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From sun and safety glasses to binoculars and night vision glasses, yacht captains consider their eyesight a primary tool and work hard to protect it.
“Glasses are second nature; my eyes are most important to me,” a captain said. “Every morning I put on uniform, phone and glasses.”
Since The Triton began hosting monthly From the Bridge roundtable discussions, groups of captains have gathered around a table and set down a pair or two of glasses. We decided to learn more about what’s behind this vision.
As usual, everyone at the August lunch had glasses on, around their neck or in their pocket. And several had a couple of pairs, with more at home, in the car or on the boat.
“Last season I lost or broke at least six or seven pairs,” a captain said.
To share their true stories, the individual comments from captains at this month’s The Triton From the Bridge luncheon are not attributed to any particular person. The attending captains are identified in the accompanying photograph.
Every captain said he wears sunglasses while working on deck. And although the job is centered around the water, not everyone uses polarized lenses all the time. These are often worn to reduce glare from reflections.
“I can’t stand them,” one captain said. ” I used to wear them, but I don’t like them when I’m looking through windows and you see the lines through it.”
Everyone nodded in agreement about the lines and spectrums that appear in certain treated glass. One captain said he used polarized lenses only for fishing.
“If I fish, I still use them if want to see what’s under there,” he said. “And to navigate shallow waters, like navigating in the Bahamas.”
But they are a bigger issue on the bridge.
“Polarized are problematic when reading displays,” a captain said. “I’m always taking them off because I can’t read the screens.”
Although everyone said they take their sunglasses off inside the yacht, several captains said they still need them for looking out the windows.
“I’m navigating inside the bridge, but looking out on the water,” the captain said. “You can’t look out without sunglasses, you’ll go blind.”
So there is a lot of taking sunglasses on and off. Off to read displays, on to look for navigational marks, off to check alarms and on to look for vessel traffic, a captain said.
“I move them up and down quite a lot,” another captain said. “It’s just a fact of life, the nature of the beast.”
Get yourself some cheap sunglasses
Although all the captains wear sunglasses, they differ on how much they spend on them. And that price affects whether they use eyeglass retainer cords, the string that lets glasses hang around the neck when not in use.
One captain always uses cheap sunglasses with no cord.
“I usually don’t spend enough on sunglasses,” he said. “And those straps annoy me.”
Another captain relies on the cord.
“For me, it’s not about losing them, it’s when it’s hot and sweaty and I need to put them up,” he said. When he’s not using his glasses, he wears them on top of his head. To prevent the irritation of glasses falling off, he uses the cord. “To wear them inside, I put them on my head and pull the bead on the back of the strap up tight so they don’t fall down.”
At work on the dock and at sea, several use cheaper sunglasses so they can have six or seven pairs in strategic locations.
“Mine are all scratched and I constantly lose them,” a captain said.
But the other end of the spectrum are the captains who have one pair for each use. Several captains have what they call “land glasses,” which are more stylish or expensive glasses and sunglasses with no straps. One captain wears prescription lenses and spends more than $1,000 for transition sunglasses.
“These are my day, going-out glasses,” he said. “Then I’ve got sunglasses with prescription and safety glasses. Only lost them one time overboard.”
See your way to safety first
Sunglasses assist with vision but also guard the eyes. We talked how early mariners protected their eyes.
“They didn’t have all the UV rays,” a captain said.
“They wore a leaf with a hole in it,” another captain said.
“Like the Inuits who used seal skin with slits to prevent against snow blindness,” another captain responded.
“And they had no white paint,” a fourth captain said.
“Sunglasses are not required for crew, but we work around white; you would be in pain and suffer if you didn’t” wear them, a captain said. “You can ruin your eyes, ruin your retina, at the least your eyes become tired.”
Aside from damage from the sun’s rays, several at the table wear safety glasses all the time to prevent possible physical damage to their eyes.
“These are ANSI [American National Standards Institute] safety glasses, absolutely,” a captain said holding up his sun/safety glasses. “I won’t wear anything else.”
Two captains said safety glasses saved them from serious injury several times.
“They saved my life from flying hooks, breaking shackles, pieces of chain flying,” a captain said.
He issues safety sunglasses to the crew and buys them by the case.
“Anyone on deck, where they could have a chance of injury, must use them,” he said.
“Inside they use clear safety glasses; in the engine room it’s mandatory,” another captain said. “I have it on the crew policy for safety.”
“If you can’t see, you have an operational hazard onboard,” another captain said. If crew can’t see where they are going, there are too many places a person could trip and fall, he said.
Another captain said he was injured while standing nearby while someone was grinding rust.
“I had safety glasses on but a bit came in behind my glasses and I got rust in my eyes,” he said. “I kept rinsing and rinsing with water; I flushed about 30 or 40 minutes. From then on, I started wearing closed system safety glasses.”
“That’s terrifying,” another captain said and the others at the table agreed.
Most boats have an eye wash station onboard or an eye flush in the medical supplies. And most marine businesses, including shipyards, have eye flushing stations, a captain said.
The captains said they have safety eyewear written into operations and standard working procedures onboard. And they have pairs of the safety glasses in engine rooms and areas where crew work with chemicals, tools or the potential of flying objects or debris. The group discussed several types of safety wear available, including glasses, face shields, masks, wrap arounds, goggles and even respirators with safety glasses.
