Bottom Time: Omega Seamaster 300 Master Co-axialBy Jason Heaton
“Superior never gives up her dead,” goes the saying, made famous by Gordon Lightfoot in his 1976 song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. And it’s true: the extremely cold water in this greatest of the Great Lakes inhibits oxygen-producing bacteria growth in shipwreck victims’ bodies, preventing them from bobbing to the surface. Thus, when you go down on a wreck, you’re likely to stay down. This is on my mind not only because I’m exploring the SS Emperor, a 525-foot (160m) bulk freighter that sank in 1947, taking with her 12 crew members, but also because my drysuit is steadily filling with water that is barely above freezing.
Every time I press the fill valve on my chest to add precious air to my suit, I get a blast of 36ºF (2.2ºC) water instead. I’m hovering over the Emperor’s aft coal bunker at 140 feet (42.6m), and at that depth my bottom time is limited to about 13 minutes before it becomes a decompression dive. With a suit full of icy water, I wouldn’t last long on a deco hang (a decompression stop on the way back to the surface). But I want to see this thing before I ascend. Sitting upright and intact, the massive ship is one of the finest wreck dives in the world. I clench my regulator mouthpiece between my teeth and try not to think about the icy water pooling in my boots, soaking my wool socks and freezing my feet. I drift over the maw of the coal bunker, past a ventilation funnel and cruise past the open windows and crew cabin doors. Bunk beds and desks remain inside amid scattered debris, evidence of how quickly the ship went down after running aground on the Canoe Rocks shoal.
Despite its reputation, the Emperor is only seen by a handful of divers every year, due in part to the cold water, but also its remote location off the shore of Isle Royale in the middle of Lake Superior. I want to make the most of my dive here, even if I can’t feel my feet anymore. A glance at my wrist tells me time is up: the broad-arrow minute hand of the Omega Seamaster 300 approaching the 13-minute hash mark on its Liquidmetal bezel. I turn for the mooring line and angle for the sunlight far above.
Isle Royale is the largest island in the largest freshwater lake in the world. Cigar-shaped and 45 miles long, it is home to moose and wolves, but there are no permanent human settlements. It also happens to be the site of some of the best shipwreck diving in the world. Over a century of active shipping on the fickle and volatile Great Lakes has seen thousands of wrecks from Duluth to Quebec City. But it’s the handful around Isle Royale that make divers brave the long journey and cold water to visit. The rocky reefs surrounding the island played havoc with the freighters that passed by, hauling wood, wheat and iron ore for cities further east. The cold freshwater there preserves metal and wood remarkably well and the wrecked vessels appear almost as they did on the day they went down, eerily undecayed, window moldings and gilt lettering still crisp and bright. Of course, to see these wrecks takes some nerve and a lot of specialised equipment. But it’s worth it.
A Time For Heroes
Most of today’s great dive watches can trace their roots back to the 1950s and 1960s. Scuba diving was in the full flush of popularity — Jacques Cousteau had published The Silent World and James Bond was fending off sharks and bad guys underwater on the big screen. The dive watch was not only necessary kit for subaquatic maneuvers, but a symbol of derring-do and masculinity topside as well. Omega introduced its first diving watch in 1957, the Seamaster 300, alongside two other ‘Masters’, the Speedmaster and the Railmaster. All three watches made use of the same 39mm case, but diverged in form and function. That prototypical Seamaster 300 sported a rotating elapsed-time bezel with a narrow Bakelite insert, broad-arrow hands and 200m of water-resistance, which Omega says was the limit of testing equipment at the time. The watch straddled utility and style better than many other dive watches of the era, and remains a desirable collector’s piece to this day.
At Baselworld, Omega pulled the curtain back on its first Seamaster 300 since 1970, the Seamaster 300 Master Co-axial. The watch drew almost unanimously positive reviews for its pitch-perfect blend of vintage styling and modern watchmaking technology. This was the watch diehard Omega fans wanted the company to bring back and they did in spectacular fashion. There’s the narrow bezel like the 1957 original, but now crafted from scratchproof Liquidmetal instead of fragile Bakelite. The straight-lugged case without crown guards is there too, but now increased to 41mm. The no-date dial is a textured matte black with the familiar Seamaster script and triangular markers, which are done in a perfect café au lait tone, as if the watch had been aging in a Royal Navy diver’s locker for 60 years. While the styling of the new Seamaster 300 is enough to make a dive watch fan weak in the fins, it’s what’s inside that really makes this watch swim.
