Skip to main content
Publish date:

Binoculars for Lookouts

Robert Reeder is a seamanship instructor for a series of online courses through Boaters University. His course, Fundamentals of Seamanship: Rules of the Road, is a great way to get a full understanding of how to interpret the USCG rules of the road and how to apply the rules in your daily navigation when on the water. Take his course for additional tips on the importance of watchstanding!

Sign up today and use the coupon code: SAIL for 15% off.

BinosOnDeck-02
A WPA poster requesting binoculars for the US Navy.

A WPA poster requesting binoculars for the US Navy.

Our most fundamental tool as a visual lookout, other than our eyes and ears, are our binoculars. Here are some basics to consider for our boating adventures. Many years of trial and error have long settled the question of what is the "best" size optical binocular for maritime lookouts. 7x50 has been our standard since World War II, and with good reason. It is the single best compromise between magnification, light gathering, and field of vision. It is also small enough to wear and carry comfortably for shipboard watchstanding. Because they are traditionally used for seafaring, some 7x50 binoculars come with a built-in compass, which can be useful. If we are only going to have one pair of binoculars at sea, our 7x50 would be that pair.

However, if as a recreational mariner, we know that we are ONLY going to be underway during daylight hours, with no exceptions, then most of the benefit of the large light-gathering 50mm objective lenses will be lost, by virtue of our pupils constricting and blocking most of that light. In this case a pocket-size pair of 7x25, or even 10x25 binoculars might be a better option.

Examples of binoculars for the recreational mariner.

Examples of binoculars for the recreational mariner.

Especially for ocean voyages, it is rarely - though occasionally - nice to have a bit more magnification and light-gathering than our 7x50. It's a bit of a luxury, but if I have the stowage to do so, a pair of 15x70 binoculars are realistically about the largest that would ever be useful on a recreational boat. These are made mostly for amateur stargazing, and frankly, on a clear moonless midnight watch far away from the city lights, I might well use them this way. In a manner consistent with safe watchkeeping, of course. But the 7x50 binos are pretty sufficient for this as well.

How much should we spend on binoculars for recreational boating? Hopefully, we will be using them quite a lot, but we will be doing so in a potentially rugged environment. My rule of thumb is to not take any hand-held tools on the boat that I would be heartbroken if they were launched over the side. With modern manufacturing, even the cheapest optics are probably sufficient to resolve what navigational lights a gill-netter is displaying.

Binoculars are important enough for redundancy to be a consideration; I would probably prefer two $200 binos to one $400 pair. Ideally, every watchstander on the boat should have a pair of optical binoculars, pre-adjusted to his own eyesight and interpupillary distance.

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jordan Lochmann uses night vision binoculars to scan the horizon for Tomahawk missile trails from the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge during strike missions supporting Operation Odyssey Dawn in the Mediterranean Sea, March 19, 2011.

U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Jordan Lochmann uses night vision binoculars to scan the horizon for Tomahawk missile trails from the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge during strike missions supporting Operation Odyssey Dawn in the Mediterranean Sea, March 19, 2011.

What about night-vision binoculars? They certainly have their place in the wheelhouse, although I would strongly recommend that if we are going to use them, an additional, committed lookout should be stationed specifically for that purpose. By design, the person using the night-vision goggles will not have their eyesight night-adapted without them. Not so long ago night-vision binoculars and monoculars were prohibitively expensive, but now many are available for less than $200.

Most importantly, remember to put the binoculars down. Our naked eyes are still our best tool as a lookout. Good watch!

April 2018

Related

02-RV-WHY

Cruising: Miracle On Ice

I was preparing some tea just before heading topside for my watch. Even though it was summertime, the tea was not iced—it was hot. That’s because our boat was in the High Arctic. We were trying to complete a westbound transit of the treacherous Northwest Passage. If we ...read more

Hanse_460_Bilder_Web_Exterior_0003-promo

New Monohulls: Hallberg-Rassy 400 & Hanse 460

For all the consolidation in the boatbuilding world in recent years, there remains plenty of variety out there, as can be seen in these two new monohulls. The products of two very different boatbuilders offer two very different takes on performance-cruising, even as they also ...read more

Waterlines

The Power of Sails

I suppose it isn’t merely a coincidence that I’ve made significant changes to the sailplans of the last three cruising boats I’ve owned. The first project was the biggest. My old Golden Hind 31, Sophie, had lots of charm and character, but her sloop rig was laughably small. ...read more

01-LEAD-BahiaCobre

Charter the Sea of Cortez

Chartering and the notion of going “off the beaten path” may sound self-contradictory. Charter companies tend to put bases where demand is high and they can turn a profit, so if you’re lucky enough to find an outfit and a destination that gets away from the typical—say yes. To ...read more

22D6FB6F-AA49-4784-A3A8-960F5A7CE330

Cruising: Anchoring Skills

Watching charterers make a run for the last mooring in a cove is fun—and weird. I always wonder why so many would rather try to catch a mooring than drop the hook. Maybe charterers don’t trust their anchoring skills, but it’s harder to drive up and grab a buoy than most people ...read more

BD-TJV21_Malama_063

11th Hour Breakdown in the TJV

11th Hour Racing’s Mālama kicked off the second week of the Transat Jaques Vabre with keel problems, forcing co-skippers Charlie Enright and Pascal Bidégorry to adjust for a more conservative approach to the race’s remaining 2000 miles. “We’ve been dealing with a lot of ...read more

2021-rolex-y-of-y-email-graphic

Rolex Nominations Open

Award season is upon us, and US Sailing is looking for the next Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year. Established in 1961 by US Sailing and sponsored by Rolex since 1980, the annual Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year awards recognize individual male and female sailors ...read more

04-IMG_3448

Buying a New Main Sail

I’ve always known the importance of having good sails. As a low-budget boat punk, I prioritize making sure I can get where I’m going with the help of the wind, as opposed to under power. It isn’t necessarily my goal to be engineless, or basically engineless. It just happens that ...read more