When adventure looks you in the eye, it isn’t always fun. Sometimes, it’s work. Sometimes, it’s a combination of both — especially with the Navy SEALs.
Officine Panerai, the Swiss watch brand with Italian roots, does things very differently to most watch companies. Long-known for its history with the military and for providing watches to underwater frogmen in multiple countries worldwide, this brand has become synonymous with rugged underwater watches that can go the distance. Its Submersible collection is meant for the serious adventurer or professional diver. It is also the collection that Panerai turned to when it formed a custom project to honor the Navy SEALs.
Perhaps the only brand, or at least the first brand, to offer real-life experiences with some of its collections, Panerai has teamed with the likes of mountain climber and photographer Jimmy Chin and arctic explorer Mike Horn to create extremely limited editions that, when purchased, come with a multiday ‘Xperience’ with that person. And trust me, these are not easy experiences. They are about serious mountain climbing in the Tetons or challenging oneself in nature’s most rugged terrains. The experiences are designed for watch lovers with truly adventurous souls who are comfortable pushing their limits.
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Last year, Panerai announced a new collection release — it reached out to the elite and fierce tactical special operations combat force, the United States Navy Sea, Air, and Land Teams. Best known as the Navy SEALs, this military force works on highly covert, small unit, special-operations missions. The secretive brotherhood holds bravery, loyalty, service and commitment at its core.
Humble and unassuming, Navy SEALs have succeeded at some of the most vital tasks, with missions ranging from the D-Day Landings (before the unit was called SEALs), to the killing of Osama bin Laden, the capture of Manuel Noriega, and the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates, among a host of other known missions and operations never revealed to the public. For every class of approximately 120 students entering the six-month Basic Underwater Demolition (BUD/S) school, just about 10-12 make it through. That’s because these are the people who go where no one else will, where failure isn’t an option, and where intense physical and mental preparation are key.
Needless to say, when Panerai announced the Xperience and subsequent release of three Navy SEALs-inspired timepieces, watch and adventure lovers collectively held their breath. Could there really be a multi-day experience with the elite tactical forces? In the end, two of the Submersible Navy SEALs watches are for sale in larger numbers, but one of the three watches was built in a limited edition of just 20 pieces and was sold with a training and reconnaissance mission inspired by this highly skilled sector of the Armed Forces.
All 20 Special Operations Xperience watches sold immediately (to the tune of $57,500 each), and Panerai worked with the National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, Florida, to plan the mission in the Florida Everglades, concluding the mission at the National Navy UDT (Underwater Demolition Teams) SEAL Museum.
Those who buy the watch are buying it for the life-changing experience that goes with it. They are CEOs and owners of some of the biggest companies around the world. They come from a host of different countries, all to understand how a Navy SEAL trains and to meet these quiet heroes. The training group consisted of some of the most fit and finest retired Navy SEALs.
When I got the call inviting me along as a journalist, I was thrilled. Who wouldn’t want to train with the much-revered elite force? But as I received the fitness tasks we were asked to attempt before going (swim 500 yards in less than 12.5 minutes, perform 50 sit-ups in two minutes, run one-and-a half miles in under 10 minutes and 30 seconds, and so much more), I panicked. I couldn’t do any of it; I had just had surgery. Luckily, Panerai invited me as an observer — although, in the end, I did participate in excursions that weren’t too strenuous. Upon arrival in Florida, we received medical checks and clearance, and were issued standard gear and given a briefing.
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Early in the morning, as we boarded a bus to the base camp cabins, the cadre of retired SEALs leading the Xperience took turns sharing stories of their experiences on missions over the years. As the bus came to a stop, we were invaded by ‘insurgents,’ who placed bags over our heads and tie-wrapped our hands. For the next 30 minutes or so, we experienced what it felt like to be kidnapped. Then, plumes of smoke came up all around us and we were ‘rescued.’
That afternoon, we broke into teams and began exercises that, over the next day and a half, would give us the necessary training for the end mission: finding and rescuing ‘hostages’ in a remote cabin in the Everglades. Tactical training included combative hand-to-hand training and subduing suspects, range rifle training, pistol training, close-quarters battle, and lessons on approaching and clearing buildings.
Other exercises — which all involved a ride through the deep waters of the swamps on big military buggies — included running pointman training, where small teams of six or eight explore the Everglades to spot bombs, trip wires, snipers or other things out of the ordinary. It was a lesson on staying alert, looking out for your buddies, using signals without talking, passing the signal down, and having the ‘last man’ move up to pointman — all in a way that keeps you on guard and extremely aware of your surroundings. It wasn’t easy, especially carrying MK rifles in the extreme heat.
Perhaps one of the most strenuous events was the Escape and Evade training, where groups of two at a time were let loose in the middle of the Everglades as though they had just escaped capture and had to evade their captors while running to an extraction point — all in less than 45 minutes. Snakes and gators were seen, sinkholes and water holes abounded (yes, someone fell in), someone fell ill and someone else was ‘lost’ beyond the allotted amount of time. Still, every one of the participants came out exhausted but exhilarated.
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Early morning pre-dawn physical training included being hosed down; lifting 40-pound bags of sand; doing countless push-ups, sit-ups and running exercises (sometimes carrying another person on your back); getting in and out of ice buckets; and more.
Lunches were MREs — Meals, Ready to Eat — self-contained food in military pouches that, when water is added, heat the food. This is what the US military uses to feed soldiers with limited food access. There were briefings and debriefings, all leading to the final hostage rescue and extraction exercise, where the teams came together, studied maps, and used their recently acquired skills to save the hostages and get them to the helicopter extraction point.
Following the hostage rescue event, on the following and final day, we trekked to Fort Pierce to the impressive National Navy UDT-SEAL Museum, where everyone ran obstacle courses with wall climbing, belly runs and more. We then engaged in helicopter runs where we sat outside of the helicopter on metal rungs, ready to jump into the ocean if necessary (like the SEALs do on many a mission).
There were moments when I was sure my all-terrain sneakers would fly off my feet, and my helmet was crushed against the helicopter as we zigged and zagged through the air. Next, we deployed to the beach where a host of exercises in the sand and water ensued, including carrying the heavy rubber rigid inflatable boats overhead while running and sitting in the ocean, linking arms while the waves crashed.
While the evenings always included an excellent sit-down dinner with world-class chefs preparing the meals, one can’t help but think about the fact that 20 people paid for this grueling experience to see if they have what it takes. The bonds we formed together and with the ‘Cadre’ over those three days will live on, the moments engraved in our memories. And on that final day, we were humbled by the museum, filled as it is with items from cars to submersibles from the many incredible missions the Navy SEALs completed, its tribute to those who died, and its homage to those who continue the Navy SEALs ethos: “I will never quit…. I will not fail.” Hooyah!
Details on how to book a Panerai Xperience This particular Special Operations Xperience sold out with the sale of the 20 special-edition watches. However, the relationship between Panerai and the Navy SEALs is a multi-year adventure, so there may be similar Xperience watches coming in the future.
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This article appears in the 06 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Spring 2023