Features October 15, 2002 Issue

Marine Watches

Casio's Sea Pathfinder 40 gets top honors for functionality, readability, and price - but it's not for the slim-wristed. Higher-quality watches lack some of the functions we've come to like.

The Casio SPF-40 (left) looks busy compared
ūto the simple Citizen Eco-Drive Diver watch
(right), but Casio's engineers have made the
functions easy to get at, and they work well.

The wrist watch dates back only about a century - and it was first worn chiefly by women, until World War I proved its practicality for men. Until the end of WW II, advances in watch technology consisted chiefly in automating their winding, and adding a few "complications" like calendar and stopwatch functions. After WW II, watch technology languished about a decade, then began to improve at increasing rates.

Six generations can be distinguished from then to the present: 1. Replacement of human power by electronic power, and the rise of the digital display. 2. Addition of alarm, timer, chime, and stopwatch functions, now standard. 3. Addition of memories, sensors, and internal calculation features such as sun, moon, tide, phone book, multiple time zones, perpetual calendar, calculator, thermometer and barometer functions. 4. Interface with the PC: downloads like nav coordinates, appointments and phone books, and uploads like logs and data dumps. 5. Real-time update by external sources such as GPS, WWV and other radio signals (WWV is the time broadcast, via radio and Web, of the National Institute of Standards and Technology). 6. Interactive functions, e.g., 2-way communication, watch-to-watch data transfer, and others still under development.

Our Evaluations
Our goals were twofold. First, we wanted to choose representatives of the major types of watches, traditional to futuristic, that were of obvious use in a nautical environment (including divers' watches, which have the ruggedness and water-tightness that sailors need). Second, we hoped to suggest, implicitly, approaches to buying that would be based on an individual's affinity for or resistance to high-tech, tradition, simplicity, multiple functions, and so forth. We weren't able to fill every category, but the lot we did obtain covers the field fairly well. We set our price limit at $350 (which puts the archetype of all nautical watches, the Rolex Submariner, out of reach.)

All the models evaluated are electronic, in varying degrees of function and sophistication. In most cases the models are representatives of large classes that differ in dial color, case material, styling, type of band, and to some extent features.

We evaluated the functions for nautical usefulness when we selected the models; discussed below. We scrutinized each for signs of carelessness in design or manufacture. We verified claims of accuracy against the WWV time standard. (All watches exhibited a high degree of accuracy during the weeks that we had them.)

We didn't open or pressure-test any cases. We read the owner's manuals, wore each watch, and tested each function, with sensitivity to any excess complexity in the user interface. We paid special attention to comfort, readability of the dial/display in good light, low light, and no light, as well as accessibility and reasonableness of the controls. Alarms, where present, were rated for audibility. No torture testing was performed.

Timers, alarms, calendars, and stopwatches have become so common as to need no further comment here. Signal beeps vary a lot in audibility; check in a noisy area before buying.

Barometers and related functions can be quite useful, but for serious use a log or chart history of readings must be available. Sunrise/sunset functions can be useful to those who lack equipment for night navigation and need to know when to be in port. Moon-phase/transit functions are helpful in predicting light levels at night, potential interference with visibility of the stars, and tide-height averages and extremes. Tide functions rate high in usefulness; these predict the cycle times but not the amplitude of the tide. Tide functions use location data entered by the watch user.

Despite the importance of knowing direction on the water, most watch compasses are subject to interference from nearby metal objects, just as handheld hiking compasses are. Don't forget that some of these metal objects may be on your person.

Thermometer functions are probably more useful for settling arguments than for any vital nautical purpose. The watch must be removed from your wrist for about 15 minutes to obtain an accurate reading.

It's been said that an analog watch tells you what time it is, whereas a digital one tells you what time is isn't. Most people will agree that while both digital and analog watch faces can be read at a glance, the analog glance gives you the present time in context, and leaves a picture of the time in your mind, while the digital read-out requires a bit of interpretive effort, but may leave a more exact "imprint." (Neither will boil the water faster.)

Of the materials in the watches tested, titanium, carbon fiber, and plastic resin resist corrosion better than stainless steel or aluminum.

Watch bands or bracelets are supposed to keep the watch on your wrist, but sailing can offer extraordinary challenges to the security of this arrangement.

Weight and bulk affect the wearer in different ways. One useful finding of these evaluations is that bulk is easily accommodated and sooner forgotten on the wrist than weight. A heavy watch tends to re-orient itself over the ulna bone instead of the center of the wrist where you originally put it, and no amount of moving it back lasts for long. Lightness is an attribute much to be prized.

