Interview In Conversation with Mike Horn, Explorer & Panerai Ambassador, during SIHH 2019

The enigmatic explorer and environmentalist on his unrelenting passion for taking on new frontiers, the power of discipline, and sustainable luxury.

calendar | ic_dehaze_black_24px By Justin Hast | ic_query_builder_black_24px 8 minute read |

Sometimes in life one is privileged enough to have an interaction which inspires so deeply, it forces you to question your personal output to its deepest level. I was fortunate enough to have one of these, last week in Geneva, with Mike Horn. For those unfamiliar with the man, Mike is a record-setting explorer, sailor and environmentalist, originally from South Africa, and now living in Switzerland. 

Without recounting each and every one of his epic journeys, a few need to be celebrated: he has sailed around the world 14 times in the last ten years; he swam the Amazon River solo and has circumnavigated the globe unassisted; he walked to the North Pole during the dark season (more people have been to the Moon) and has scaled the world’s 8,000-metre peaks, including a recent attempt to paraglide K2. But most importantly, Mike is a tremendously energetic, charismatic, friendly gentleman. We sat down to discuss his upbringing, his passion for the wild, his drive to push the limits, and of course, his new collaboration with Panerai.

Mike, it must be strange going from the rugged outdoors to sitting in the halls of the Palexpo in Geneva?

Well, this is what adds colour to my everyday needs, which are being outside and exploring. Both environments are as important as the other. Sometimes it’s nice to come out of the world of exploration and into the real world as they say (editor’s note: as far as we can consider the SIHH the real world!)

Do you ever miss the ‘real’ world when you are by yourself for months on end?

I never really leave the environment that I find myself in. It’s not a case of being focused all the time, but more about in contact with what I need to be in contact with. And to be honest, this is so far from the reality that I’m experiencing, you don’t actually want to think about – you push it to the outside of your mind.

Do you think you would have got into exploration if you hadn’t been born in South Africa?

The beauty of South Africa is that we have access to natural beauty in its purest form. And it’s not just mountains, rivers, lakes and desert. It’s the animals as well. And of course, you have amazing people, despite the perception that one often thinks about which is crime and apartheid. When you see this isn’t the case and look past it, then you see the real beauty of the place.

The base of what I do is certainly because of my background in South Africa because I had to go to war in Angola. I was in the Special Forces because I could play outside, because I was exposed to animals, because I played rugby and went hiking and those opportunities I just embraced. I was only given one rule growing up and it was to be home by 6 pm – that’s it – I could do anything I wished. I would then come home and share what I had done with my dad. That was special. There’s an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for having been able to live in such a wonderful place.

The previous Panerai x Mike Horn collaboration watch, the Submersible 1950 3 Days GMT PAM00719.

Was there a moment when you thought being a “full-time” adventurer was possible?

For me, it was when I realised there was more to this than simply climbing mountains. The fact that there was bigger meaning to it – that there had to be bigger meaning to it. To shed light on the environmental challenges we face, for example. I can remember always having my sights set on bigger and bigger challenges during the initial adventures. When I crossed the jungle in Borneo I thought, “wow, if I could survive one night here, I could survive a year in the Amazon“. I often think about the quote: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.” My mind has been developed over the years to believe I am able to do whatever I want.

Did you fear anything in those early years?

Yup – that there may be another guy out there training harder than I was.

What do you attribute your success to?

I have always been disciplined. To wake up in the morning, no matter what happened the evening before and go train and be sure I’m a better person at the end of the day. Discipline leads to motivation, which leads to creative ideas. Without discipline, you have nothing. My father taught me life wasn’t about pointing fingers – it was about discipline and self-respect. In life, all you have is your word – the moment you lose that, you lose everything. You can own everything in the world, have all the cars and castles, but if your word is worth nothing – you are worth nothing. The only way to a better life is not with the amount of money you spend, it’s to fucking live more – that enriches your mind and body.

Were there moments of doubt?

Doubt is always something that is omnipresent. It makes people think twice about knowledge and experience – but it also slows down decision-making and progress. I had to make a decision about doubt early on. I have tried my best not to install doubt into my processes.

Do you have routines?

You know what, each day is so different. I am either on my boat, or climbing up in the mountains, or crossing a jungle, or going to the pole – it’s just not regular. The routine is mainly waking up and thinking “wow, shit, this is most probably going to be one of the most exciting days of my life“. That unknown has always been a constant for me, it has been the routine. If everything is known, where’s the fun? How does it spark your excitement?

What role do time and timekeeping play in your life?

Time is life. We have 30,000 days in an average lifetime – that’s 82 years. Those days go quick! My relation to time is one that is focused on packing as many different experiences as possible. An example of this may be, “how many times do you want to sail across the Atlantic Ocean?” At least do it once in a lifetime, at least do the Pacific once, and the Indian. But of course, I’m conscious of changing times of the year ahead of trips when planning.

How does your watch feature on your trips?

For me, a watch is a tool – an instrument. I need to keep track of time, obviously, it gives me the position of the sun and stars. It helps me to know which direction I’m walking – If I point the hour hand towards the sun, the 12 will be my north. You know, crystal liquid freezes at minus 80, and an iPhone display or GPS turn black as it freezes. You can imagine how important my mechanical watch becomes at that point.

This watch we are launching today (editor’s note: the Panerai Submersible Mike Horn Edition PAM00985) is one I’m hugely proud of. The case is made of Eco-titanium that I believed would not only do good for the environment but also provide buyers with an opportunity to come and live my life with me. With every watch sold, the buyer has the opportunity to come and earn their watch. My watch was never given to me – it was earned.

I remember the first time I put on a Panerai to cross the North Pole. I was standing on the edge of Russia and stepped off into the Arctic Ocean at two minutes past twelve. I took that step into constant war with the ice, where return was uncertain, where nothing was guaranteed. A watch allows me to accumulate experiences.

What have you got on your wrist?

Ah, this is the 47mm Submersible Mike Horn Edition (limited to 19 pieces). And I’m super proud of it. I’ve seen the issues our environment faces having travelled the world. We are so deeply entrenched in consuming, it’s disgusting. And in a small way, this watch shows we can reuse. Creating products with a link to experience and sustainability is the future. This type of watch is the exception now, but soon enough it will be the rule.

Tell us about the experience?

It will be a brutal and fun Arctic experience. For me, it all comes back to emotions. I felt that if you, the buyer, hadn’t been to the Pole, for example – I could take you safely and surely with my experience. I would be giving you a shortcut. I promise you that watch will be more meaningful to you.

Are you concerned with taking the public into the wild?

No. I’m just excited. I’m looking forward to pushing them and showing them they can go longer and harder than they ever thought they could. Of course, there will be times when adversity may get the better of them, there may be tears – but in the end, it will all be worth it.

More details at www.panerai.com.

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