Most people agree that they should buy shoes that are comfortable and fit their feet. But, there are many boaters who don't realize they should buy shoes that not only fit their feet but also their boat.
Some believe that the design of boat shoes originated with Native Americans who wore moccasins made of a water-resistant form of leather with a low profile and laces on the side to keep them snug. Later, the leather top part was treated with oils to keep out the water and the soles were made of a non-skidding rubber. They were modified to be more like loafers so they were easy to slip on and off quickly and boaters started wearing them as boat shoes.
But what about today? What shoes are best for you AND your boat?
In 1935, while trying to design a shoe with improved traction, Paul Sperry (an avid sailor) noticed that his dog was able to run easily over ice and snow. Examining his dog's feet, Sperry noticed that there was a pattern of grooves or cracks on the dog's paws. This inspired the herringbone pattern of grooves on the sole of his Top-Sider™. He implemented a process of splitting or siping a sole. Siping (the process of cutting thin slits across a rubber surface to improve traction in wet or icy conditions) was invented and patented in the 1920's by John Sipe. This process was also applied to vehicle tires in the 1950's.
Shoe manufacturers such as; Sperry, Henri Lloyd, Bass, Dexter and others currently offer boat shoes with traction in an assortment of styles. These shoes have good arch and heel support, soft leather uppers and slit-soles. Most have laces to keep the shoe on your foot protecting your feet and toes from cleats. They don't fall off, so are perfect for maneuvering on wet sailboat decks and docks.
Sailboat decks are crowned, often wet, and populated with cleats, chocks, blocks, winches and lines. Many times the space is confined.
Because this type of boat shoe was so suitable for sailboats, it became accepted as the boat/deck shoe of choice for sailors.
On Power Boats
In the 80's, boat shoes became fashionable and popular for all boats, but they aren't required on most recreational power boats. The decks are flatter, there are rails further aft on the side decks, and there isn't the need to be on deck like there is on a sailboat. The exceptions would be while anchoring and tending lines and fenders. Even then, the deck is bigger, flatter, finished with non-skid with fewer obstacles to trip over and more rails to hold on to. Other types of shoes are more suitable on power boats.
Back then, I remember working Boat Shows. The rule was "boat shoes only" to board the boats. In our exhibit with 28' - 40' Yachts, it didn't take me long to ask boaters to remove their "boat/deck shoes". Why? Because the narrow slits in the sole had picked up sand and gravel from the parking lot and, as they walked across the floors and decks, opening up the slits, the sand and gravel was dropping out and getting ground into the fiberglass, teak and carpets.
Years later, most exhibitors followed our lead and required sock feet to board. Even today you will probably have to leave your deck shoes on the floor or dock along with all the other footwear before boarding a boat at a Boat Show.
Deck/boat shoes may not necessarily be the right shoe for your power boat. What you need is a soft shoe that will breathe and keep your feet cool, while fitting snugly and comfortably to your foot. Beware of dark soles that leave black marks on the deck. They need to have a soft rubber or synthetic sole without grooves that attract, carry and drop sand and dirt yet have a good grip on the deck surface to minimize the possibility of slipping. Ideally, they should be able to be slipped on and off easily for entering the cabin or cockpit depending on the layout of your boat and proximity to the gravel parking lot. The slip-on feature also allows you to be ready in seconds to tend lines, fenders and anchors or for stepping onto the dock.
Many power boaters prefer bare feet all the time on the boat and only put on their shoes when leaving but I don't recommend this as the chance of foot injury is too great-I've seen it happen.
On Fishing Boats
If you have a runabout or daycruiser that you use mainly for fishing, your footwear should be more suitable to stepping into the water and protecting your feet from the stones on the bottom when you have to maneuver the boat in shallow water or when ramping in or out. You'll want them to be more like swimming or water shoes that will drain easily and dry quickly. Maybe rubber boots would be appropriate for you.
Which Shoes are Best for you?
Shoes that are definitely out are high heels, boots, dress shoes of all kinds with smooth leather soles and black heels that will slip and mark the deck. Thongs and flip-flops offer no protection to your toes when they accidentally collide with a cleat or stanchion. Boaters wearing these often suffer from twisted ankles, broken toes, cuts and injuries from falls so they aren't suitable boat shoes.
Boat/deck shoes are really suitable for sailboats. For performance boats they may be suitable for you because there aren't a lot of hand holds or rails and the decks are often wet from spray.
For our power cruiser, I prefer a soft leather sandal with a strap around the heel and a non-skid rubberized sole that doesn't hold sand, gravel or dirt. I never have to worry about them falling off, yet I can slip them on and off in seconds. They dry quickly, protect my feet, keep them cool and are very comfortable.
Some power boaters prefer (and swear by) the Crocs™ with heel straps. Made from a closed-cell resin, they are comfortable, lightweight, ergonomic and odor resistant and easy to clean. They are less expensive, come in a variety of colours, and you can wear them anywhere-on deck, in the water, to the store, wherever.
Other boaters-both power and sail, prefer old fashioned running shoes without the narrow sand-holding grooves and they seem quite happy with them.
Which shoes are right for you and your boat?
There is so much choice today when it comes to buying dress shoes, casual shoes, sport shoes or boat/deck shoes. There are hundreds of styles to choose from. But, which ones are right for you?
- Do you have to cross a sandy or graveled area to get to your boat?
- Would you like to simplify cleaning aboard your boat?
- Do you ever worry about slipping on the deck
- or twisting your ankle
- or getting slivers from the dock
- or stubbing your toe on a cleat
- or losing your shoes in the harbour?
You should ask all these questions and more before shopping for your boating shoes. Maybe the solution is to have two pair of shoes-one pair for "on the boat" and the other for "off the boat". Many schools now have an "inside shoes and outside shoes" rule to reduce the maintenance of the floors and it works for them.
Think about your boating activities when you go shopping for boat shoes, and perhaps consider safety and cleaning over style.
Buy shoes that fit both your feet AND your boat.