The ‘Master Co-axial’ part of the name refers to Omega’s cal. 8400, a twin-barrel self-winding movement that doles out seconds and minutes through a Co-axial escapement. The winding rotor seems to magnify the movement, which already fills the ample case. While I don’t usually like display casebacks on tool watches, Omega chose to use one to show off the cal. 8400’s pièce de résistance, the antimagnetic technologies that render it impervious to magnetic influences, even those greater than 15,000 gauss. But how well would it do in very cold water? I wanted to find out.
Breaking The Ice
In 2014, Lake Superior saw its second greatest ice cover in recorded history, with over 90 percent of its 32,000 square miles frozen over from an Arctic winter. In mid-June, icebergs were still seen drifting in Duluth Harbor. We motored out from Grand Portage — the last stop before the Canadian border — during the second week of July, expecting frigid diving conditions. The captain of our chartered boat told us the lake temperature was hovering around 36ºF (2.2ºC) and likely wouldn’t crack 40ºF (4ºC) by the end of the summer diving season. Calm seas and balmy sunshine on the four-hour boat ride to the island belied the subsurface conditions, and we warily waxed the zippers of our drysuits and triple-checked the O-rings on our camera housings. They say hell is a hot place, but deep, cold water can do insidious things to a man and his gear.
The spectre that looms over the shoulder of every cold-water diver is regulator free-flow. Even well-maintained cold-water-rated regulators can freeze up and stick open, causing a torrent of air to pour out, emptying a tank in less than a minute. At 140 feet (42m) deep, this is a scary proposition. But after two days of diving a number of wrecks, I hadn’t had any issues, and confidently started my descent on the Emperor. As the water pressure crushed my drysuit to my body like plastic wrap, I needed to add air to my suit to relieve the pressure and keep a warm layer surrounding my body. Or at least that’s how a drysuit is supposed to work. But that’s when my fill valve gave up the ghost and my drysuit became a wetsuit, soaking my thermal insulation layer and filling up my boots.
Cold water can also affect a dive watch. If it’s not properly sealed, the extreme cold can cause rubber O-rings to contract in both camera housings and watchcases. On another Superior dive years earlier, I emerged to find moisture inside the case of my 1,000m dive watch, as well as an inch of water sloshing in the bottom of my DSLR housing. I’m happy to report that this fate did not befall the Seamaster 300, which is now rated to the full 300m alluded to in its name. Climbing the swim ladder at the transom of the dive boat, I noticed a mist of condensation on the crystal, but it was on the outside, where relatively warmer air met the chilled sapphire.
Another factor with cold-water diving is simply whether the watch would even fit. Drysuits and heavy gloves necessary for cold water require a very long strap or an expanding bracelet clasp. Unlike its historical inspiration which had a rattly thin bracelet and foldover clasp, the new Seamaster 300 has a solid link bracelet with a ratcheting dive-suit extension built into its push-button clasp, which proved more than adequate. The cold also had no discernible effect on timekeeping, as the chronometer-certified movement, adjusted for position and temperature, shrugged off the conditions that were causing me such discomfort. Clearly this was a watch that could take more than I could.
I decided to add a minute to my safety stop as I ascended from the Emperor, since I had gone so deep. But the four minutes I hung there on the mooring line at 15 feet (4.5m) felt a lot longer as the cold penetrated into my bones and I started to shiver. If I didn’t surface soon, full-on hypothermia would set in. I tried to put the cold out of my mind by focusing on the calm sweep of the Seamaster 300’s seconds hand counting out my safety stop.
Dive watches aren’t as necessary these days as they were in the 1960s, but the digital computer on my opposite wrist wasn’t doing much to comfort me. Wearing a fine mechanical dive watch serves as more than a timing device — it’s a talisman, a link to the past and countless divers who wore similar timepieces in earlier, more adventurous days. Then at last, my time was up and I slowly ascended to the dive boat above, climbed aboard and stripped off my sodden drysuit. It was good to be home and dry, given a rare reprieve by Superior, to live to dive another day.