The men of the Comsubin– which stands for Comando Raggruppamento Subacquei e Incursori Teseo Tesei – are some of the most highly trained combat operatives in the world. You won’t have heard of them. Comprised of elite frogmen and naval diving specialists, the Comsubin is the tip of the spear of the Italian special forces. The closest equivalent is the US Navy Seals, with whom, as it happens, it recently ran an exchange programme to share knowledge and best practices.
They are experts in attacks on ships, ports and military installations up to 400km from the coast, and in maritime counter-terrorism. Last year, the divers disarmed and destroyed more than 30,000 Second World War-era mines and ordinance sunk off the Italian coast.
The men of the Comsubin are in a ready state of vigilance, even while laughing and drinking espressos with their brothers in arms, and they’re effortlessly friendly in the way that the exceptionally capable and athletic tend to be. As welcoming as they are, civilians rarely set foot on their base, a group of islands off La Spezia, about halfway between Pisa and Genoa. However, at 7.30am on a Tuesday morning in early September, 33 customers of the luxury Italian watch brand Panerai and seven journalists are split between four blacked-out military speedboats, careening across the water on our way to the Teseo Tesei, the Comsubin’s headquarters.
Founded in 1860, Panerai earned its stripes by supplying the Royal Italian Navy with technical instruments. In 1916, at the height of the First World War, it patented Radiomir: a luminous paste that could be seen by the wearer in dark and underwater conditions. Its association with the Italian military continued through the 1940s and 1950s and, spurred by the recent popularity of retro-styled timepieces, it has released models inspired by those early diving watches.
Its latest, the Submersible Marina Militare Carbotech, is limited to a run of 33. Its owners grin as boats rock on the waves in the wake of a Comsubin frigate. It’s an international group: Russian, Saudi, Korean, Taiwanese. Rolf, with whom I share a car from the airport, is a Swiss financier who has spent the past 20 years living and working in Hong Kong. These lucky (and wealthy) few are the first Panerai customers to be involved in the newest evolution of the brand: adventure experiences.
“When I came to the company more than a year ago, I knew that Panerai was an instrument for the Italian navy forces,” says CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué. “But how can we bring this association to life with more than a story in the books that we present to our customers? How to make it more than a story? The answer is right here, with the Comsubin.”
LEARNING THE ROPES
Dressed in camo fatigues and painfully brand-new boots, the 40 of us stand in the morning sun. It’s warm and quiet. The officers share cigarettes and jokes while we wait for our first activities, which, for my section, are scuba diving in the pool and tackling the assault course.
We are hustled into a tent, where I don a Panerai-branded wetsuit. One of the Koreans puts his on back to front, much to the amusement of his friends. It’s only when I peel him out of it that I realise he’s not wearing anything underneath, having forgotten his military-issue Speedos. The diving is far more enjoyable. It is conducted under the close supervision of an already highly experienced Comsubin student. I immediately consider how I may have
made it in the special forces; that maybe I still could.
Back in our fatigues, I’m the first in line to attempt the assault course. Before I set off, a student steams through the pipes and under barbed wire, vaults 8ft walls and traverses monkey bars with ease, then expertly shimmies up a 15ft rope and rings a bell at the top. I manage the crawls and walls competently, make it slowly but successfully across the monkey bars and steel myself for the rope climb. Halfway up, my grip begins to falter. With 5ft to go and the bell just out of reach, it goes completely. I arrest my sudden descent by grasping at the rope and am rewarded with two burns on the palm of my right hand, the skin stripped clear below the middle finger.
I show my injury to the officer in charge of physical training. He laughs. “My students do this course 10 times every morning,” he says. “But many have this when they start.” It isn’t the only injury I will incur today.
MAN ON A WIRE
After a helter-skelter helicopter ride, we are briefed on the last two phases of the experience at the Comsubin’s mountain-top fortress: weapons training and crossing the zip line. As we wait for the firing range officers to assemble the guns and ammunition, I learn that most of the others in my group are regular shooters.
The only woman in our section, another jovial Korean, is scarily effective with the Heckler & Koch MP5. I fare better when we are armed with the higher-calibre 416; its percussive booms almost deafen me when I momentarily adjust my ear defenders. “Do you shoot before?” asks the brawny officer in charge of making sure I don’t shoot anyone. “Very good grouping.”
Buoyed by the validation of my marksmanship, I volunteer to be the first to go across the zip line and am strapped into harness, helmet and, oddly, body armour. “To protect chest,” says the Comsubin officer. A few playful thwacks to my sternum proves his point.
Suspended between two cliff faces, 300m above the sea, the thick metal cable is swaying gently in the breeze. Connected to another wire above me, I edge out into the void. The correct technique is to lie flat with your torso on the line, with one leg behind you and your foot on the cable, the other leg hanging down into nothingness. I inch along the cable, pushing with my back foot and pulling hand over hand.
As I near the halfway point, the cable starts to slant upward. Concerned for my balance, I press my body tightly to the wire and decide to use my back leg for stability, rather than propulsion. I begin yanking harder with my arms, dragging myself up to the finish. On each pull, I can feel the screaming heat of the metal cord coursing through my body armour and fatigues. But I’m almost there. I’m made of special forces stuff, after all. And we don’t give up just because of a little pain…
In the military ambulance, the medic squirts iodine at the friction burn on the right side of my lower abdomen. It’s 5in long, as thick as your thumb from top to bottom and horribly, viciously red. He applies a field dressing, so that it won’t rub against my shirt. I nod grimly, thank him in awful Italian and wander back over to my section. It throbs thickly with each step.
As I write this, two weeks after my Panerai Comsubin experience, I am on a double-dose of antibiotics due to a nasty infection in the open wound on my stomach. My GP has informed me that it could take up to eight weeks to heal and that even then I would likely have a large scar.
None of which I mind in the slightest. It has merely added visceral colour to the storytelling of my day as a member of the Italian special forces, which I have recounted in increasingly vivid detail to those foolish enough to enquire. This is precisely the aim of Panerai’s new experiential arm.
“Our customers are our best ambassadors,” says Pontroué .“Those 33 people are the best voice, because this has credibility. It’s the finest way to develop the momentum of where our brand is headed.
“This is just the beginning. Next year, we’ll have six experiences. The brand is made for this. A Panerai watch is an instrument of adventure. These experiences, tailor-made for us, become a platform for unlimited potential.”
My own potential as a special forces operative will remain on that island off La Spezia, grimly clutching a metal cable above the broiling sea, preferring temporary physical discomfort to the enduring inner pain of admitting defeat. When the wounds have healed and the story has gone cold, that is something worth holding on to. I have the scars to prove it.
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