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The Importance Of Sunglasses

Sunglasses are critical gear for boaters, but with myriad types and brands, how do we nautical types make the best pick?

Smiling couple wearing sunglasses

A good pair of sunglasses worn when out on the water helps minimize eye damage from ultraviolet rays while also allowing you to see more clearly. (Photo: Getty Images/Jim Arbogast)

If you want to know how important sunglasses are for boaters, just ask Anderson Cooper (yes, that Anderson Cooper). In late 2012 he went out on a boat in Portugal without sunglasses and got a case of photokeratitis — sunburn of the cornea, commonly known as "snow blindness." He later said on Anderson Live, "I wake up in the middle of the night and it feels like my eyes are on fire." Ouch.

Ophthalmologists see photokeratitis on a regular basis among people who spend a lot of time in areas covered with snow, ice, or water, all of which reflect sunlight and increase the overall load on your eyes. And while the symptoms (redness and discomfort, a gritty feeling in the eyes, and extreme sensitivity) are short-term, over time, exposure to excessive UV rays can also do long-term damage to your eyes. According to the American Optometric Association, the more your eyes are exposed to solar radiation, the greater your risk of developing cataracts or age-related macular degeneration. So, for boaters in particular, having a good pair of sunglasses is critical.

"UV eye damage is well documented," says optometrist and BoatU.S. member Larry Gottlieb, O.D., of Dr. Gottlieb Optometry in Lakewood, California. "Cataracts, macular degeneration, pinqueculas and ptereygiums (unsightly growths on the whites of the eyes) — there are several risk factors, but sun exposure is believed to be a primary one. And the skin of the eyelid is very thin and susceptible to skin cancer."


There are two essential attributes all sunglasses should have from the protective perspective: They should block out 99% or more of the sun's UV-A (invisible long wavelength) and UV-B (invisible short wavelength) radiation, and they should cut visible light transmission (VLT) intensity by at least 75%. Many manufacturers of quality sunglasses specify how much VLT their lenses block, but not all do. Some may instead rank them by category, from zero (blocks about 20% or less) to four (blocks about 90%-plus). In most cases, category three is best for boaters, blocking between 80% and 90% VLT. But there's no "official" international standard for these categories, so do your homework and check how a manufacturer defines them before purchasing.

Boaters should add a third feature, polarization, as a matter of safety. Polarization in and of itself doesn't offer your eyes additional protection, but its glare-reducing effect does help you see through the water more clearly. That means you're more likely to spot things like sandbars, coral, or logs sitting just under the water's surface. Anglers enjoy the added bonus of being able to better spot the fish they're chasing. Polarization may make many LCD screens, including some chartplotters and fishfinders, a bit more difficult to see when viewed from an angle. But the trade-off is worth it.


Along with protection, comfort is also a key feature to consider. No matter how cool those glasses may look, nor how well they protect your eyes, it's moot if you don't wear them because they pinch your head or feel heavy on your nose. There aren't any hard and fast rules regarding which glasses you'll find most comfortable as everyone's head and face are shaped differently. But as you choose your next pair, remember that, as a rule of thumb, the lighter the sunglasses, the less likely they are to cause discomfort.

Also, size matters. Tiny lenses that sit on the end of your nose may look stylish, but they won't provide full coverage from the sunshine. Large or close-fitting lenses that don't leave big gaps for stray rays to slide in and bombard those baby blues are a safer bet. In fact, Dr. Gottlieb noted that choosing "large wraparound polarized sunglasses" is the best bet, as wider sides prevent light from getting in.

What about lens color? This attribute actually does not have an effect on protection or how much of the sun's rays they block, although any lens color other than gray can cause slight color distortion. More importantly, colored lenses can affect contrast. Some boaters carry two pairs of sunglasses, one with dark lens colors like blue or gray that provide the best depth perception and minimize glare in bright light, and a second with a lighter lens color like amber or pink, which are ideal in hazy, foggy, or low-light conditions where glare and exposure is still an issue.

