A decent set of polarized sunglasses are essential on the water. Theo Stocker explains why they’re so vital, and tests nine pairs
Bright sunlight, little shelter, white decks and sails, and glare reflected off the water all make being at sea a hostile environment for our eyes. We all know the discomfort of squinting into sun, trying to pick out the next navigation mark or up at the sails on a bright day.
Even in overcast conditions, the amount of light around can be visually tiring. With all this light comes harmful ultraviolet radiation.
Exposure over a few years can contribute to corneal damage, cataracts and macular degeneration amongst other conditions, and as sailors, we are more exposed than most. Far from being a mere fashion accessory, a proper pair of sailing sunglasses that blocks out the harmful rays and makes it easier for us to see is essential.
Most sailors will opt for polarized sunglasses. If you haven’t tried them before and don’t know what the fuss is about, ask to try someone else’s next time you’re out on the water. Tip your head on one side to see what things look like with dark glasses, then look normally to see how much additional glare the polarization cuts out and you’ll be amazed.
They do have some downsides, however, including the frustrating characteristic that they can make it hard to see digital screens and instrument read-outs at certain angles. Like buying clothing or footwear, finding the right pair of sunglasses is a hugely personal choice.
Polarized sunglasses for sailors: 9 pairs tested
Tribord 100 Floating Sunglasses
Best on test
Lens: Brown mirrored polarized
Dimensions (W x D x L mm): 139 x 48 x 135
Colour options: Frame: dark grey
As the cheapest shades in our polarized sunglasses for sailors test, we weren’t expecting much from these, but were pleasantly surprised when we took them out of the box as they looked and felt pretty good for such a budget pair.
The mirrored polycarbonate lenses sit in an understated frame with in-built buoyancy, making these one of only two floating sunglasses on test. There is no grippy rubber on the nose or ear pieces, but the arms do hook behind the ears with holes to attach a strap.
Amazingly, these were some of the most secure sunglasses on test, requiring over 500g force to pull them off, perhaps in part thanks to these being the narrowest glasses we tried.
For this reason, they also felt a little tight, and were marginally less comfortable than others in the test. The lenses weren’t the best on test, but they were only just shy of our top three performers.
With a warm brown tint, they provided good definition with little distortion, and transmission of just 11%. The polarization was effective, cutting out 69% of reflected glare (a little shy of their claimed 80%). Given the price and strong all-round performance it’s hard to see how you could go wrong with these.
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Lens: Polarized smoke
Dimensions (W x D x L mm): 143 x 50 x 138
Colour options: Frames: Satin Vapour, Satin black/neon
This Italian sports brand has been increasing its offering for watersports optics, and we tested two pairs. The Swick is the more lifestyle-oriented pair, with a flatter frame. Offered in a range of colours, the green stripe on ours had a matt rubberised finish, though these weren’t actually rubber.
Comfortable to wear and on trend, these were a medium-sized pair of sunglasses. The rubber nose pads were a nice touch lacking on other glasses. The performance of these sunglasses was perfectly adequate, in line with a pretty modest price tag. Everything worked fine, although no area excelled in our test.
Some of the lightest lenses on test, with a grey tint, we measured a transmission of 15%, and a polarized glare reduction of 61%, so at the lower end of our selection.
Security on the head was moderately good, requiring 130g to pull them off – still better than some of the more expensive models. Mirroring on the lenses would have been a nice touch, as would proper rubber grips. There are lots of other models and colourways in the Tifosi range to choose from, making this an inexpensive brand worth looking at.
Best sports glasses
Lens: Enliven Offshore Polarized
Dimensions (W x D x L mm): 146 x 44 x 124
Colour options: Frame: Matte Smoke
These wraparound sports sunglasses are a different animal to the other Tifosi shades we tested, and have a higher price tag to reflect this, though still pretty reasonable. Half-lens frames mean that lenses can be swapped for different conditions, and vents prevent sweat up on hot days.