Water resistance is essential in a nautical watch. Each of the watches comes with a manufacturer's claim, either a depth or number of atmospheres (1 bar = 1 atmosphere = 14.7 psi). Be advised, though, that water resistance deteriorates over time. Look for a screw-down crown and a solid back for best protection. Light-powered models never need to be opened, and tend to have solid backs.

Readability. Watches, which ought to be models of human-oriented design, often fall short due to styling considerations or inappropriate choices of markers, hands, displays, colors, or font sizes. The design of aircraft instruments has been refined to the n-th degree for quick acquisition and accurate reading. Watchmakers would do well to follow that lead. Beware of dials, digital or analog, with print too small for legibility by your eyes.

Night Visibility. Night vision is easily lost and takes 15 or more minutes to recover. Digital watches now offer electroluminscent dials that are bright enough in some cases to ruin night vision. Photoluminescent dials and hands won't affect night vision, but die out.

The Watches
We'll cover the watches in alphabetical order by maker:

Casio G-Shock DW-6100. The G-Shock is almost a cult watch, a legend in its own time for toughness, features, and value. Begun in 1981, the G-Shock project adopted a "Triple 10" design standard: 10 atmospheres (100m) water resistance, ability to survive a 10-meter fall onto concrete at any angle, and at least a 10-year service life.

Introduced in 1992 as the first G-Shock model equipped with functions other than timekeeping, the DW-6100 has had a long run. Of interest to the mariner: it senses, displays and logs temperatures, and it displays local sunrise/sunset times, in both cases numerically and graphically. Although its functions were superseded in 1999 by the DW-9700 Gulfman, it remains in the line, and the much more advanced Gulfman has been discontinued, perhaps because of the latter's high price.

Delightfully light and comfortable, the DW-6100 is also easy to read - until evening, at which point its "micro light" - simply a small lamp that shines across the face - falls short of the electroluminescent lighting we've come to like. Other minor signs of a generation gap show up in the user interface: setting and entering location data have been improved in more recent G-Shock models. Other drawbacks: only one alarm, and no daylight-savings feature; alarm volume is barely adequate. Happily, even older G-Shock technology is still easily superior to current offerings from other manufacturers. Although we'd like to see the advanced Gulfman brought back, until then the DW-6100 remains a potent contender for any sailor's wrist, at less than half the price.

Casio SPF-40 Sea Pathfinder. About the same in weight and bulk as the Suunto (see below), this model exhibits a modernity the latter lacks. Examples: a bright dial light with an "automatic" setting, an effective combination of large numerals and graphs, and most important, a user interface that builds on widely accepted key assignments.

For the mariner, the tide function is of real interest, and it's easy to set up and read at a glance.

Barometer readings are plotted on a small graph showing the last 26 hours; thermometer readings are digital only and not logged.

The third sensor on this triple-sensor watch provides a compass function that is fairly intuitive to use. By pressing the button you either get one instantaneous reading, or up to a minute of continuous readings, much as you would with a mechanical compass. This one provides both digital degrees and a simulated compass needle that appears to float above the dial. A similar, but less useful, additional floating display is optionally provided in the stopwatch/timer modes. The alarms are nice loud beeps.

The best feature of this watch is its readability. What's not to like? Well, it's not a G-Shock. Each mode does only its own thing; no integration of one with another is possible, as is available to some extent on the DW-6100 G-Shock. The flat, metal back traps perspiration, as does the rubber band. It's also a fairly bulky watch, and looks out of place on anything but a beefy wrist. This seems like a nit-pick, given all the watch can do, but it will be nicer when it drops a size or two (next generation?).

The Sea Pathfinder is available in several variations.

Citizen Eco-Drive Diver's Watch AP0440-06H. With its one-piece stainless case sculpted in understated sophistication, this model puts to rest any association of diving watches with clunkiness. It features a sleek black dial with bright photoluminescent markers and hands, sapphire crystal and one-way timing bezel, plus a small calendar window. Its screw-down crown is amply protected by shoulder lugs. Both rubber and metal bands are available.

This model is powered by light, and from a full charge can run for 180 days without needing further exposure. Citizen estimates a 20-year life for the Eco-Drive storage battery. Visible manufacturing quality is flawless. Dial size could be bigger; this is available in other models.

Citizen Eco-Drive SailHawk. Big but not bulky, heavy but not obtrusive, this sleek, ultra-refined model is styled to be at home in the company of similar models from Rolex, Omega, and IWC. It comes with an integrated stainless bracelet notable for its smoothness and design restraint. Offering a dual analog-digital display, it appeals to both traditionalist and modernist.

