Your eyes are your best navigation tool, and even if you choose the right radar, use FLIR thermal imaging cameras, and wear the best sunglasses, nothing will do more to boost your visual acuity than a good pair of binoculars. But picking out which binoculars are the best choice can be a tough call. How powerful do they need to be? How well are they built? What do they cost?
Laying these factors aside for the moment, one detail is easy to confirm: on a boat, nothing beats image-stabilized binoculars. The motion of a boat limits the power of standard old-tech marine binoculars, because magnification not only enlarges the subject, it also exaggerates motion. With image-stabilization, however, far more magnification can be used. The bottom line? If you can afford image-stabilized binoculars, get them. As for the rest of those questions, here’s we found out when we compared Alpen, Bushnell, Canon, Fujinon, and Nikon binoculars.
Alpen Apex 693 – With 8x magnification and 42 mm lenses, the Alpen Apex pushes the limits for use on the water without image stabilization. That means you can see a bit farther, but if your boat is rocking and rolling, these become very difficult to use. On the bright side, they’re relatively inexpensive at around $300, are waterproof and fog-proof, and are built uber-strong. So strong, in fact, that they come with a no-fault/no-blame lifetime warranty. I loved the pair I tried and if image stabilization wasn’t in the cards due to budgetary constraints, would consider them a top contender.
Bushnell Marine - As far as performance goes, these are your standard-issue 7 x 50 marine versions. As such they aren't particularly impressive and they won’t hold a candle to image-stabilized binoculars. So, why did we take a look at them? Because these binoculars are waterproof and fog-proof, they’re well-built, and they’re extremely affordable at $150. Consider these if your budget requires you to, but recognize that you’re buying a draft-horse, not a stallion.
Canon IS – The Canon IS line ranges from 8 x 25 (around $350) to 18 x 50 (close to $2,000). That gives this manufacturer the widest range of choices, as well as the most magnification (18 x) available on the recreational market. Boaters should ignore the 8x and 10x models, however, which don’t give you much bang for the buck when you consider how much you pay for image stabilization and how little extra magnification these provide. The 12x, 15x, and 18x models, on the other hand, are well worth considering. The 12 x 36 pair I tested was well-built, didn’t quickly eat through AA batteries like some other models (12-hours running time, while some models run through batteries at twice the rate), and at 23 ounces, was much lighter and more comfortable to hold than some competitors. One note of caution: these are considered water-resistant, not waterproof, so they may not be the best pick for use on a small, open boat.
Fujinon Techno-Stabi – 12 x 32 (about $800) and 14 x 40 (a hair over $1,000) models are available, and both are waterproof/fog-proof. But the 12 x pair has a wired external battery compartment, which looks to me like it’s prone to damage. Besides, considering the small cost difference, my guess is that most mariners will be much happier going with the 14’s. That’s the version I tested, and it was among the most rugged pair of image-stabilized binoculars I’ve ever used—they got dropped, banged, and soaked (oops!) with no ill effects. The 14 x version was my personal top choice, when considering size, performance, ruggedness, and all-around value, for image-stabilized binoculars. One down-side: at 46 ounces, these binoculars are anything but light. Extended use while scanning the horizon for gulls working over breaking striped bass actually made my wrists hurt.
Nikon StabilEyes – These come in 12 x 32, 14 x 40, and 16 x 32 (ranging from $1,100 to $1500). The 12 x 32 and 16 x 32 share an identical body design, which has the same trait I don’t like on the 12 x 32 Fujinons—that external, wired battery case. But, they are waterproof and fog-proof. The 14 x 40’s are a different beast; the battery compartment is internal, and they just feel more rugged. Note that the 14 x 40’s actually weigh more than the 16 x 32’s, at 47 ounces versus 39.5 ounces. Also note that like the 14 x 40 Fujinons, the weight of hefty Nikons made my wrists hurt during extended use. Nikon also offers an unusual feature, the ability to switch between "Land" and "Onboard" modes; Land mode seemed to cut down on the amount of stabilization the binoculars provided, to save on battery use.
So, which binoculars are the best for your boat? That depends on how important the different features and flaws we've mentioned are, to you personally. But before you make your choice, consider this: With the naked eye scanning across the Chesapeake Bay I could pick out working gulls at a mile or so away. Using the old-school binocs with no image-stabilization, my vision was extended to three or four miles and it took some time to wait for gaps in-between waves, when I was stable enough to use them effectively. But with the 14 x 40 stabilized models, I could make out birds seven to eight miles away, at a glance. If you want to maximize your visual acuity, there’s no substitute for a good pair of binoculars with some serious magnification and a healthy dose of image stabilization.