Boat Shoe Diaries
Your guide to choosing the right shoes
By Dale Miller
Most of us have at least a couple pairs of boat shoes kicking around. Those ratty old Sperrys, the few runners the salesman promised wouldn’t leave marks and the cheap slip-ons from the boat show may even outnumber the sneakers in our closets. And for good reason—it’s hard to know what to look for. So what makes a perfect boat shoe? Calvin Smith is the owner of Red Sky At Night. He’s been in the business for 16 years and has Western Canada’s largest selection of boat shoes. So Calvin knows a thing or two about nautical footwear. He offered some advice to help us make sense of the many options on the market today.
The Sole Perhaps the most important part of a boat shoe. If it works properly you won’t even notice it, improperly and you’ll be slipping or leaving black streaks all over the deck.The secret to a well-gripping sole is siping (pronounced cy-ping). Traditional, closed-sipe shoes have flat bottoms that appear smooth upon first glance. Only when the shoe is flexed can you see the razor cut waves in the rubber. When you walk on deck, these sipes open up to create suction with the surface. This is the type of sole you will see on classic leather moccasin-type shoes and basic canvas deck shoes. A more modern approach to gripping is the open-sipe design with water channels. These soles will channel water out from under the shoe for a more direct connection between rubber and deck, and they’re a bit better on the dock as well. Expect to find open siping and water channels on the more athletic sneakers and higher end classic-styled models. The material of the sole is just as important as the design. Out of the box, most deck shoes will feel gummy, but after a while the cheaper soles tend to harden and lose their grip. Better soles, though, will have more UV and oil resistance, so they should last longer. It’s nearly impossible to tell the quality of the rubber just by looking, so use the same general rule as with most things: You get what you pay for. Buying a boat shoe from one of the traditional boat shoe companies—Sperry, Sebago and so on—will ensure you get appropriate, quality rubber. Non-marking soles are another nonnegotiable feature in a boat shoe. Any sole that claims to be non-marking will have no carbon in the rubber compound. Carbon is added to make the rubber stronger, darker and more durable, but it will leave streaks and smudges all over the deck, which every boater knows is difficult to get rid of. Like high-quality rubber, all “true” boat shoe manufacturers will have carbon-free soles in their product lines. If you need a boat shoe that is completely non-marking, be wary of buying sandals or shoes with dark soles from non-traditional boat shoe manufacturers.
The Uppers There are three basic options for the material in boat shoe uppers—leather, canvas or synthetics—and all have their upsides and downsides. Leather is the traditional boat shoe material. It looks great, it lasts longer than canvas and it’s comfortable. Leather isn’t perfect, though, as it doesn’t breathe well in hot weather and won’t look great for long in a marine environment. One way to keep leather looking nice is to treat it with mink oil or dubbin. These products seep into the material and protect it from the elements. They will also make the leather softer, which some people find undesirable, preferring the look and feel of new shoes. When considering mink oil or dubbin, give it a sniff before you buy and remember: If it smells like bacon or animal fat, your pet is going to love it (and may even eat it). Many boaters use canvas shoes because they’re inexpensive, breathable and washable. The canvas won’t stand up long to saltwater, but with the savings you’re making by buying canvas over leather ($29–55 for canvas versus $79–200 for leather), you can buy a new pair every season if they fall apart. Be wary of cheap canvas boat shoes, though, as their soles have been known to crack. Many of the more modern and athletic styles are using mesh in addition to leather. This can look quite nice and certainly increases the shoe’s breathability; however, it will also decrease the life of a shoe since mesh doesn’t stand up to saltwater as well as leather. Laces are another area where material is important. Cloth laces aren’t as durable as leather and don’t look as traditional, but leather doesn’t hold a knot nearly as well— which can become a nuisance. It basically comes down to personal preference, balancing looks with practicality. One tip for keeping the knot tied in leather laces is to make sure they are knotted so the “bow” is laying across the shoe instead of up and down.
