Call For a Tow

Seeing the Difference

By Tom Neale, 2/7/2008


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Tom looking through Steiners in evening light
There are several ways to save money on a boat. One is to not buy the boat. Another is to buy it and give it away. A compromise is to buy it and spend money where it counts. The problem is that figuring out where it counts is like figuring the odds for a raffle ticket. But during my many years of boating in poverty, I’ve had it hammered home over and over again that, contrary to my basic instincts of financial survival, it seldom pays to go cheap—at least with a boat. This is because there are kinds of survival other than just financial.

Sometimes it’s pretty obvious where cheap doesn’t pay. These are in things like through hull valves, underwater hoses, anchor rodes, AIS equipment, EPIRBS and heads. (If you don’t believe the last, wait ‘till you have to fix one.) But other times it’s not so obvious—like with binoculars.

You can get all sorts of binocs, ranging from thirty or forty bucks up to the sky’s the limit. And they all look pretty nice in the stores. Some stores will have sample models lined up and secured by chains, so that you can look out the store window with them and compare as you’re watching what’s happening across the street. And usually when you look through that window and then through another window across the street, (or at the cow pasture if you’re where I usually hang out) it all looks pretty much the same whether you’re buying high end or low end binocs.

About Binoculars

1. If you have an internal bearing compass, it helps to train yourself to ignore it while you’re finding and locking onto your target. Then take a quick glance at the compass image to see the bearing. However, if you already have an approximate bearing, as from the radar, the internal compass may help you to find the target by looking first at the compass image and using it to find the approximate area of the target.

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So I’ve had some low end binocs from time to time to save money and to save wear and tear on the high end binocs which I also keep aboard. And I’ve noticed that the comparison between cheap and expensive is a lot different than when you’re looking across the street. It’s also a lot different when it’s raining, when it’s almost dark, when you need to get a bearing, when there’s mist or fog, when the temperature has recently shifted dramatically, when the binocs get old, and a lot of other times.

I had one expensive pair of binocs that I used for 25 years. It outlasted 4 pairs of mid range priced binocs that I also had aboard. When I talk about the inexpensive ones aging, I’m not just talking about the rubber covers (if they have them at all) coming off after the first year or so. I’m talking about things such as mold growing under the lens, prisms coming loose and wandering around inside, glass coatings coming off or deteriorating, fogging inside when I need them the most, difficulty in seeing details of distant objects and lots of other subtle hints that maybe I didn’t save so much money after all.

The binocs we rely on now are the Steiner Commander XP 7X50s with internal bearing compass. There’s a lot of hype about any product, but I don’t think what they say about these is hype. For example, Steiner says they use “High-Definition Optics which yield the highest light transmission, optic resolution and color fidelity available in any hand-held marine binocular used in night or daylight operations.” You’ve got to ask, “Uh, what does that mean?” I think it simply means, based on our experience, that you can see better and farther with them than with most if not all others in that range.

I haven’t tested all the binoculars out there (maybe I will when I win the lottery), but I’ve compared the Commander XP with several others, including high end units. I’m very impressed. For example, I notice really good night vision even if there is only a small amount of ambient light. This is something you can’t judge while looking across the street out the front door of a store. You do get to judge it when you’ve only got a little sliver of a moon or maybe a lot of starlight, you’re out at sea, you’ve got a huge target on your radar, it’s close in, but you can’t see a thing with your eyes. This happened to us once far off the US east coast. We were freaking. One pair of binocs showed nothing. The other more expensive pair showed the outline of a warship, running alongside us, completely blacked out.

These also have a “Sports-Auto-Focus” system. Once you focus it for your eyes, says Steiner, all objects remain in focus from d istances of approximately 20 yards to inf in ity. This is really helpful at sea, when you need it the most, like when you’re trying to quickly figure out what’s out there and you don’t have time to fiddle with adjustments.

Steiner Commander XP with Compass

Something that’s really neat about these is that the outer lens surfaces are coated with what Steiner calls “Nano-Protection.” No, I don’t know where they get this term, but what it means is that the lenses repel water and moisture. In the past when I’ve gotten salt spray on my binocular lenses (a frequent occurrence) I’ve had to take them below, flush them and then very carefully dry them with a soft cloth so I won’t scratch the lens. This took precious time away from lookout duty and I usually ended up with smudges which I would subsequently realize when I needed them the most. With the Commander XP, I can just flush the lenses, quickly shake them dry, and start using them again.

My pair includes the optional internal, illuminated water proof bearing compass. Some people don’t like internal bearing compasses in their binocs, because they’re not accustomed to seeing its image in the field of vision. I had a pair of good binocs once where this was really a problem. But, in my opinion, there isn’t a problem of vision interference with the compass in these Steiners. Over the years we’ve found that an internal bearing compass really helps when we need to correlate between a target and the boat’s heading. At night when we find the target with the binocs, we just push the button, a subdued red light comes on inside to light the compass, and we can tell the helms person the bearing of the target. This, in my book, is immensely helpful. Radar doesn’t remove the need for this, because a radar target can be very ambiguous and often there are multiple targets in the same general area. If you can see, for example, that one target is a slowly moving boat and the other is a sea buoy, you’ve increased your margin of safety significantly.

Steiner says that these binoculars are submersible to 30 ft of pressure depth, are purged and pressurized with Nitrogen to 6-7 psi, exceed military shock and waterproof standards, and that they carry a 30 year limited lifetime warranty. No, I’m not planning to take them down when I dive, but I don’t consider the 30 feet pressure depth to be overkill. Nitrogen, positive pressure and shock resistance all mean that they’re far less likely to get atmosphere inside, sometime down the road, so that when you really need to see you see condensation or fog inside the lenses.

They come with 3 different pairs of eyecups to so that they’ll work for you whether you wear glasses or have other preferences such as sidelight protection. A special tool makes these eyecups easy to change. The strap can be quickly connected and disconnected and there is a yellow flotation strap. I’d never have a good pair of binocs without a flotation strap. To check out these binocs go to .

Like I said earlier, I haven’t compared them with everything out there. I don’t have the time and equipment to do this, and certainly not the money. I’m sure there are also other good binoculars. But as I’ve said before, occasionally when I find a product that I’ve used and liked a lot, I’ll tell you about it. This is one of them.

The MAP/MSRP is $1,049 with the internal compass and $849 without the compass, but shop around; you can get these for considerably less.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale