How to Choose Binoculars

Both dinghies and cruisers should have a pair of good binoculars on board. Whilst dinghy sailors can normally cope with small and light devices, cruisers should get a bit more information on the topic and search different models of binoculars. In this article, I will try to give you hints on what to look for.

Navigating a sailboat by eye, compass and charts only is also known as “pilotage”. For this kind of sailing, it is essential to identify landmarks and hazards. This is when a good pair of binoculars comes in as being more than just a handy toy for bird watching.

The big variety of binoculars can be confusing for the novice. It is useful to think briefly for what kind of sailing you will need them: Dinghy sailors will need small and convenient devices, cruisers might have to get more expensive, light-sensitive ones. If you are a dinghy sailor, you can almost always go for cheap binoculars that can be folded and put into a little bag.

These bags can then be attached to a belt, are water repellent and generally useful. Binoculars of this kind are available pretty much anywhere as no-name products or in higher quality: check online offers, your local shopping mall or photo store.

Where to get binoculars

If your priority is quality rather than weight and price, you should invest a bit more time into purchasing your binoculars. The best ones in the World are those of the companies Swarovski (the crystal-people from my home country Austria) and Zeiss (the German people who are also big in the microscopy business). Both companies make binoculars that are built for all kinds of purposes.

For sailing, a water-proof and protective rubber-coating is recommendable. Binoculars always come with two numbers, for example: 10 x 50. The first of the numbers refers to the maximum magnification (10), the other one to the size of the object lens in millimetres (50) – this correlates with the light intensity and is important. A magnification of 7 to 10 is generally practical for sailors. For the light intensity, you should go for “the bigger the better”. However, big lenses make the binoculars heavy and expensive.

Apart from the size of the lenses, the sensitivity of the binoculars is also determined by a couple of other features: anti-refractive coatings, protective covers, homogeneity of the glass used for the lenses and a couple of other things. They all make really good excuses for pushing the price up. As a rule of the thumb, you should rather go for binoculars as expensive as you can afford made by one of the leading manufacturers.

How to Use Binoculars

As for assistance in shops and try a couple of different ones. Ask other sailors from your local area which binoculars they use and why – they should be able to point you to requirements specific for your area. Apart from the lenses, some binoculars come with extra gimmicks, such as attached compasses, range finders or alike. They might be nice and add some appeal to a particular model, but don’t forget to prioritise the optical properties of the binoculars.

Use you binoculars with both hands, standing firmly on both feet. Let the upper-part of your body balance out the movement of your boat. Focus the binoculars on a distinct object with one eye only, the one for the fixed focal length (normally the left lens). If the object is in focus, look through the other lens and adjust its focal plane.

This is necessary at the first use for everybody with different vision on both eyes (which applies to most people). Read the degree of adjustment from the scale and remember for the next time you are using the binoculars.

Further Reading

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Wikipedia on Binoculars

Swarovski Binoculars

Zeiss Binoculars