The Panerai watch that comes with an ass-kicking
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Beneath the watchful eye of Brindisi’s towering stone memorial to lost first world war mariners, a lone rower skims across the still waters of the city’s harbour. It’s a beautiful day and tourists stroll the palm-lined quayside in the late summer’s afternoon sun. But the rower isn’t the only one on the water. Also in harbour is an Italian warship, the 133m-long ITS San Giorgio. Inside, waiting to launch, is an amphibious assault vehicle, and inside her, like a Russian doll, I find myself crammed shoulder to shoulder with my fellow mates. The vehicle’s rear door is closed and we are plunged into total darkness. The engine starts and for a moment the only thing to permeate the black is the roar of its 525hp engine and escaping diesel fumes.
Luxury brands have long offered special gifts for favoured clients and friends. But this “backstage visit” is in an altogether different league. For one thing, it’s not intended for business clients at all – but rather for customers, in this case those of the watchmaker Panerai who have paid £47,500 for the Submersible Forze Speciali Experience Special Edition, a diving watch that comes with the privilege of having your ass kicked by the Italian special forces.
We lurch forwards as the tracks grind down the ramp into the water. I reach for something to grab but too late, I’m in the lap of the person in front of me, then thrown back again. I am disorientated in the darkness as the driver powers us across the water, and the first wave of seasickness takes hold. My stomach is not as resolute as it might have been, lunch having been the few spoons of Italian combat rations that I could force down. Coming from a country famed for its cucina, the tin of medaglioni di carne bovina in gelatina (beef medallions in jelly) was something of a disappointment.
Panerai has a long history with the Italian Navy, having been its official supplier of waterproof timepieces in the ’30s, but this is the first time the Marina Militare has opened its doors for a collaboration like this. At first they were not keen on the idea. “When we first contacted them in 2018, the conversation took us 30 seconds because they told us, ‘We’re not Disneyland. We are serious people,’” says Panerai’s CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué. “To be accepted, we had to go back to them to explain the historical background.”
Other Panerai experiences have taken clients to Bora Bora with the French freediver Guillaume Néry and the Grand Tetons with the climber and photographer Jimmy Chin. Coming up will be experiences with the US Navy Seals and a trip to the Arctic with polar explorer Mike Horn. The goal is ultimately to put on about five experiences a year.
My compatriots are a mix of CEOs, lawyers, tech entrepreneurs, investors and collectors from around the globe, some of them square-jawed alpha males. But not all. Others have been gifted the experience by a generous employer, relative or partner. And it’s clear not everyone has followed the advance training plan. One tells me the only exercise he does is swimming and basketball, neither of which will be helpful for what lies ahead.
The experience begins with a welcome dinner among the traditional limestone Trulli houses of Alberobello. At 08:00 hours the next morning we are on parade at the force’s Carlotto base. The scene is somewhere between Full Metal Jacket and Dad’s Army as our motley crew stands to attention for the national anthem, the raising of the flag and an address by the brigade commander, Rear Admiral Massimiliano Giuseppe Grazioso. He welcomes us, the way Marines like to welcome guests, by ordering us to do 20 press-ups.
Over the next 48 hours we are thrown into the life of the Marina Militare. There are rides on a high-speed assault craft and machine-gun-mounted armoured vehicles, and low-level flying aboard an NH90 helicopter, which are only just on the right side of the fun-terrifying spectrum. There is hand-to-hand combat training with a man who looks like he’d slit my throat in the blink of an eye and an introduction to close-quarter combat during which, in my enthusiasm, I manage to shoot the hostage, albeit with a replica. To keep things authentic, there are plenty more press-ups, often in the heat of the day and while wearing 10kg of body armour. It is tough, even for those execs with ripped abs and gym-pumped arms, but absolutely brutal for those who were given the experience as a surprise.
But the experience isn’t all physical. Dinner at the end of the first day is at the beachside fish restaurant Saleblu, whose wooden decking and canvas shades give it the feeling of a sailboat at sea. Over gnocchi and cuttlefish with white-chocolate mousse to follow, Panerai’s CMO Alessandro Ficarelli explains that the whole point of the experience is to offer something “you cannot find on Google”.
Of course, there are travel operators for high-net-worth individuals like Cookson Adventures and Pelorus who specialise in taking clients – often led by ex-special forces types – to the remotest corners of the globe by superyachts and helicopters. And there are brands that have farmed out their star athletes to paying clients, such as Red Bull, which sells an ascent of Mont Blanc with the former Gurkha and record-breaking Himalayan climber Nirmal Purja. But in the luxury watch market, there is something unique about what Panerai is doing.
Is it worth it? Among the paying clients, one who is struggling to walk says, “Absolutely.” A German plumber from Munich in designer jeans pulls a face. “The heart says yes, the head no,” he says.
For details of the next Panerai experience, go to panerai.com