was the loudest of the group. I silenced the countdown because there was a bit too much beeping involved for my liking (two beeps every second when you were 10 seconds from the start, and then three beeps every second from 5 seconds to the gun—on top of the normal warnings throughout the sequence). I liked the style and simplicity of this one, and as the smallest watch I tried, it fit me the best of the group.
The Ronstan ClearStart Race Timer is not a watch you would want to wear to the bar, but its oversized display is ideal for nailing the starting line on time, even if you forget your prescription sunglasses. The watch is a breeze to use with two modes: time and countdown. Just press the big red button to start the countdown (you can't miss it), and a push of the sync button will drop the countdown to the next minute. The timer has the same alarms as the OS224, but the tone of the timer is slightly deeper. (Optimum Time manufactures the watch for Ronstan and offers a similar "big yellow" OS 315 timer.) You can silence the alarms if you want, and you can also program it for rolling starts or to start a timer afterwards. A low-battery warning ensures you'll never miss a start. Even though it's huge, an elastic band pulls it tight to any size wrist. Plus you can rotate the display in its case to get a better viewing angle from your hiking straps; you can even mount it on your mast.
The Suunto Regatta has everything you might need, and then some. The Finnish import features an audible sailing timer that gives you a double beep every full minute you're in sequence and every 10 seconds during the last minute, and then a beep every second during the last 10 seconds. Plus, 60 little bars run the perimeter of the display to give you a visual representation of the seconds left to the gun. You can sync the watch to the nearest minute with the click of a button, and the time of day shows below the countdown. After the start, the stopwatch automatically starts—there's no option for rolling starts. The watch also has a traditional countdown timer, three alarms, and a low battery warning. Taking advantage of the other goodies that come with the price tag requires a quick study of the 32-page manual. The electronic compass has a leveling bubble, a bearing tracking function, a rotating bezel ring, and marks on the display to help you find the favored end of the line. It's an average size compared to the others in the group, and it won't weigh down your wrist.