Rubber ear socks and adjustable rubber nose pads make these grippy on the head, without being tight or uncomfortable.
The lens curve (32mm) ensures your vision is fully covered. Slightly deeper lenses would have been nice to block out some of the light coming off the deck. Green-brown in tint, the lenses were the second most effective on test, with light transmission measured at 10.3%, these easily dealt with a bright day afloat.
Polarization was a close second, cutting out just over 73% of the remaining light, and blocking all but 0.1% of our UVA torch light.
Grip on the head was reasonable but not much more than those without rubber, the grips perhaps compensating for the wider more comfortable fit. Style wise, these might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they do their job well and would double up for other sports.
Lens: Prizm Deep Water Polarized
Dimensions (W x D x L mm): 148 x 52 x 136
Colour options: 7 lens/frame combinations
American brand Oakley have long led the way in innovative, top-quality sunglasses, and have a price-tag to match. One of their many new models is the Leffingwell, which comes with frames made from a plant-based plastic.
The Prizm polarized lenses are among the best on the market for contrast and colour on the water; they can be replaced if scratched and Oakley also offer prescription lenses.
The design leans more towards lifestyle, and lacks some of the brand’s sportier elements. Put these glasses on after wearing a cheap pair of sunnies, and you’ll notice just how clear and crisp the image is, with no distortion at the edges, and how the warm brown tint boosts contrast and colour.
While they didn’t seem dark, they had the most effective light reduction, with just 9.1% transmission (Oakley rate them at 12%), and the polarization cut out a huge 72% of glare.
For sailing, they would benefit from rubber ear socks as the textured arms didn’t offer great grip (the lowest on test). Despite the fairly flat curve of the frames, however, the lenses give surprisingly good peripheral cover.
Dirty Dog Axle
Lens: Brown Polarized
Dimensions (W x D x L mm): 145 x 49 x 130
Colour options: Frames: Blue, black, tortoiseshell; Lenses: Brown, grey, green grey mirrored
Don’t be put off by the name. Dirty Dog have been around for years, and make glasses that many sailors have used for a long time, such is their build quality. With a whole wealth of styles available, we were testing a ‘unisex’ style, although the fit and shape were rather wide.
The polyamide frames are meant to retain their original shape, so should resist stretching and loosening over time. This pair had tortoiseshell frames and brown polarized lenses.
Without a mirrored finish, these have a more understated appearance, but a generous wraparound (31mm depth) means these offer excellent cover to the field of vision.
On test, these proved secure to wear (190g force) required to pull them off, despite not having any rubber grips. They fitted snugly to the face, leaving few gaps for glare, and didn’t feel like they’d fall off easily.
A brown tinted lens gives 12.3% transmission, which is good for a range of conditions, and the polarization performed well, cutting out 68.2% of the glare. UV protection was good too. They don’t float, and you’d need a slide-over strap to avoid losing them, but this is a solid pair of glasses that should last well without trying to be flashy.
Lens: Grey Polarized
Dimensions (W x D x L mm): 141 x 49 x 133
Colour options: Black
Gill produce a range of polarized sunglasses specifically for sailing. Having tested their floating Fusion sunglasses in the past (which are excellent, by the way), we were looking at the entry-level Kynance model in this test.
Still polarized, but aimed more at lifestyle than performance, the cheaper price tag reflects this. With pop hinges to avoid rusting hinge screws, these should be more impact-resistant.
However, when we popped the hinge out, it felt loose after refitting. Rated for 8-18% light transmission, we found these the lightest in our test at 15% transmission. That’s no bad thing if you want them for everyday wear and aren’t always in full sunshine.
The polarization did its job, cutting out 63% of the glare, and grey tinted lenses cut out 98.8% of our UV torch’s light – the 1.2% it did let through could well just be visible purple light. With 140g force to pull these glasses off, they aren’t the most secure, but also not the worst.
