Lessons in Wristory: Traversing the Sahara with a Rolex

We love learning about historical events where wristwatches took part, especially events of human endurance, and pushing the limits. More often than not, it seems that such events often involve Rolex. From space to some of the harshest climates on Earth, Rolex watches have withstood them all. In another example of extreme utility and functionality, legendary overland explorer, Tom Sheppard, took advantage of his reliable Rolex GMT Master during an expedition across the Sahara.

Courtesy of Barry Doughty

Courtesy of Barry Doughty

Already established as an experienced explorer of the Sahara, Tom Sheppard was chosen to lead a team of eight British service members coast-to-coast across the desert. This would be the first expedition of its kind, as no one previously had managed to make the 7,500-mile, west to east trip across the Sahara. Not just for kicks, the team also collected gravity and temperature readings throughout, and received the Ness Award from the Royal Geographical Society.

While the team had enough supplies to make it across, especially traveling in badass Land Rover 101s, there’s one specifically tricky aspect to the Sahara: everything looks the same. Seriously, for miles and miles, the landscape barely changes. Unfortunately, the team was without Google Maps, and couldn’t break out their smartphones to get a bearing. Almost completely foreign to our tech-enabled lives, Tom Sheppard relied on a map, the sun, and his Rolex GMT Master to take navigational readings.

Rolex GMT Master ref 1675

Rolex GMT Master ref 1675 — Photo courtesy of HQ Milton

Out in the Sahara, where road signs are as rare as palm trees, knowing your heading is crucial. Thankfully, an accurate watch makes for a great compass if the user knows what he’s doing. In the Northern Hemisphere, the first thing you have to do is point the hour hand at the sun with the watch laying flat. From there, bisect the angle made by the hour hand and the 12:00 marker; that marks your Southern heading. Naturally, north will be in the opposite direction. As a point of clarification, find the bisecting point counter-clockwise from the hour hand before noon, and clockwise after noon. And just so I don’t leave out our Southern Hemisphere readers, the tactic is quite similar. Simply use the 12:00 marker to point at the sun, and reverse the reading direction for before and after noon. The result will change your bisecting line reading from south to north.

Courtesy of Barry Doughty

Courtesy of Barry Doughty

Besides knowing how to utilize a watch as a compass, the key ingredient for success is a watch that’s accurate. If the time is incorrect, the reading will be equally incorrect. In the desert, for thousands of miles, incorrect readings can spell disaster. Fortunately for the Joint Services team, Tom’s GMT Master kept time like a champ, leading them on-course, from Dakar to Port Sudan to Cairo. This year marks the expedition’s 40th anniversary, and we salute these crazy bastards.

See more photos of the expedition here.

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Shane is one of the founding members of Wound For Life and a contributor to several other publications. A lover of all things mechanical, his true passions lie with watches and adventure. To keep up with the latest from Shane, you can follow him on Twitter (@shanegriffin1) or Instagram (@shanegriffin25). If you'd like to get in touch with Shane, email him at shane@woundforlife.com.

1 Comment

  • January 14, 2016


    Very nice Rolex, but if I was going to navigate a 7,500 mile route I would invest $40 in a compass.