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Protecting your eyes and those of your crew

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What is the issue?
Bright sunlight is hard on the eyes, but when sailing the problem is amplified. Not only are you exposed to the blinding glare caused by sunlight striking and being reflected off water, but also from the deck, sails and other boats, making exposure during sailing far more intense.

Why address this?
Going to sea without sunglasses is like going out on the water without sunscreen. Extreme sun exposure, UV rays and harsh glare can lead to cataracts, macular degeneration, keratitis - better known as snow blindness, and pterygium, not to mention damage to the sensitive skin around the eyes, which leads to the affliction commonly known as wrinkles. You and your crew have only one set of eyes, they need some protection and never more so than when sailing.

How to address this?
All the crew should wear polarized sunglasses, capable of blocking 99 or 100% of UVB and UVA rays, as a standard operating procedure. Polarised sunglasses offer the greatest possible glare reduction and they also sharpen contrast so as to enable details to be picked out in the water, such as buoys, wind shifts or gusts and objects below the water surface in translucent seas.

Polarised sunglasses, often sold as ‘anti-glare’ or ‘glare-proof’ sunglasses are the absolute sunglasses of choice on the water. They are perhaps three times as expensive as normal UV protecting glasses but, with prices from as little as a few bottles of wine, it is not that much of a premium to pay for the protection and enhanced optics they provide.

Not only do they offer the standard darkening effect of traditional sunglasses but they have what is akin to a chemical ‘Venetian blind’ (polarizer) built in. This polarizer permits light to enter from one direction only, as with Venetian blinds horizontally, but not vertically. By blocking out only the polarized glare, the intensity of the light reaching your eyes is not reduced, so objects retain their definition and visual detail. This rearrangement effect allows the user to almost see through the glare as the largest part of the gleam from the surface of the water has been removed. This permits a better view of what is beneath so that hazards such as reefs, weed or fish may be spotted. When this effect is combined with a tint in the lens it is much easier to see and identify objects in bright conditions.

Tint should not be confused with UV protection
Image: CC0

Tint should not be confused with UV protection as the film that blocks UV rays is clear. The tint is rather a function of the amount of light that is allowed to pass through the lens, called visible light transmission. It is expressed as a percentage of total available light and for boating, the visible light transmission should fall in the 15-30% range. Lens tints are available in many different colours and should be considered more of a fashion preference than technical. But grey lenses have gained popularity with boaters because they are useful in a wider range of conditions.

The only downside to polarises is they can also have that Venetian blind effect upon light from LCD instruments. You may have to rotate your head somewhat to find a position in which you can see your phone, chart plotter or the vessels instrument readings. This can be resolved by popping them up from time to time.
When selecting a pair you will find that there are two basic types of polarized sunglasses available, ones based upon glass lenses and the others on plastics. Glass is much more scratch resistant and consequentially offers a longer life than the plastic lenses and they also have superior optics.

Plastics lenses come in acrylic, polycarbonate and polyurethane. The acrylic-based lenses are the cheapest, but they tend to suffer from the most optical distortion and are the least durable of all products. Polycarbonates are lightweight inexpensive and more durable, and polyurethane adds uprated clarity but at extra cost.

In use, the glass variant offers the best optical performance but can be heavy and weigh upon your nose uncomfortably when worn over an extended period. The plastic glasses, by contrast, are lighter and entirely comfortable. Although they scratch more easily they are typically much cheaper to buy and replace.

Expensive sunglasses are best saved for special occasions ashore
Photo: CC0

After many years of living with both, my choice has drifted to lenses made of polycarbonate. They are extremely tough, impact-resistant and shatterproof and can be made oversized to wrap around the face and block entry of light, wind and dirt from the sides, top and bottom. They naturally block 100 percent of the sun’s harmful UV rays and are not overly expensive so that they can be replaced as and when they get tired. If you want expensive fashion glasses, keep them separate from your boating set which is more likely to get scratched, bashed or blown off.

The best sunglasses for sailing, if you are not particular how you look, are the ones with wide-view wraparound lenses, anti-mist vents and cushioned pads. Buoyant versions of plastic glasses can be had at a severely inflated price, but alternatively you can attach a safety strap. All should have good earpieces that are comfortable to live with for extended periods. Don't forget to check that your polarised glasses have the appropriate UV rating. Glasses that are polarised protect from UV, but these are two separate issues, so make sure you’re covered on both counts.

Whether you’re looking for a pass through a reef, big waves, wind patterns or something more serious like a man overboard, you’ll be glad of the extra contrast and clarity.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.
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