Bottom Time: Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Diver Chronograph

Bottom Time: Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Diver Chronograph

December, 1978. The 250-foot steel cargo freighter Superior Producer set sail from Willemstad harbour, on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, loaded with toys, liquor, clothing, and electronics – Christmas gifts, bound for Venezuela, 40 miles to the south. Overloaded in fact, so that not long after leaving port, the ship started to list and take on water. The crew was forced to abandon ship, leaving it at the mercy of tugboats that moved it out of the mouth of the harbour into deeper water before it sank beneath the waves, taking its holiday bounty to the bottom of the Caribbean. Within days, resourceful local divers were salvaging what they could, meaning not all was lost. Slightly soggy shirts and cartons of whisky turned up under the Christmas tree after all – just in Curaçao, not Venezuela.

Some four decades on, our dive boat, the Curaçao Star, is motoring out past the cruise ship piers, the sea throwing up white-capped rollers from the stiff easterly breeze. It’s only a 20-minute ride from Ocean Encounters, our dive shop headquarters in Willemstad, so I start contorting into my wetsuit and checking my gear. Tank valve on, weights, dive computer. And on my left wrist, I tighten the burly orange strap of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Diver Chronograph. As the motor winds down and we’re above the Superior Producer, I unlock the crown on the watch’s left flank and ratchet the timing ring to align the zero mark with the minute hand, then lock it down again. Shuffling to the transom of the Curaçao Star with my awkward kit, I step into the sea and become weightless. The wreck awaits below.

A Diver’s Dive Watch

By now, most people know the story behind Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak lineage. Penned by legendary watch designer Gérald Genta in 1972, the original broke new ground for sports watches at a time when the entire industry was in deep peril. It was an absurd proposition – a steel sports watch that cost 10 times what a Rolex Submariner did at the time. Its trademark octagonal bezel, held fast by exposed screws, had a nautical bent and was, in fact, inspired by the collar ring that holds a deep sea diver’s bronze helmet tight. It’s only fitting then, that the Royal Oak would evolve into a watch a diver would wear.

In 2011, the Diver made its debut as part of the Royal Oak’s bigger Offshore family. It was first produced in steel, followed soon by forged carbon and ceramic versions. And finally, at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie this past winter, AP introduced the Diver Chronograph. The watch, while being more complicated, has an even more sporty demeanour, thanks mainly to the colour palette chosen for the its dials and straps – bright blue, yellow, lime green or orange. The version I had for review in Curaçao was the orange, perfect for a visit to the Dutch Caribbean.

Despite its untimely demise, the Superior Producer appears almost fit to sail again. The ship landed perfectly upright on the sea floor, 100 feet deep.

Despite the depth of the wreck, the water clarity here is famously good and, as I’m descending, I can make out the entire length from bow to stern as if I’m parachuting on to its deck from a plane. As I draw closer, I can see a fleet of tarpon, massive silver game fish, cruising around the ship’s superstructure. A few feet off the sandy bottom and a glance at my right wrist tells me I’m approaching 95 feet; on my left, the bright white hands of the Diver Chronograph have marched off two and a half minutes since I left the surface. If I was breathing normal air, I’d have only about half an hour at this depth before I’d have to ascend

But I’m not breathing air. The air we breathe every day contains 79 per cent nitrogen, a gas our bodies harmlessly ignore. But breathing compressed air underwater, that nitrogen becomes a liability. The pressure forces the gas into body tissue, accumulating the longer a diver remains at depth. Stay too deep too long and upon ascent, that nitrogen can’t escape fast enough and can cause injury or even death, an ailment known as “the bends”.

To mitigate this risk, divers can opt for a blended “enriched air”, or “nitrox”, which replaces some of the nitrogen with more oxygen. It allows for more time underwater and less risk of the narcotic effects nitrogen can have at deeper depths. The catch is, a 32 per cent oxygen content has a maximum depth of 111 feet before it becomes toxic. Resting hard at 100 feet, the Superior Producer is the perfect place to breathe nitrox. And, with a full tank of it, I’ve got 45 minutes to explore the wreck.