The Classics You can’t throw a shackle through a yacht club without hitting someone with classic boat shoes. These are made of leather or canvas, and many of the styles have been around for decades. Sperry and Sebago both have an entire range of shoes that fall into this category to suit different needs, but they basically fall into three different styles: slip-ons, two-eyelets and three-eyelets. Slip-on boat shoes are the easiest to get on and off, and you don’t have to worry about leather laces coming undone. The flip side of having no laces is that the foot needs to have a normal or shallow arch to be able to slide in, making slip-ons difficult for people with high arches or wide feet. If they fit, most slip-ons hug the foot tighter than laced shoes. Most people use two-eyelet shoes the same way they would slip-ons, by simply not undoing the laces; some even seize the knot with whipping twine to prevent the leather lace from coming undone. Good two-eyelet boat shoes will have a lace that completely encircles the ankle along the rim of the topline (or, opening of the shoe). While they won’t hug the feet like a slip-on, the lace will allow the shoe to tighten at the heel, which is especially good for women as well as men with narrower heels. Compared to all the other styles of shoes, two-eyelets are perhaps the least snug and won’t have much arch support or structure for running around. But they look great. Three-eyelet shoes are a good choice for people with high arches or wider feet because the laces and long tongues allow for a wider opening. However, many three-eyelet shoes fall on the higher end of the price range— with excellent Vibram soles, gold fittings and high quality leather—so they may not be the shoes to use for applying bottom paint.
The Performers Many people, young and seasoned alike, prefer the more casual and sporty look of performance boat shoes. These shoes also offer lots of stability, more aggressive grip and high-tech materials. There are many styles and manufacturers in this category, and most chandleries and marine stores will have at least a couple of brands to look at. Popular brands for performance boat shoes are Sperry Topsider, Helly Hansen, Harken, Ronstan and Nautica, but you can find good options from companies like Merrell and Teva, too—just be careful about the soles. Most of these shoes will have full laces so they are more suited for people with high arches and wide feet than those with narrow feet, who may find it hard to cinch the shoe tight enough. Performance sneakers will have lots of structure to support the feet, making them comfortable for standing and moving around on deck. They also have open-siped soles with lots of water channels and soft, grippy rubber for excellent traction. For uppers, most will have mesh and synthetic fabrics that dry quicker than leather or canvas. However, if not properly treated, they can develop some horrible smells.
The Alternatives Those looking for something other than the classic moc or high-performance sneaker will find a couple of suitable alternatives. Many boaters like the airy coolness of a sandal in the summer. Sandals are also great for wading or walking along the beach because they dry quickly.One danger with regular sandals on a boat is that they offer little structure or toe protection. One brand, Keen, has toecaps and are a popular choice for boaters. Crocs and Croc-types (the slip-on rubber/plastic “sandals” with lots of holes) are another alternative that could be great for boating. They are light and airy like sandals, have toe protection like shoes and stand up well to saltwater. They don’t have siped soles however, so they might not be suitable for serious work in wet weather. Remember, though, that the soles on these types of shoes typically last only one season—especially if worn off the boat. They are cheap, however, and come in a variety of colours. Some less-fussy boaters prefer to stick with non-boating shoes on their vessels. Just make sure that the soles are non-marking and the material and padding is relatively quick drying. Boaters in our part of the world should be cautious with the beige-coloured crepe rubber found on most court shoes and sneakers (think Chuck Taylors); while crepe rubber has great grip on hot sunny days, they’ll become hard and slippery in cold and wet weather—just when grip is needed most. Nearly every higher-end non-boating shoe brand—Rockport, Timberland, Vans will have one or two models with the classic yachtie look. While they are high quality shoes, Red Sky’s Calvin Smith feels the style and fit aren’t quite the same as Sperry or Sebago. But if the price is right and they look and fit nicely, they’ll probably do just fine.
A Final Warning Saltwater and foot sweat make a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. According to Smith, there is only one way to prevent stinky boat shoes: Rinse them with freshwater every time you use them. Many modern-styled boat shoes have antibacterial treatments, but Smith says they can wear off—though manufacturers are constantly trying to improve their materials. Once the smell is there, it’s very hard to get rid of and most solutions are temporary.Try giving them a good wash and then leave them out in the sun, as UV rays will help kill the bacteria. Some boat shoes may even be machine washable; just be sure to check the label and never put them in the dryer. Details aside, shopping for boat shoes basically comes down to deciding what your needs are for features and finding a shoe that fits, looks nice and has a good price. New styles start showing up in stores around February and continue to trickle in until the peak season in April and May.
Originally printed in Pacific Yachting February 08