In a past life when I was working as crew for America’s Cup Charters in Newport, Rhode Island, sailing tourists around Narragansett Bay for up to 10 hours a day, the captain on one boat told me my sunglasses, well, sucked, and that if I didn’t want to cause permanent damage to my eyes I had to upgrade. So I ponied up for a pair of polarized sunglasses (my first pair ever) and never looked back. It might sound trivial or vain, but wearing a quality pair of sunglasses changes your sailing experience. But what exactly makes a good pair of sailing sunglasses? We reached out to some of the top brands in the industry to get their take.
What’s in a Lens?
First, look at the lens material—mainly glass and polycarbonate—each of which has its pros and cons. “I prefer a plastic polycarbonate lens as it is lighter and the most impact-resistant lens available,” says Cliff Robinson, co-president of B. Robinson Optics, the manufacturers of Revo sunglasses. Kevin Barr, the managing director of Barz Optics, agrees, “All lens materials have their own positive features and some negatives. Polycarbonate lenses are promoted the most in the U.S. because of their impact resistance.”
However, while polycarbonate lenses are the most durable, they do have a downside. “Polycarbonate is the generic material that most companies will use if they want a lighter weight and shatterproof lens,” says Steve Rosenberg, CEO and co-founder of Kaenon. “But they’re what we call in the industry a ‘dirty’ lens. Polycarbonate doesn’t match up well with polarization, and they’re not technically clear. The general optical clarity of the materials is poor.”
What is Polarization?
Polarized sunglasses are typically considered a must have by boaters, but what exactly do they do? When the sun reflects off of the water or another surface, the light tends to be reflected in a horizontal direction, which produces the annoying glare that we have all had experience with. Polarized lenses contain a filter, often times a film that is laid on the lens, that blocks this type of intensely reflected light, reducing glare and allowing us to see clearer (and with less damage to our eyes). However certain types of lenses match up better with polarization. “Polycarbonate doesn’t match up well with polarization,” says Rosenberg. “When the polarized film is laid on, there is a thin polycarbonate film that goes over the layer of polarized film, and through the manufacturing process you get further distortion, such as a loss of depth perception.” Glass lenses, on the other hand, tend to match better with polarization. Another thing to keep in mind when choosing your next pair of shades.
Glass for glasses?
Again, like polycarbonate, there are positives and negatives for having glass lenses. “Glass is a good lens material for clarity and it marries well with polarization, but that’s where the beneficent properties end,” says Rosenberg. “Glass is heavy, and it will shatter.”
Companies have been working hard to maintain the clarity of glass while making the lenses both lighter and more durable. “If you’re sailing on saltwater, our SuperThin glass lenses offer a high level of edge-to-edge clarity and are 20 percent thinner and lighter than conventional glass lenses,” says Mike Battistoni, fishing and marine specialist at Maui Jim. “They also are naturally smudge- and scratch-resistant, so you will experience less lens damage from salt and particles on the lenses.”
This debate about lens materials has led several companies to make their own proprietary materials. “The best sailors can read water very well, and polarization enhances that and makes it easier to see what the wind and the water are doing,” says Kaenon’s Rosenberg. “And sailors need to see clearly and be able to see what the velocity and direction of the wind is doing. I needed polarization to be effective as a sailor. So I thought, how do I get the clarity of glass, but the durability of polycarbonate? And that’s how we came up with the SR91 lens. It’s lightweight, it’s clear, and it will not shatter. It is what we call non-compromising.”
The folks at Revo went with a highly enhanced polycarbonate lens. “Our Revo Serilium polycarbonate lens is one of the most advanced on the market,” says Robinson. “It offers an amazing backside anti-reflective and oleophobic (fingerprint-resistant) coating, and they’re very light weight.”
One of Maui Jim’s recent developments is the “Mauipure” non-glass lens that has been enhanced to retain light weight and durability while maximizing clarity and UV protection.
It doesn’t really matter whether you prefer polycarbonate or glass or a proprietary material—what makes a great pair of sailing glasses is unique to the person wearing them. “Everyone has a personal preference, there is no such thing as the perfect sailing lens,” says Kaenon’s Rosenberg, himself an experienced sailor. “In my experience, for ocean sailing I really love gray lenses, but when I sail on lakes or really strong current areas like San Fran, copper is the choice for me. Terry Hutchinson loves copper. Jimmy Spithill completely relies on gray. It’s all personal preference.” All the companies we spoke to agreed that the most important features of a good pair of sailing sunglasses are a great fit, lightweight, superior eye protection, and lens clarity. Which pair offers that perfect package? Well, that’s up to you.