Radiating from the center of the traditional black dial are the three standard hands, doing the job they normally do. At ten, two and six o'clock are three sub-dials, one counting 24-hour time (in effect the AM/PM indicator), another, 60 minutes (for a stop- watch), and a third showing all seven function modes and looking like the face of a ship's engine-room telegraph. Switching from one function to another is the main job of the pull-out crown. Three large, smooth buttons at two, four, and eight o'clock cause actions like starting and stopping timing operations. Completing the picture of the surprisingly uncluttered face are two analog windows, at four and eight o'clock.

One of the more interesting features of this watch is its four-year power reserve and its intelligent power-saving modes. Set the time on the digital display, and it's repeated on the hands, another clever feature. Visible manufacturing quality is flawless.

Negatives: The watch's six tiny dabs of photoluminescent paint don't make it convenient to read in the dark. Its weight - which in the end counts more than bulk - may rule it out for some. Alarm volume is too low to be heard in any surroundings noisier than a law library. Its user interface has a steep (but brief) learning curve, but techies will pick it up quickly.

Del Mar Tide Watch. Made in China and marketed by Emtech La Costa of Clearwater, FL, this watch is sold by West Marine and BoatU.S. along with many other Del Mar models. Its styling is rounded and modern-looking. It comes with minimal user instructions and no indication of the manufacturer's name. A slip of paper in the box indicates a two-year warranty by a company in upstate New York; send along $7.95, please.

The feature set is good: 50m water resistance, calendar, stopwatch, alarm, countdown timer, dual time zones, and tide calculator.

Unlike other tide calculators we've seen on watches, this one does not deal with moon data, longitude or latitude. The only input is the date and (standard) time of the highest tide during the current year for the site of interest. We could not reach the website where the instructions claimed this information would be available, nor does the method itself inspire confidence in its accuracy.

Other than a few dollars in price, we see no reason why someone looking for these features shouldn't prefer one of the Casio models.

Gill Analog/Digital Sailing Watch. The Gill Watch combines a traditional analog face with a digital display embedded in the covering lens. The digital display can be turned on and off with the press of a button. The watch was designed from the ground up to be a simple, easy-to-manage racing watch, and in this role it succeeds admirably. The numbers on the digital display are big and clear, and can be read with polarized sunglasses. The six countdown timer pre-sets will cover any common starting sequence (and plenty of land-based timer functions as well). The user interface is standard and quickly absorbed, partly because the watch isn't loaded with features that aren't central to standard timekeeping/alarms and either counting down or up. Night illumination is excellent.

This all-stainless watch is also good-looking - the design can serve well in any situation from a dinghy race to a dinner party.

We found only one shortcoming in the watch, but it's significant: The analog face, even with the digital display turned off, is difficult to read. When the watch is held at an angle away from the eye of more than about 15-20°, the ghosted image of the digital display kicks in strongly. This would be easy enough to get used to, but the analog face still seems murky when looked at directly, at least to several sets of our eyes. It's particularly difficult inside under artificial light. The designer of the watch, Jerry Richards, tells us that Gill will be updating it in coming months with greater contrast between the hands and the face color. This simple change, in our view, will make the watch a top choice, especially at the current price.

Luminox Original Navy SEAL Dive Watch Series II. One of many styling and case variations on the same basic watch movement, this model is the answer to readability at night. All three hands and all 12 hour markers are self-powered, so they glow on their own, via a Swiss technology called traser®. Each of the markers is a sealed, hollow body of mineral glass whose interior wall is coated with a luminescent material similar to that used on the screen of a television picture tube. The internal volume is filled with tritium gas. Tritium emits electrons, which travel to the luminescent material and cause it to emit light, a process similar to light production in a CRT.

The half-life of tritium is a little over 12 years; this watch's luminosity is warranted for 10.

The Luminox's military-style dial is all business and easy to read. A calendar window shows the day of month. Surrounding the dial is a one-way ratcheting timing bezel. Dial, case, and bezel are commendably non-reflective, although some reflection is unavoidable from the flat tempered mineral glass crystal.

The jeweled Swiss quartz movement is powered by a lithium battery with an expected life of four years. To maintain the 200m water resistance the battery should be changed only by the Luminox Service Center, which also pressure tests the case to maintain the 200m water resistance. The setting crown is protected by lugs on the case.

