SAVOIR FAIRE Sea change: the evolution of yacht timers

7 min

A swashbuckling history of TAG Heuer’s seafaring legends.

Heuer Aquastar Regate advertising, circa 1964 © TAG Heuer

At TAG Heuer, we’ve always had an intimate connection with the ocean. Our transition into nautical timing birthed some of our greatest stopwatches and timepieces ever. We’ve dug into our archives to uncover the evolution of our yacht timers. From the 1930s to present day, discover a glorious collection of pieces that have inspired both watch collectors and sailing pros.

What is a yacht timer?

To appreciate yacht timers, it’s important to understand that yacht races are defined by one critical moment. The moment when the signal boat blasts a horn and raises a flag to mark the start of the race. There is a 5-minute countdown to the start so the yachts can try to hold a strong position at the start line. This countdown to the start of a race is almost as important as the race itself. If a boat crosses the start line too soon, it is penalized. If it crosses the start line too late, it gives away an advantage to its competitors. 

Under the rules of yacht racing, flags are raised and horns are sounded 5 minutes, 4 minutes, 1 minute before the start and of course, at the start of the race. There may also be important countdowns from the 10 and 15 minute marks. Skippers must be able to control their boats as well as calculate and anticipate the time leading up to the start. By working closely with sailing experts, Heuer developed carefully thought-out yacht timers to measure pre-race intervals, tides and of course, the race.

1930s – stopwatches for yacht timing

Flick through the Heuer archives and you’ll find special stopwatches designed for yacht racing dating back all the way to the 1930s. While the numbers for minutes and seconds on a standard stopwatch count ‘up’, that is they move clockwise from 5-10-15 up to 50-55-60, the minutes and seconds on a yacht timer count ‘down’. Rather than counting up to 60 minutes, the standard yachting timer counts down exactly 5 minutes. The period for the pre-race signals in a yacht race. The numbers for seconds on Heuer’s yachting timers count ‘down’, with the numbers for seconds printed on the dial moving clockwise from 60-55-50 down to 15-10-5.  

  • Heuer catalogue, 1933 © TAG Heuer

Heuer Solunar Advertising, circa 1940 © TAG Heuer

1949 - the rise of the Solunar

Apart from the countdown to the start of a race, yacht racers also benefit from knowing the times for high tides and low tides. In 1949, Heuer introduced the first wristwatch with a permanent tide indicator. In addition to the three standard hands to indicate the hour, minutes and seconds, the Solunar had a colorful inset disc to show the tide times. Upon arriving at a specific location, sailors, racers, or fishermen could check the local tide charts and use a pusher to set the tide disc. 

This disc then inched forward soon after midnight each day to indicate the times for the high and low tides for the following day. The Solunar laid the groundwork for the development of the Heuer chronographs of the future, which would also incorporate the tide disc.  The origin story of the Solunar is as thrilling as the timepiece itself. You can hear all about it in Season 2 of our podcast A Matter of Time.

Despite its innovative and eye-catching design, our archives suggest that Solunar wasn’t an easy sell. Here’s a quote from a piece of correspondence between Heuer and its then partner Abercrombie & Fitch: ‘This Solunar watch is a big hit, but it also has a big flaw. To sell it you need a “how to set and how to handle it” explanation. Despite a superb color leaflet, the explanation is too complicated, and the sellers in the shops prefer to sell simple watches.’

1950 to 1954 - a new wave of tide chronographs

The Solunar was a three-hand watch (hours, minutes and seconds) with a special tide dial. And it paved the way for a series of chronographs that would incorporate this same type of tide dial in a three-register chronograph, with the capacity to record up to 12 hours. The minute recorder was divided into five-minute segments, making the chronographs especially useful for yacht races. These watches were made over a period of two decades, first as the Heuer Mareograph and Abercrombie & Fitch Seafarer, with the Orvis Solunagraph joining the line-up circa 1970. Each of these chronographs sailed forth to become a collector’s item.

When these chronographs first arrived in 1950, Heuer seems to have felt the need to explain how they worked, so customers could better understand the benefits of owning a watch with a tide indicator. Here’s an advertisement for the Mareograph. It came with two separate sections that explained how you could use the timepiece for yachting as well as fishing and hunting.

1957 - the Ring-Master

While the wristwatches with tide indicators made waves, Heuer introduced an entirely new type of yacht timer in 1957: the Heuer Ring-Master. The Ring-Master stopwatch came with seven interchangeable rings, allowing the owner to quickly install different rings to time different events, like boxing, football and many other sports. Each of the rings were a different color, with different markings. The bright yellow Ring 1 was perfect for yacht racing as it was marked for a countdown of minutes and seconds.  

  • Heuer Solunar, circa 1950 © TAG Heuer

1959 - the Giant

Towards the end of the fifties, Heuer made revolutionary changes in its approach to yacht timers. A great example of this is a stopwatch that was listed as ‘The Giant’. First, instead of the five minutes to the start of the race being shown on a relatively small recorder occupying only a fractional area of the dial, the track marking the minutes covered almost the entire area of the dial. This track was marked for five minutes, and each of the one-minute segments was a different color. The case diameter increased from the previous standard 49mm up to 57mm, with the case also having a white enamel coating.  

Heuer Aquastar Regate advertising, circa 1964 © TAG Heuer

1964 to 1967 - the Aquastar years

Aquastar was founded in 1962 as a subsidiary of Jean Richard, an established Swiss maker at the time. It became well-known for making watches for use in and on the water. The Regate set sail in 1964 as a watch specifically designed for timing the start of a yacht race. This model’s defining characteristics are five circular apertures across the top of the dial. Graced with a rotating disk, they give the appearance of five red balls that represent the minutes being counted down. The dial on this watch is signed ‘Aquastar’ and ‘Heuer’. Aquastar produced the watch and Heuer distributed it. By 1976 Heuer would have its own branded ‘Regatta’ countdown watches that used the same style of circular apertures. But Heuer’s examples typically timed 10-minute periods, using five red circles and five blue circles.

