An Earthbound Moonwatch

Timekeeping: Plaisted Expedition Omega Speedmaster Professional

September 5, 2012 Style By

By now, anyone even mildly interested in wristwatches knows the story of the OMEGA Speedmaster Professional. Perhaps more than any other timepiece, the Speedmaster has transcended its genre and actually become a symbol of a bygone era of grit, honor, adventure, and American ingenuity and pluck. Its story is almost too good to be true, from its unsolicited selection by NASA through a series of grueling tests, to its arrival on the Moon in 1969, to its lifesaving use as a backup instrument on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. It is a bona fide American hero (albeit Swiss-born), right alongside Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins and Lovell. And Ralph Plaisted.

Our review of this rare piece continues after the jump.

Beyond its use as mandatory equipment in the Apollo program, the Speedmaster Professional made for an apt companion for other adventurous men in equally harsh environments. In 1968, a year before the Apollo 11 mission that sealed the Speedmaster’s immortality, four amateur explorers, led by Plaisted, an insurance salesman from White Bear Lake, Minnesota, undertook a snowmobile trek to the North Pole. While this may not sound like much of an adventure, consider that, at the time, a surface trek to the Pole had arguably never been done (this point is still up for debate) and the snowmobiles of the late ‘60s were primitive 16-horsepower machines, barely up to the challenge.

On April 19, 1968, the men reached 90 degrees north, as determined by their sextant and OMEGAs and confirmed by a US Air Force plane that was flying overhead at the time. Unlike many watch company-sponsored exploits of today, in which a timepiece is more decoration than instrument, Plaisted and his companions actually used their Speedmasters to navigate. No doubt the watch was not always tucked safely under a sleeve but often exposed to the brutal Arctic conditions and minus 50 degree temperatures the men experienced. Of course, the watch was up to the challenge, having survived the temperature extremes of outer space during spacewalks. The Speedmaster they used was the same reference as that worn in the Gemini space program and to the Moon 14 months later, with the column wheel-actuated OMEGA calibre 321 driving the chronograph. Ralph Plaisted was so pleased with the performance of these watches that he wrote a letter of thanks to OMEGA after the expedition.

The watches each of the four men wore were provided by OMEGA and the caseback of their watches were engraved with the expedition’s name and date. One of these watches is currently for sale on eBay by a Montreal watch dealer. It is the watch that was worn by Jean-Luc Bombardier, the nephew of the founder of the Bombardier Ski-Doo company that built the snowmobiles the men used. The rare piece is priced at $99,000, no small change and in the same league as the vaunted military-spec Rolex Submariners but certainly more rare. OMEGA has confirmed the authenticity of this Speedmaster and it comes with relevant supporting documentation.

With the Plaisted Expedition, another chapter in the legend of the OMEGA Speedmaster was written, one that was quickly eclipsed by the grander Apollo program. Regardless, here was the same sturdy little chronograph faithfully serving ordinary men doing something extraordinary in an unforgiving environment and helping them return safely home. Yet another example of why as long as men like watches, we will always love the Speedmaster Professional.

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Jason Heaton

I’ve always been a bit of an adventure fiend, a Midwestern boy seduced by the exoticism of adventure magazines and Hemingway novels. So, I feel like I’ve arrived now that I’m writing for Gear Patrol. It justifies as “research” a lifetime of tramping about the planet, climbing mountains, diving wrecks, and having a basement that looks like your local outdoor shop. Though I lean towards the Polarfleece aesthetic, I’ve been known to enjoy the occasional urban weekend in a tweed jacket or an evening in (gasp!) a tie. I only wear mechanical watches, drive my adequately patina’d Alfa Romeo Spider right up until the snow flies, and always keep an open bottle of single malt close at hand. My sporting cred runs the gamut from velodrome bike racing to Nordic skiing. I’ve done adventure races; I golf twice a month in the summer, have summited Colorado 14ers,and have even been scuba diving everywhere from Sri Lanka to Boston Harbor. I’ve traveled extensively in Europe, the US, and Asia, somehow earned an English Literature degree and learned German, French, and Latin along the way. I have studied photography and can make a mean saag paneer. I can’t say where Gear Patrol will take me. But as someone once said: “it’s not an adventure if you know the outcome.” And that’s just the way I like it. I’m here to serve you, my fellow adventurers.

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