Good binoculars are always worth the investment, but finding the best boat binoculars can be something of a skill. Bruce Jacobs cuts through the jargon and picks three top pairs
For sailors choosing the best boat binoculars can be a difficult call. What areas should you be looking to prioritise?
Every sailor knows that anxious moment as you’re making a difficult entry into an unfamiliar port. The chances are there is quite a sea state, the light is poor and despite the best planning in advance, things don’t quite seem to be matching up.
The crew are looking to you as the skipper to get them in safely. But what you see are crashing waves, lots of light clutter from shore and a picture you can’t yet tally with your entry plan. This is when you need a serious pair of binoculars.
That entry level £40 pair from the chandlery might serve you well in easy conditions, but when things get a little more serious, you’ll never regret having equipped yourself with a set that can cut through the tougher stuff and find that radio mast or buoy.
When choosing a set of binoculars, there are various factors to consider. First, for the maritime environment, they have to be waterproof and, as much as possible, shockproof.
A yacht is a harsh environment, and when you really need to see there’s nothing worse than trying to peer through a fogged lens.
Next, look for a decent magnification. We find on our expeditions that magnification between 7 and 10 is ideal (the first number on your binoculars). Any less than 7 and we struggle to find our target at range. Any more than 10 and they’re difficult to hold steady enough on your target.
Just as important is the amount of light they capture. This is the second number and, in layman’s terms, the bigger the number, the bigger the front lens and the more light is captured. This is critical in poor light: we like to have a set with a front lens between 40 and 50.
Finally, the overall quality of the materials used is key. Without heading into technical detail, get the best quality lenses and prism you can afford (bearing in mind that binoculars do fall overboard now and again!).
For marine navigation, we have come to love binoculars with a built-in compass. These have improved so much in recent years, and they now provide an easy-to-view, stable gauge that allows you to take a bearing on anything you see.
As you try to unpick your route through a mass of lights, buoys and breakwaters, or for checking collision probability in traffic, you’ll find this compass tool invaluable.
Three tested boat binoculars options
Steiner Navigator 7×50 marine binoculars
Best boat binoculars for serious navigators (our top pick)
A stunning set of binoculars. The superb optics give a bright picture even in low light and the sports-auto focus system means everything from 10m to the horizon is perfectly in focus. There is a built-in compass that has excellent illumination and damping.
The frame feels really rugged and Steiner says the rubberised Markrolon outer will withstand up to 11G of impact. Importantly, they are fully waterproof and nitrogen-injected, meaning they’ll not fog up in more extreme temperatures. Personally, I’d like a rangefinder reticle on them, but this is a minor niggle.
Perhaps the only downside is that the Steiners are the heaviest of the three we tested at nearly 1.2kg (if you want something lighter, the 7×30 version are almost half the weight). I’m told the UK Border Force use these 7x50s and it’s easy to see why. They are worth every penny – so good in fact we bought them.
Marine suitability: 5/5
Picture quality: 4.5/5
Value for money: 4/5
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Fujinon Mariner 7×50 WPC-XL
Best boat binoculars: mid range option
A great mid range set of binoculars. The first thing you’ll notice is that the polycarbonate housing keeps them really light, at just 0.8kg. That really makes a difference when you’re scanning the horizon for a period of time. These binoculars also have long eye relief. Put simply, if you wear glasses, long eye relief means you can use your specs and not suffer any reduction in your field of vision.
The lenses are a good quality, although we struggled slightly in lower light. The one surprise is that the body is smooth, and that lack of grip makes them a bit slippery in the wet. It’s a strange omission for marine binoculars, but a minor grumble. The trade off is they will float with the addition of a buoyancy strap, which will one day prove to be a godsend. Serious value for money at this price.
Marine suitability: 3.5/5
Picture quality: 4/5
Value for money: 4/5
Leica Noctivid 10×42
Best boat binoculars for nature lovers
One of the joys of sailing is the natural environment and a great pair of binoculars such as these will enable you to see the likes of birds, whales and mountains in spectacular detail. The Leicas are superb. The 10x magnification is huge and the 42mm objective means the light input is too, yet the overall weight remains a very impressive 0.8kg. In fact, these are as good as we’ve seen when it comes to binoculars.
They are way over-specced for navigation and don’t have a built-in compass but you will rarely use anything better. If anything is going to find that navigation mark in the gloom, it will be these. Then, once you have anchored for the night, you have some truly wonderful binoculars to see the wildlife and the world around you. The clarity and the colour are a joy to behold.
Marine suitability: 4/5
Picture quality: 5/5
Value for money: 3/5
Other boat binocular options
Bruce tested the three options above during his day-to-day work running sailing adventure brand Rubicon3. As such they were thoroughly tested at sea and for those after a really top-notch pair of binoculars, for offshore passagemaking and bluewater cruising, these three represent the gold standard in marine binoculars.
For those of us not planning on crossing the Atlantic anytime soon, or just looking for a pair for weekend sailing there are cheaper options on the market.
Plastimo Marine 7×50 Autofocus binoculars
These entry level marine binoculars from Plastimo are lightweight and will autofocus. They are only ‘splashproof’, so they do not have a nitrogen filling, and won’t survive being thrown overboard, but they do boast fully coated lenses for protection against scratches and damage.
They may be a long way from having all the bells and whistles but that is reflected in their price (RRP is just £39.99). They will absolutely do the job for those not relying on their binoculars as an important safety tool
Bushnell Marine 7×50 Waterproof binoculars
These well-specced marine binoculars from US outdoors firm Bushnell are waterproof, non slip, rubber-covered and nitrogen filled. While relatively unknown in the marine market, they have long been associated with hunting and outdoor sports.
These operate as something of a middle ground they do have coated optics for increased light transmission and brightness. They also have a single eyepiece adjustment to suit your eyesight – unlike the Plastimo option above, but they are not quite as advanced or with as high quality optics as some of the options Bruce tested.
Didn’t find what you’re looking for? Head to Amazon’s dedicated sailing page for more marine products.
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