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!
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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.
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.
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!