Orange County

While the bold orange of the Royal Oak Offshore Diver Chronograph may seem downright playful, what’s inside this watch is deadly serious – a 59-jewel exquisitely decorated modular column wheel movement, the calibre 3124/3841. Unlike its non-chronograph brethren, this one has a sapphire caseback, allowing full view of the engraved solid gold rotor.

Equally exquisite and distinctive is the watch’s dial, the repeated texture called “méga tapisserie” by Audemars Piguet, a blown-up version of that which was found on the very first Royal Oak. Rendered in orange, a colour carried through on the 15-minute swath of the timing ring, it is mesmerising enough to be an underwater distraction. The same orange is matched on the thick, pliable rubber strap, which is carried over from the Offshore Diver. Secured with a beefy engraved pin buckle, it is eminently comfortable and leaves no doubt that the only suit sleeve this one will ever see should be made of neoprene.

This is one diving watch that, by conventional wisdom, shouldn’t work. Its 30-minute chronograph is too short a time interval to time most dives and its push-pieces shouldn’t be pressed underwater. Dive watches with internal timing rings are simply less practical than those with rotating bezels due to the finickity nature of the tiny crown used to turn them. The Offshore Diver’s timing ring crown is screw-locked so using it underwater isn’t an option; you have to set it before you splash in, or you risk flooding that beautiful Le Brassus-made movement inside. But still, it is a watch that begs to be used. Its 42mm case has a refined utility about it, with angles and functional screw heads, bright luminescent dial and hands, and that strap that seems born at sea. With a healthy 300m of water resistance, the watch isn’t scared of water either.

Blue Curaçao

Curaçao is a curious place. Part of the so-called “ABC Islands”, along with Aruba and Bonaire, it was once a Dutch colony, then overseas territory. Today, it is a thriving melting pot of cultures – Afro-Caribbean, Hispanic, and European – with the expected blending of foods and languages co-existing in harmony. The island may not be as well known as its neighbour, Bonaire, for diving, but its reefs are at least the equal, ringing the entire coastline, while  topside, its capital city Willemstad is a bright, charming place to explore, with UNESCO-listed neighbourhoods, vibrant restaurant scene and enough nightlife and shopping for mandatory decompression stops.

Earlier in the day, I had dived the sloping reef walls of the island’s south coast, including the dramatic Director’s Bay, where the remains of a shark-proof fence can be seen. The fence was constructed in a quiet cove by the managing director of the Royal Dutch Shell oil company to reassure the visiting queen of the Netherlands during her daily swims. Today, the fence is dilapidated and the only sharks to be found are the occasional docile nurse sharks that sleep under rocks by day. The Superior Producer wreck is a highlight dive of Curaçao but can only be explored on days when no cruise ships are in port, for security and safety reasons, due to the wreck site’s proximity to the harbour. I got lucky.

Navigating a wreck in clear, Caribbean waters is a breeze compared to those in murkier, colder parts of the globe. Bright sunlight bathes the scene, filtering through portholes and cargo hatches so that even interior swim throughs are tame. After exploring the fantail at the seafloor, I slowly worked my way up towards the aft superstructure, swimming through the pilothouse, long since stripped of anything of value. Down again, into the rear-most cargo hatch, then forward through the entire length of the hold, dodging inquisitive tarpon and barracuda along the way.

A check of my bottom time – I’ve got eight minutes left – and I ascend slightly and coast off the ship’s forward end for the money view, looking back at the bow. One last glance makes me wonder why they never attempted to refloat the Superior Producer. Some cables, a few steel drums filled with compressed air and I’d bet she’d float right up to the surface. A topic for beers with an old Curaçaoan diver one day perhaps.

As I angle up towards the silhouette of the Curaçao Star above me, I look at the Royal Oak Offshore Diver Chronograph. In the shallower waters approaching my 15-foot safety stop, the bright orange is revealed in full force, no longer dimmed by the water’s colour-filtering effects. I’ve got three minutes of decompressing to do here and I’ve got a beautiful watch with which to count down every second of it. It was a deep dive. Maybe I’ll make it four minutes just to be safe.