“If these safety glasses get messed up, just get another pair,” a captain said. “I have a bag of them.”
Don’t touch my binoculars
Binoculars, for seeing distant objects, are another type of eye gear that captains consider mandatory. And they are adamant about having their own pair.
“Different eyes sees differently,” a captain said. “In an emergency, you can’t be adjusting. That’s why on the bridge I have two pairs.”
“Different eyes for different people,” another captain said. “Mine are mine, don’t touch. Do whatever you want with that one, but don’t touch my seat, my coffee, my binos.”
Most carry their own pair when working on different boats.
“I take my own binoculars on deliveries,” a captain said. “I carry two; one real small with permafocus, just lift and see it in focus. And another pair.”
“I like my Steiner’s if no one touches them,” another captain said. “You all know when it’s happened, when someone has touched them.”
There are several types of binoculars including some that can be used with vision glasses.
“It depends on the quality if you can use your glasses,” a captain said. “I have the best with permanent focus, if no one touches them. They take a while to fix.”
Opinions varied on the use of another tool for the eyes, night vision devices. These allow the ability to see better in low-light situations such as when checking for navigation markers or things in the water at night.
“The problem is, there is such a difference in what you see,” a captain said. “I think they’re very confusing when you take them away from your eyes. It gives momentary information, but when you take them away, what you’re looking at is not there.”
“It’s like the switch has been turned on and off,” another captain said. “But they’re nice to have on long trips and deliveries. They’re more of a toy to play with.”
“But in certain areas you use them to see through the fog,” a third captain said. “Like in Vancouver or the Maritimes.”
“They’re a good feature to have as a double check,” a fourth captain said.
You’re going to wear those?
Although none of the captains said they specifically describe what glasses crew can wear, they have told crew what they don’t like.
“Are those a joke?” a captain said describing a conversation with a crew. “Any professional will know what to wear. It’s not written somewhere, I just tell them. Like baggy pants.”
“No bright white or pink, don’t want blue lenses and crazy shapes,” he said. “They can wear them on the weekend or to the beach. And the strap should be something thin, not gaudy.”
“Another thing, it’s only manners to remove your glasses when you meet someone,” another captain said. “I’ve seen crew leave their glasses on. It makes me uncomfortable when they don’t take them off.”
“Look at someone you have never met,” another captain said. “Look them in the eye and shake their hand.”
“We have to teach and train them,” a third captain said.
It’s on the record
Some of the captains wear prescription glasses and several have over-the-counter reading glasses. But they all said they go for annual eye exams, except for one at the table.
“I’ve been meaning to go,” he said.
The captains don’t require crew to do the same, but hope crew add that to their medical check-ups.
“I go because I ruined my eyes navigating in the ’70s and ’80s on sailboats without proper lighting in the nav station,” a captain said.
“You eat well, watch your weight, exercise and still your eyes deteriorate,” another captain said.
Whether crew wear glasses or contacts is not on their resume.
“But the information will be in their medical file,” a captain said. “It’s not my preference, but I will hire them.”
“It’s not a consideration,” another captain said. “Crew should not be discriminated against for that.”
A couple of eye topics were mentioned, including medications that can affect vision.
“If they take meds, that’s a consideration anyway with crew,” a captain said. “And you usually know about that.”
“There are no secrets on a boat; it all comes out at the wrong time,” another captain said.
And the group talked about colorblindness and night vision deficiencies.
“And if they are on watch, you don’t want to hire someone who is colorblind,” a captain said.
“You can’t get a deck license if you’re colorblind,” another said. “But it’s the degree that matters, just the red green,” another captain said.
“When we re-enlist, we redo the medical exam every time and they test our eyes,” a third captain said. “They look for red/green colorblindness. And the medical only lasts for two years.”
A captain said that any eyewear requirements or restrictions are specified on merchant mariner documents.
“If you wear glasses, it says you have to have two pairs, it states it right in your mariner book,” he said. “There are pages that can specify that type of information.”
Another captain talked about a friend in Europe with night vision issues.
“He has a 3,000-ton license with a daytime endorsement,” the captain said. “He can only drive for day stuff.”
“I knew a friend, a great captain who had his own boats, but couldn’t get his license because of his eyes,” another captain said. “But you don’t need a license unless your insurance companies says.”
“I had a buddy that is losing his night vision,” another captain said. “He has worked all over the world, but now that is changing.”
After lunch, as the captains pocketed their reading glasses and gathered their sunglasses from the table, they talked about how important vision is as a mariner.
“For seafarers, the eyes are the most important sense,” a captain said. “All senses are important, but eyes are the most.”
“At sea, we are always watchstanders,” another captain said. “We use all our tools onboard, but the real deal is what a human being sees.”
“We are overseeing everything,” a third captain said. “We are over ‘seeing’. And you can’t do a proper watch without your eyes. What’s the first rule in the book? Be on watch.”
“Computers can do things, but it’s what the human sees that we need,” a fourth captain said.
“Eyes are our doors to the world,” said another. “They are the most valuable things for human beings and should be the most protected.”
And, as the last captain said, the “eyes” have it.
Oh, and don’t touch the captain’s binoculars.
Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. E-mail us for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge lunch.