Peering Into The Abyss

Which lens colors are best for seeing through the water in which situations? Here are the strengths of each:

  • Gray: Minimum color distortion, good all-around choice for various conditions
  • Blue: Best in very bright light
  • Green: Good for enhanced contrast in bright light
  • Copper: Good intermediate choice for varying bright and low light conditions
  • Amber: Best for low or indirect lighting, such as peering through the water at obstructions
  • Rose: Good for enhanced contrast in varying bright and low-light conditions

Material Matters

Another major concern is lens material. The majority of today's sunglasses have polycarbonate lenses, which is a form of transparent thermoplastic. There are also some slightly different (and usually more expensive) polycarbonate substitutes on the market (like Trivex, CR-39, or SR-91), as well as old-fashioned optically ground glass.

When it comes to optics, many of the plastic lenses in today's sunglasses are so good you can't tell the difference between looking through them versus looking through optically ground glass. They're also less expensive than glass lenses, substantially lighter in weight, and extremely impact-resistant — often to the point of meeting OSHA-approved ANSI Z87 ratings for safety glasses. On the flip side, even with today's scratch-resistant coatings, they can't match glass for overall scratch resistance. And once a lens gets scratched, your view is forever impaired. For this reason, boaters who tend to keep the same pair for years on end may want to consider opting for glass, while those who rarely go more than a season or two before sitting on them or dropping them overboard might prefer spending a bit less for polycarbonate.

There's a long list of additional coatings applied to both types of lenses: hydrophobic outer layers, anti-fog coatings, wavelength filters, and of course, the classic mirrored lens.

At least one of those, however, has a potential downside. Those mirrored lenses may look cool, but all day long they're also reflecting sunlight onto your nose. And while that may not be a concern for your ophthalmologist, your dermatologist might have a completely different view.

Bearing all of these factors in mind, at least now you know what's important as you consider which new pair of sunglasses will provide the very best view, for you.

Good Optics

You're looking for a new pair of sunglasses, but you're just not sure where to start? Here are five standout options, one inexpensive, a couple moderately priced, and some on the expensive side. We've personally tested them all, give each a thumbs-up, and these models all have a unique perk that makes them of interest to boaters in particular.

Rheos Bahias sunglasses

Floatation Sensation: Rheos Nautical Eyewear Bahia sunglasses offer 100% UV protection via polarized polycarbonate lenses. Their standout feature is their buoyant nature; these sunglasses are so darn light that they actually float, so losing a pair overboard won't necessarily ruin your day. $55 |

Speed Demon: Boaters who enjoy zipping around on fast powerboats will appreciate the Wiley X Tide, a polycarbonate lens model that checks all the boxes for protection but also comes with a removable facial cavity seal (a foam gasket of sorts) that closes the gap between your glasses and your face. That'll help prevent windblast from grabbing the glasses and ripping them off if you turn your head while cruising at higher speeds. $110 |

Smith Optics sunglasses
Smith Optics

Scratch That Itch: If regular trips to the beach and its scratchy sand mean you need the unbeatable scratch-resistance of glass, but the weight of glass lenses bothers you, Smith Optics Techlite line will be of interest. These fully protective nine-layer lenses are 20% lighter than traditional glass and claim up to 12 times the scratch-resistance of plastic lenses. $219–$229 |

Contrasting Views: When you want to maximize color contrast, Maui Jim's "PolarizedPlus2" Maui Sunrise bronze or amber lenses (available on all models) provides the most contrast possible in varying light conditions, while the high-tech polarization cuts glare for seeing into the water, cuts UV rays, and enhances the vividness of colors. Added bonus: We know from personal experience that Maui Jim has excellent customer service. $189.99–$349.99 |

Ray Ban sunglasses
Ray Ban

Delightfully Disney: Trying to find a pair of high-quality protective shades that are designed to fit kids comfortably? You might find them, but getting your kids to wear them can be a different story. Unless, that is, you're talking about the Ray-Ban X Disney. Mickey adorns the inside of the frames, which are sized to fit 8- to 12-year-olds. What kid wouldn't love to wear these? $112 |

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Lenny Rudow

New Boats, Fishing & Electronics Editor, BoatUS Magazine

Top tech writer and accomplished sports fisherman, BoatUS Magazine Contributing Editor Lenny Rudow has written seven practical boating books, won 30 awards from Boating Writers International — many for his marine electronics articles – and two for excellence from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. He judges the NMMA Innovation Awards, and is Angler in Chief at FishTalk, his own Chesapeake-based publication. A great teacher and inspirational writer, Lenny hosts many of BoatUS Magazine’s very-popular how-to videos, which can be found on the BoatUS YouTube channel, or at