Perhaps it should have cottoned on early in the journey that I was about to experience something I’ve never experienced before. Seated in the Mercedes-Benz minivan beside me is Robin Nooy, a fellow journalist who reaches over with a handshake and lets on, “I was given a training schedule to follow for six weeks to get in shape.” I process that information with quiet trepidation. I mean I keep in shape, but am I actually special forces fit? With the rapidity of an Italian Beretta ARX160 on automatic fire, I process creeping anxiety with the certainty of “they wouldn’t make VIP customers do life-threatening crazy shit would they?” Then my mind takes me back to weeks before when I was made to do an electro-cardiograph on a treadmill in order to be medically cleared for the activities.
You see, Panerai dropped two new rugged Submersible editions inspired by the Italian special forces earlier this year and the Panerai Submersible Forze Speciali Experience Edition comes with an invitation to take part in a special forces exercise in Italy. As an honoured commentator on luxury timepieces, I was invited by Panerai HQ to journal my time with the warriors at San Marco Regiment.
The airport transfer drops us off at Borgo Egnazia, easily the Mediterranean’s most beautiful hotel. With the deep blue of the Adriatic for a backdrop, replica Italian village of whitewashed stones and candlelit interiors is the off-the-grid haven for the world’s rich and famous, many of them come here for some discreet R&R. I’m lulled into a false sense of complacency in these surrounds until I see the military garb in the olive green duffle bag I recognise from my days in National Service. Panerai means business.
“It’s not about war,” says Alessandro Ficarelli, the brand’s Chief Marketing Officer during an interview,”but the qualities of endurance, discipline and fighting spirit. That will to overcome all odds and achieve your best that defines Panerai. That undefeatable mindset is a real luxury in today’s challenging environment.” Indeed, given the context of the Russo-Ukranian “special military operation” being conducted 3,000km away, it is easy to fall into a trap of political correctness and Ficarelli is right to emphasise that given the brand’s many appearances in The Expendables series of action movies, that the brand is about combat rather than the underlying character traits that breeds some of the world’s most bad-ass human beings.
While many watchmaking brands are anxious to carve out a niche in racing, aviation and diving, Panerai has created a unique segment unto itself in the genre of heroic exploits, indomitable willpower and discipline. It is these strict qualities of special forces soldiers that the brand finds association with and this is why we will be embedded with the operators of the 1st San Marco Regiment based here in Brindisi.
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable
It is difficult to get out of one of the world’s most comfortable beds especially when under a warm quilt at zero dark thirty to do anything, much less have breakfast before we head out to base. On Carlotto’s parade square, we stand at attention as the Italian flag and regimental colours are raised. After, Rear Admiral Massimiliano Giuseppe Grazioso gives us a welcome address before immediately ordering us into push up positions, it would seem that the press up is favoured by militaries all over the world and we are off to an invigorating start. Its with some dark humour that we note, the VIPs themselves are not made to march around the base like we, the press corps newly christened as “Delta Team” were and here we are, stepping on a mix of tarmac and gravel, trying to keep in step to Italian commands shouted at us by Corporal Giovanni (it’s Italian for Jonathan I discovered) before I give up and revert to the Singapore Armed Force’s cadence of “left, left, left, right.” We are finally keeping in step, but not before we grow familiar with Italian numerals from all the push ups we’ve been doing for the many infractions we have unwittingly committed.
Master Sergeant Gaetano Blasi, a veteran soldier who had served in Mogadishu and Afghanistan told us that the mental component was really the stumbling block to accomplishing many of the amazing feats we see accomplished by special forces warriors. Indeed, perseverance, thriving on adversity, never giving up, discipline and attention to detail (hence the many punishments over perceptibly small infractions) were all keys to mental toughness whether in the boardroom or on the battlefield. Indeed, while luxury brand experiences are not a new concept for beloved clients, what Panerai was giving us was a different league unto itself: not so much an “experience” per se, but rather the mindset for enduring whatever life can throw at you, all for a cool price tag of $XXXX, you not only got to go on military operations with some of the fiercest warriors in the world but also leave picturesque Southern Italy with insights on how to deal with the curveballs and tribulations of life.
For 48 hours, we do everything they do. Unarmed combat, already arduous in the best of conditions (inside an air-conditioned MMA gym for example) is made especially exhausting under the midday sun and in full uniform. “We practice a mix of wing chun and Brazilian ju jitsu,” says our instructor, a man whose name I don’t catch but whose steely arms I won’t soon forget – suffice it to say he’s not someone you want to be caught in a chokehold with. We barely catch our breath after an intense session, barely get our combat boots back on and already we are fast marched to our next engagement: close quarters combat.
CQB is a tactical gunfight involving multiple combatants at close range. Here, we learn to systematically clear rooms with both potential threats and hostages, we also learn the value of knowing where our teammates at any given moment to avoid incidences of friendly fire. I’m ‘gently’ tapped on the helmet with a bayonet as I absent-mindedly sweep the room with my ARX assault rifle without noticing that a teammate had entered my fire-arc. “Sorry…” I mutter. “Sorry is what you tell your girlfriend when you finish too quick. Again,” says the instructor. We repeat the motions of infil and exfil again until the movement is swift, silent, precise and without accident (e.g. shooting hostages/teammates). Yet, for all the bravado of the day’s activities, the land of heavenly Italian cuisine did not adequately prepare us for medaglioni di carne bovina in gelatina (beef medallions in jelly) – our lunch time combat rations which more accurately resembled cat food.
With nourishment settled, we boarded assault boats that we had been duly trained on – disembarkation on wet sand is no joke. The first of us who attempted in went face first on the shore line after we had swung our boots over the side, after a runs, we got used to uneven weight distribution from wet gear and the fact that we were leaving our boats with weapons at high port – that is to say, raised and ready to be fired. Prepared, we boarded the 133m-long ITS San Giorgio, an Italian support vessel which launches helicopter sorties. Within her, an amphibious armoured personnel carrier which ferried Team Delta to destinations unknown. Here, in the cramped confines of darkness, we fought nausea as our pilot and commander performed evasive manoeuvres with the agility and power of over 500 horses. The rest of the afternoon was rather “leisurely”, with periodic bursts of sea breeze as we learned the finer points of checking corners and clearing decks in order to retake the bridge that had been captured by terrorists.
With 10 kilos of body armour, not counting our kit and primary weapon, we charged over hilly, sandy terrain (enduring tremendous ankle strain as a result), learning how to use the pervasive discomfort as a tool for sharpening our focus, which itself created the unique effect of taking our attention away from the discomfort. We also learned what it meant to be in peak physical condition, performing a 100 metre run down and then putting rounds into targets accurately even as we gasped for breath; a heaving chest being the antithesis of accuracy. It really sunk in that any situation can be endured and overcome.
Somewhere in between the high octane adventures of performing military movements in machine-gun-mounted Light Multirole Vehicles and aboard NH90 helicopters, we had not only grown to respect the men who keep international boundaries secure but also the tremendous heart of a warrior and the mental acuity of a spartan – to believe in the brand values of a Panerai, is to understand that the real luxury is not what is worn on the wrist, but rather a mindset for facing life head-on without fear or anxiety. Your Panerai is merely a physical manifestation of that internal fortitude.