We were able to evaluate three examples of this watch: the 3901 (injection molded case, ballistic-cloth band with Velcro-type fastener and Navy SEAL logo, stainless steel plate back secured by four screws), the 3203 (all-stainless case with screw-down back and crown, rubber band), and the 3204 (case same as 3203 but with stainless bracelet). The dial, hands, and movement are essentially the same on all three, and all offer the same 200m water resistance. The extra robustness of the latter models comes at the cost of added weight in addition to a considerable rise in price. Dials are available in a number of colors.

The real charmer is the 3901 because of its light weight, nonreflective materials and ballistic cloth band. Remove the band and this watch would be at home on the instrument panel of an aircraft.

As soon as you move up to stainless cases and bracelets some of the all-business appearance gives way to styling, and the watches have to compete against Citizen and Seiko, which have a strong head start.

Are there any negatives? Yes - lack of advanced functions. The external rotating bezel is hard to turn. Luminox is a relatively young company offering only a one-year warranty - and extends that only to those who've acquired their watches from authorized dealers.

Seiko Kinetic Titanium SMY042. One of a large model family, this sample offers light weight (even with a matching bracelet) corrosion resistance, water-tightness and luminous dial. Power is generated by wrist movement using a traditional rotor, which drives a tiny wheel in a magnetic field, generating current. The current is stored in a capacitor for use by the watch movement. The whole process of generating and using the power is controlled by an IC chip.

The current model of this watch can store six months of power. Thus far, Seiko has applied Kinetic technology only to analog watches with no "complications" other than those centering on conservation of power. The "Lumibrite" photoluminescent dial in effect stores light and gives it back over a period of hours, permitting reasonable visibility at night given sufficient recent exposure to light.

Suunto Yachtsman Wristop Computer. Its aluminum/carbon fiber case saves this bulky model from also being a particularly heavy watch. The large case diameter allows the use of big digits in its three-level, all-digital LCD display.

Superficially, the Suunto is of the same general class of digital watches as the Casio G-Shock and dozens of similar models, carrying four button controls, with button "A" for setting, "C" to select mode, etc. Unhappily, however, its designers ignored the dominance and familiarity of this now-standard pattern and created their own paradigm, which most wearers will not, we predict, appreciate needing to learn.

Then again, the Yachtsman offers functions that are hard to pass up. The four main functions are watch, sailing timer, barometer/temperature, and compass. In watch mode, besides time of day are daily alarms, stopwatch, countdown timer and dual time zone display. The sailing timer counts time down from as much as 120 minutes, with different beeping behavior at certain intervals; when zero is reached it assumes the race has started and begins a count upward to a maximum of 120 minutes.

Some of this model's weaknesses: poor visibility at night, despite the large dial area. The display is almost all just numbers, except for a small barometric trend graph.

Altogether, this is a well-made and versatile instrument that owners will appreciate more once they get used to the interface.

Obviously, the choice of a watch is a personal matter, and too many factors play into the decision for there to be a single correct choice, even for one person. Some people like tons of functions, some don't. Either way it's silly to have a watch loaded with functions that you never use, either because they're not important to you or because button-pushing your way to them is too difficult. If we were made of money, we'd have watches for every occasion, but the way things are, most of us have one watch as a constant companion. Still, it's our business to choose things around here, if only for ourselves, and in this case we'd choose the Casio SPF-40. On most wrists it will be clunky, so it's not ideal as a general-purpose watch. But as a sailing watch it's excellent, with accurate tide, compass, barometer, and timer functions that are easy to set, get to, and read. And it's not expensive. We got ours for $150 from www.wristwatch.com.

Those who prefer a simpler, more elegant watch will choose a Citizen, Seiko, or Luminox. The handsome Gill watch is now offered at a very attractive price, but in our view it will be a much better watch, and a top contender for the one-watch-does-it-all prize, when its hands contrast better with its analog face (we can live with the interference from the digital lens at intermediate angles).

Watch models, functions, and prices change fast, particularly with the big producers like Casio. There are sure to be interesting new marine watches on the market between the time we send this to the printer and you read it. In the watch world, after all, tempus fugit.

Also With This Article
Click here to view "Value Guide: Marine Watches."

Contacts-Casio, Inc., 973/252-7570, www.casio.com; Citizen USA, 800/321-1023, www.citizenwatch.com; Del Mar Tide Watch, Emtech La Costa, 727/447-5919 (via West Marine or BoatU.S.) Gill North America, 800/822-6504, www.gillna.com; Luminox, 800/858-5215, www.luminox.com; Seiko USA, 201/539-5730. Suunto USA, 800/543?9124, www.suunto.com.

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