These are a reasonable pair of shades at a reasonable price, and will serve well on and off the water, but they don’t reach the standards of the best glasses in this test.
Lens: HD Polarized Offshore Blue
Dimensions (W x D x L mm): 142 x 46 x 135
Colour options: Blue, red, black
Bollé are synonymous with top-notch optics in skiing, sailing, and for safety goggles. They have a huge amount of expertise in making high-quality lenses, and the Holman are no different. Another brand that has hundreds of styles to choose from, the Holman is one of the few styles they offer designed for sailing that float.
Unlike most floating sunglasses, however, they don’t have bulky buoyancy built in, but are made of nylon frames that are inherently buoyant, allowing the frames to be as slim as those that don’t float.
Bollé’s HD polarized Offshore Blue lenses are some of the only ones in this test with a blue, rather than brown or grey tint, it is claimed to give better contrast on the water.
This worked well, and we were surprised how vibrant colours remained despite the cooler tint. They were the second darkest lenses on test, blocking transmission of all by 10.8% of the light.
The polarization, in contrast, was more light-touch, with a further reduction of glare of just 58.2%. The frames offered a good degree of wraparound (26mm) without appearing too sporty, and leaning towards the narrower side, these were a more genuinely unisex style.
The hooked arms and snug fit meant they were pretty secure too, even without any rubber grips.
SunGod Sierra SKO
Best everyday polarized glasses
Lens: 8KO Polarized Blue Green
Dimensions (W x D x L mm): 143 x 53 x 145
Colour options: 7 standard options, or 12 frame colours. 8 lens colours, fully customisable
SunGod is the new kid on the block when it comes to cool sunnies, and are bang up to date with their styling and company ethics. With just a handful of styles, but lots of customisation options, you can create your own glasses online and receive them the next day.
While entry-level options for the Sierras start at £55, the top-end 8KO nylon polarized lenses are double the price.
A lifetime guarantee means they will be repaired free of charge (except for scratches and loss), and replacement lenses are available.
The lightest on test, these glasses are made with a flexible frame designed to withstand knocks and bumps, and the pop hinges will come apart rather than snapping, for you to clip back together. They felt strong and secure.
With just 12mm of wraparound depth, these were also the flattest on test, meaning less of your peripheral vision is protected, but the brown tinted lenses gave good definition.
Extremely comfortable to wear for long periods, these would be great everyday sunglasses that also have surprisingly good grip. A polarization score of 74.6% nudges these ahead of the rest, although this is on slightly higher transmission of 13.8%.
Sungod Renegade 8KO
Best sustainable glasses
Lens: Blue Smoke 8KO Polarized
Dimensions (W x D x L mm): 147 x 52 x 142
Colour options: 7 standard options, or 12 frame colours. 8 lens colours, fully customisable
SunGod know how important image is and have got their styling on trend. They have also put massive effort into the company’s green credentials, with green energy used in manufacture, all recyclable packaging used during carbon-offset delivery, a lifetime repair guarantee and recyclable materials.
They also offer frames (and since we tested, lenses) made from recycled plastic, which was unique for the sunglasses we tested.
This is a great step towards circular-economy. With slightly more wraparound than the Sierras, the Renegades have good deep lenses, with a warm brown tint that increases vibrancy without being intrusive.
We did find that the Silver Blue 8KO lens coating on the inner surface was a bit too reflective, producing distracting reflections in certain conditions, but we were told this is a problem with this specific lens, and isn’t an issue on other options.
Build quality felt among the best on test. With one of the lower grip factors on test, some rubber coating or a strap would be necessary with these. UV protection (99.8%), polarization (67%) and transmission of 13.9% all put the lenses in the middle of the pack.
Polarized sunglasses for sailors: Conclusion
With hundreds of styles of polarized sunglasses for sailors out there, and many brands, there’s no shortage of choice. Not all are created equal, however, and if you’re going to be spending long hours on the water, then having shades that stay on your head, protect your peripheral vision, and cut out direct light and reflected glare is essential.
