Should you wear sunglasses for rowing? And if so, which ones?

There was a time when I would wear any old sunnies for rowing. As a forgetful, clumsy type prone to losing and sitting on my belongings, I figured the cheaper the better. Until, that is, I found myself rowing alongside an optometrist who told me, in no uncertain terms, that my penchant for bottom-of-the-range sunglasses bought in seaside shops could cost me my eyesight. I decided I’d better inform myself a bit better, so quizzed Helen a bit more closely (as she’s a senior council member on the General Optical Council, she knows what she’s on about). So. Should you wear sunglasses for rowing? And if so, which ones? Here’s what I learned.

Should you wear sunglasses for rowing?

A lot of people find sunglasses uncomfortable and prefer to wear a visor to keep the sun out of their eyes. That’s all very well – a visor will protect you from the sun’s downward rays – but your eyes will still have to deal with light reflected from the water. If you’re older, have lighter coloured eyes, have had eye surgery or have eye conditions such as cataracts, dry eye or macular degeneration, you’re more likely to be affected by glare. Glare is uncomfortable and can give you eye strain or fatigue – you may find yourself squinting and frowning and getting a bit headachey. It can also temporarily affect your ability to see – you’ll feel as though you’re blinded by the light (not so good if you’re steering…)

That’s not all. Sunglasses with UV protection protect your eyes from inflammation, cataracts and even melanoma. The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 20 per cent of cataracts may be caused by overexposure to UV radiation, and says that current scientific evidence suggests different forms of eye cancer may be associated with life-long exposure to the sun. Squinting and visors will protect you up to a point, but not as much as the UV barrier provided by proper sunglasses.

So all you need to do is wear sunglasses to protect your eyes, right?

Well, yes. And no. Some sunglasses can actually make matters worse if they are just tinted and don’t have any UV protection. If this is the case, the tint dilates the pupil and lets in more harmful rays without providing any protection from those rays. This is much worse for you than not wearing sunnies in the first place. Sunglasses without UV are BAD news for your eyesight.

Luckily nowadays most sunglasses have UV block in them – standards in the UK and EU are pretty strict on this – but if you’re buying them online or outside the EU you may find they don’t have the full UV protection you need. Look out for the UK or European standard mark on the label and don’t compromise for the sake of style.

I’ve seen sunglasses with polarised lenses. What are they and are they better for rowing?

Polarised lenses are becoming more and more popular, but they tend to come with a price tag, so you ought to know what they are and why rowers like them. Without getting too technical on you, whereas normal lenses decrease the intensity of all light by the same amount, polarised lenses contain a special filter that minimises glare, giving you an especially crisp view. Not only does this make rowing in bright sunlight much more comfortable, it means that you can more easily spot rocks and weed under the water – handy when the river’s getting a bit on the low side in the summer.

The only drawback that I can find to them for rowers is that they can make reading some screens tricky. I can successfully read my SpeedCoach while wearing them, but would guess that anyone who uses a phone app for monitoring their stroke rate, etc., might find it difficult to read when wearing polarised lenses. I’d recommend you bring your phone with you when you’re buying your glasses to make sure they’ll work for you on the water.

What are those rather nice sunnies, then?

When we were discussing our kit for the Worlds and noting the strict FISA rules on matching kit, I jokingly suggested Helen and I should wear matching sunglasses. I say jokingly as she always sports a fabulous pair of Maui Jims when she’s rowing.  Helen’s sunglasses of choice are the gorgeous Kawika polarised sunglasses. I noticed that she was able to wear them in lower light and in the boat house whereas I’d need to whip off my less exclusive sunnies as soon as the light dropped. For the first time in my life I had serious sunglass-envy – because let’s be honest, they look the business. After enduring many weeks of me gazing longingly at her gorgeous eyewear, Helen finally, and brilliantly, mentioned our partnership to Maui Jim and they incredibly generously sent me my own pair (thank you, thank you, thank you, Maui Jim).

They absolutely lived up to the hype. Everything is crystal clear and even in intense sunlight there’s no glare (and I tried them out at a regatta on the hottest August Bank Holiday on record, which was a pretty good test). I’ve also had endless compliments even from people who wouldn’t normally notice that kind of thing.

Before you tire of me gushing about them, though, here’s what Helen’s professional opinion is of them (which explains why she’s prepared to pay more than £200 of her hard-earned cash for her own pair):

“Maui Jim lenses means natural light is enhanced rather than dimmed so you can see with exceptional clarity and colour. The lenses have several special coatings which means they are waterproof, repel grease and are scratch resistant. The anti-reflective layer and ‘bi-gradient’ mirror squints for you, which allows your eyes to fully relax. These glasses come recommended by The Skin Cancer Foundation as effective for the eyes and surrounding skin, blocking 99.99% of glare and 100% of harmful UV rays. As well as all this advanced technology, the lenses are available in a choice of colours which gives the wearer more options.”

But are they really worth the money? I’ve been lucky enough to have been gifted mine, but I can honestly say that if I lost them I’d be putting a pair straight on my list for my next birthday. They do have a hefty price tag but you can get loads of wear out of them – they are light enough to wear for sport but look the part off the water as well. I’ve worn mine on the beach, in the city and even to a funeral. I haven’t, by the way, tested their scratch-proof and shatter-proof qualities. There are many sacrifices I will make for you guys, but hurling my beautiful sunglasses on the ground is a step too far. I hope you’ll understand.

If you are going for something cheaper – and I totally get that – please just make sure that you protect your eyes properly with UV-protected sunglasses and avoid any with tint but no UV protection. Here endeth the lesson.

Oh, and let’s hope for some lovely weather in the next couple of months so I can keep on wearing my shades as long as possible into the autumn.

All pics except for the first and last by the superb Emma Drabble Photography



1 comment on “Should you wear sunglasses for rowing? And if so, which ones?

  1. Alison says:

    Yes! Protecting our eyes from the direct sun, and reflected rays, is so important.
    I have a pair of Oakley Minute shades that I’ve had forever, and they were worth every penny.
    They have rubber grips on the ear pieces that cling to my head, whether they’re covering my eyes, or pushed up on top of my head or cap. They won’t fall off, even leaning over. I’ve had them so long I’ve even had to replace the ear pieces.
    Wouldn’t trade them for anything ?

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