1964 - for every kind of skipper

Heuer was beginning to harness the potential, and versatility, of yacht timers. The watchmaker began using advertorials to persuade ‘skippers’ from different walks of life to embrace these pieces.

1966 – the Navia goes sailing

Heuer had been making dashboard clocks since the 1930s. The hallmarks of these pieces were their 8-day capacity and rugged cases and movements that could withstand racing, rallying or aviation. Named the ‘Master Time’ in 1958, by the mid-1960s Heuer had modified the dashboard clock to be useful at sea. The ‘Navia’ (referring to ‘naval’ and ‘aviation’) incorporated a waterproof case and offered superb legibility, with Heuer advertising that it was perfect for the open cockpit of a boat. 

1968 - the Skipper era begins

We arrive at the historic moment that inspired Heuer to leave a lasting mark on the sailing world: the America’s Cup in September 1967. Heuer supplied timing equipment for the legendary racing yacht Intrepid, including Heuer-Aquastar wristwatches and handheld yacht timers. Not far from the shores of Newport, Rhode Island, the Intrepid stormed to victory. To commemorate skipper Emil Mosbacher’s triumph, Heuer produced an entirely new chronograph, the iconic Reference 7754.  

The first Heuer ‘Skipper’ used a bright blue, green and orange dial. It was given a Carrera case, with the 30-minute recorder of the Carrera replaced by a 15-minute countdown recorder. This timepiece is highly coveted by vintage Heuer collectors and people with a passion for sailing. This first version would live a very short life. Only a few hundred pieces were created. And then the Skipper chronograph would move to the ‘compressor’ case of the Autavia. The name ‘Skipper’ would live on through several other versions through the 1970s and 1980s.

1968 - how to make a strong start

By crafting cutting-edge yacht timers, Heuer enabled teams to not only make a good start, but also a flying finish. Heuer was so dedicated to yacht racing enthusiasts that the brand created catalogs with tips on how to make a good start.

1970 - winning hearts

While the Skipper was making waves for chronograph enthusiasts, Heuer yacht timers continued to be marketed among Heuer’s precision instruments ‘for sports, industrial, scientific applications.’ Here’s an example of an old ad published in The Sunday Oregonian. It highlights the timer’s color-coded central five-minute register.

  • Heuer advertising, circa 1964 © TAG Heuer

1972 to 1974 - the rise and rise of the Skipper

The design of the Skipper chronograph evolved over the years, as it moved from the Carrera case to a series of Autavia cases. The design of the second Skipper, circa 1970, featured a black dial, an oversized countdown recorder with red, white and blue segments, The Skipper would roll on into the 1970s in the C-shaped cases used by the Autavias, with a variety of manual and automatic configurations, but always with the emblematic 15-minute countdown recorder.

1974 - regulation approved

In 1973, Heuer introduced a new style of wrist stopwatch, called the ‘Supersport’.  The Regatta model, or Reference 775.915 from 1974, was an eye-catching piece, with a bright blue case and the red, white and blue segments on the dial corresponding to the colors used on many of Heuer’s yacht timers. This version of the Supersport was marketed as ‘a wrist speedometer built on the basis of International Yacht Racing Union regulations’. 

Heuer advertising, circa 1976 © TAG Heuer

1978 - style and substance

Crafted to be durable at sea, the Heuer yacht timer Reference 503.915 was housed inside a lightweight shockproof fiberglass case to withstand the elements (and look good doing it). Heuer called this its ‘Fibershell’ case.  At 62mm across the case, this yacht timer was easy to grip (being larger than even The Giant, from 1959), while the unique shape of the case ensured that the sailor would have a ‘safe, sure grip’ under any conditions. 

1983 - regatta royalty

Heuer had offered ‘Regatta’ wristwatches in the 1960s and 1970s, but in 1983 the Regatta moved to a dramatic new series of cases, borrowed from the Autavia. At over 42mm across the dial, the cases were coated in either black, olive or pewter. Each Regatta was graced with colored discs (red and blue) to countdown two 5-minute sequences. The other, even more colorful, wrist yacht timers gaining in popularity were the Reference 503.512 and the Heuer Surfer.

1983 to 1986 - time for action

‘Time for action’ was TAG Heuer’s call to action in the 1980s. The tagline was stamped across several catalogs at the time, showcasing the brand’s wide range of versatile timing equipment that attracted sporting professionals and enthusiasts from across the world. From motor racing to athletics to, of course, sailing. The 1983 catalog featured the final version of the Skipper as we knew it then, housed in a large version of the Autavia case.

  • TAG Heuer "Time for action" advertising, circa 1986 © TAG Heuer

1990 to 2014

By releasing yacht timers like the TAG Heuer Searacer (in the late 1990s), the Aquaracer Calibre S Regatta (circa 2005) and the limited edition TAG Heuer Aquaracer 500 Meter Countdown Chronograph for Team Oracle USA at the 2013 America’s Cup, the brand continued its steady relationship with sailing.

2023 - a return to the high seas

Today TAG Heuer is once again expanding its horizons and reconnecting with its sailing DNA. Through its new partnership with Flying Nikka – a racing yacht at the leading edge of high-performance sailing technology – the brand is back sailing the high seas at the highest level.

2023 - the comeback king

This year also marks the return of the legendary Skipper. Reminiscent of the unforgettable 1968 Heuer Skipper, this new iteration is yet another exhilarating landmark, further strengthening TAG Heuer’s bond with the ocean. A relationship that began almost 100 years ago, in the 1930s, but will undoubtedly last forever.