When it comes to lenses, you get what you pay for on the whole, and cheaper glasses will save in this area, as well as the quality of their construction. We were surprised on both counts, however, by the cheapest pair on test from Tribord, which performed consistently well in all areas, to make it the test winner.
Unsurprisingly, the Oakley’s lenses were standout best on test, and another style from that brand could well perform better in other areas on the water, if you are willing to dig a bit deeper into your pockets. The SunGod Sierras with the 8KO BlueGreen lenses performed well across the board, bringing them in second.
SunGod has also done more than any other brand about its environmental impact in considering the full life cycle of their products. The sporty Tifosi Crit impressed with lenses suited to bright light and lots of movement on deck.
How to choose the best polarized sunglasses
Everyone’s face is different, and finding ones that fit comfortably and securely in a style that you like will take a certain amount of trying on. Most brands carry multiple styles, however, that use the same ideas and technologies to suit a range of wearers.
The main considerations include:
- Style: Flatter ‘lifestyle’ sunglasses (very on trend this year), or sportier wrap-around glasses that cover more of your vision
- Lens darkness: The amount of light allowed through, as a transmission percentage
- Lens tint: Different colours suit varying light conditions and can increase or reduce contrast
- Security: Strap attachment, grippy rubber on the nose and ear socks, or floating in water
- Construction: Screwed or pop hinges – the latter will pop apart rather than snap if sat on
- Repair: Whether damaged parts, such as scratched lenses, can be replaced
- Sustainability: Increasingly, glasses are available made of recycled materials with sustainable manufacture, shipping and packaging, and end-of-life disposal considered
- Prescription lenses: If you wear prescription glasses, you will need a pair of sunglasses that can be fitted with prescription lenses.
How do polarized sunglasses work?
Polarized sunglasses are a bit like magic. It is often said that they ‘block out reflected light’, but how does this really work?
It helps to understand what your new glasses will and won’t do. Light travels in waves. These waves oscillate along different planes – imagine waves coming at you each aligned vertically, horizontally, and all the angles between, through a full 360º.
For this example, it is easier to visualise just the vertical and horizontal waves. The lenses of polarized glasses are coated with a polymer, the molecules
of which form vertical slats.
The waves oscillating vertically can pass through the lens but any that aren’t vertical are blocked out, reducing the amount of light transmitted. When light is reflected off a surface or refracted through a material, it becomes polarized.
Light bouncing off flat water would be polarized, so that just the horizontal waves parallel to the surface of the water are reflected. When these reach vertically polarized lenses, the light is blocked. This means that they are very effective at cutting out glare off the water.
The downside is that light from your instruments can be refracted through their screens, polarizing it parallel to the surface of the glass, so you might need to tilt your head to see the screens clearly.
How we tested the best polarized sunglasses
We focused on how well the glasses work on the water rather than style or individual fit. We have tested to see whether each pair of sunglasses deliver what they promise in terms of light reduction, polarization, weight, whether they float and how robust they are.
We have measured
- The light reduction in LUX of the lens, looking into direct sunlight, with a cardboard tube between the meter and the lens to block out glare and ensure a consistent reading distance
- UV transmission, using a black light (UVA) torch. All glasses claim 100% UV reduction. Our figures didn’t quite match that, but UV LED torches also emit some visible purple glare, which would account for the discrepancy
- Polarization, by measuring the LUX reduction between vertically and horizontally rotated lenses, whilst aimed at a flat metal surface reflecting direct sunlight, replicating water glare
- The force in grams required to pull the sunglasses from the wearer’s head, using luggage scale attached to the central nose bridge
- The weight and dimensions of each pair, including how flat or wrapped around they are, measuring the linear distance from the nose bridge to a line between the rear edge of the lenses
- Whether they float in water
- We have also added our subjective opinion on whether we liked the look, feel and quality of each pair.
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