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2011-04-08

On watch


How mine looked originally. Now beaten to a still-accurate pulp.


Among the pricier items the cruiser-in-utero can purchase is a fine timepiece. Back in the days when sextants were critical, the ship's chronometer was expensive, precious and accurate. If it wasn't accurate, it was "rated" via close observation so that its particular fastness or slowness was understood and was compensated for. Knowing the local time at an obligatory (and, if you care about the opinion of French astronomers, entirely arbitrary) spot on the Earth is the key to using nautical almanacs with sextants and lots of fiddly math to know your ship's position on the wide and briny.

The sextant is just to the left, behind the lead line and the cat o' nine tails. Y'arr. Etc.
These days, GPS rules the roost. A "fine timepiece" is not only unnecessary, but you'd miss it when it was torn off your wrist as you slid into a lifeline. Of course, we have various GPS devices, and sextants, and both co-skippers can use them if the satellites get turned off, the batteries all go green, or some group of malcontents sets up jammers. They are a backup, but they require accurate time. We have (and will have more of shortly) radio means of getting time signals, but counting down from where the radios will be out to a sextant-wielding crew on deck is a little awkward. Why not have something accurate on your wrist?
Sure, nice watch, but telling the time is not enough for me, and I would worry about thieves, pooping waves and just dinging the thing all the time.
"Something accurate" could be a twenty-buck Casio, frankly. All quartz-crystal regulated watches are more accurate than mechanical ones, and aren't as prone to salt air corrosion (although their battery contacts may be). But I went for a mid-point option between something stylish from a regatta after-party, and something that looks like it comes in a Hello Kitty model.



I check against my country's "national time signal" about once a week on my Suunto Vector, a four-year-old "wrist top computer" still sold for about $200 for use by hikers that has clock, stopwatch, alarm, baro, altimeter, thermometer and compass functions. It also lights up with a dim, greenish light for 5 seconds (preserving night vision) and is waterproof to 10 metres...which I've proved the hard way by falling off a boat (OK, it's good to 3 metres...it was a long drop.)

Needless to say, this Vector supplies roughly 90% of what a sailor wants at a fraction of the "yachtsman's chronometer". On the Vector, the graphical way in which the seconds are tallied is particularly suited, I find, to working with a sextant (appearing, advancing and disappearing little squares). I also find, despite the fairly obvious division of the tropical day into rough halves of light and dark, that running the watch to display 24 hour "naval time" (i.e. "10:15 PM" is "2215h") keeps me in a logging frame of mind.

I suppose the ultimate version would have GPS on board and a heart monitor to tell you when you were having fun. Those functions are available on watches, at multiples of the price of the Vector.

I "rate" it by periodic "hack" type checks. I can never move fast enough to nail it, but I know it's currently four seconds slow, and when three months pass, it will be five seconds slow. I need to change the single coin type battery ($7) about once every 10 months. A method to nail the time within a second would be to pop the battery in at the top of the hour as per the time signal to get the "12:00" on the watch. Then, just adjust the hour to local time.

On board, I would keep a dual local/GMT 24 hour clock for general reference (how far in time zones from ZULU are we?), but the wristwatch is near perfect otherwise. The compass even works on the steel boat, as long as I hold it five feet or more off the deck, or I stand on the aluminum pilot house roof. The function I use more than any other is the barometer and its tiny but legible "trend meter"...a recording barometer is a useful thing to have on a boat, and on one's wrist, too, or so it's proven for me.

For the record, this isn't good.

My only criticism of these class of watches is that they have Lexan watchface crystals that are too easily scratched. I buff it occasionally with baking soda toothpaste (an old furniture refinisher's trick) and this minimizes the scratches. Recently, however, the crystal has a crack in it...hey, I live an active, minor wound-filled life...and it might be time for a replacement if it can't keep the moisture out any longer.

Anyway, since I bought it, I've gone from the sort of fellow who never wore a watch to the sort that regularly fiddles with the buttons to interpret the world around me. The time function is likely the least important to me, actually; I have used, however, the stopwatch to refine some windward/leeward sailing exercises (I am always interested in transferring race techniques to cruising, even though I rarely race now). As an unreconstructed weather geek, however, I am a little OCD about rates of barometric rise and fall, and regularly compare what my "nose" tells me with local pressure readings.

And yes, you can easily adjust your "sea level" for your local inland altitude. So by all means, go watchless if you wish: time sources abound in the most trivial of boat or communications devices these days...my MP3 player knows the time (not particularly accurately, however). Or get a cheap watch...Neptune has several of my cellphones and I know I should never own any cell that didn't come free with the plan... But if you want a multi-function timepiece that can survive aboard and tell you half a dozen useful data points, you could do worse than what I wear.

2 comments:

Silverheels III said...

When you go cruising you will have all the time in the world. Lynn and I chucked our watches before the revolving restaurant on the CN tower was hull down....

Rhys said...

But I *like* my watch! You guys are retired...we will be "on sabbatical" with a kid who will be free to piss up a rope only after a couple of hours of boat school are done. Different strokes...Becky doesn't wear a watch, either.

I do like the image of the world's tallest freestanding watch disposal...