Choosing shoes for sailing is important, and can be difficult.
I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent looking for the perfect boat shoes for sailing. I’ve been through all sorts of options, from expensive dinghy racing boots, to cheap Converse Chuck Taylors, and of course, Sperry topsiders.
Really, everyone just has to find what works best for them, and their own situation. Feet, boats and sailing conditions, vary too much to give any “best” designation. But, there are some critical things to pay attention to when looking for the best boat shoes for your own unique needs.
First, you need to think about when, and how you’ll use the shoe.
This might sound silly, but it’s not. There are an infinite number of ways to go boating, or sailing. From temperature to weather, to wave action and boat heel, there are so many different variables.
What Type of Boat Will You Be On?
The best shoe for dinghy racing is not necessarily the best shoe for big-boat racing, or for cruising around on a motorboat. The best winter boot for offshore sailing will not be the well suited for fast and agile dinghy sailing.
So, you should really consider the primary use of a boat shoe before going any further.
It’s hard to say that one single element is most important; a great boat shoe must really check several boxes.
Where to Find Boat Shoes?
I don’t know about you, but I hate shopping. It doesn’t matter what kind I’m looking for — it’s always a challenge. I guess the only “easy” shoe choice for me would be Rainbows, my absolute, all-time favorites.
Boat shoes can be REALLY difficult to find because there aren’t many specialty boat stores near me. Before moving to Florida, boat stores were even more difficult to find.
In my experience, West Marine is generally the best place for me to start my shopping process. There is usually a store location nearby with a large selection of shoes to try on.
Amazon also has a pretty impressive selection of shoes.
Note: When I order shoes online I usually buy several pairs and return the ones that aren’t a good fit, to avoid dragging the process into a three-month ordeal or ordering and returning.
Life is easier today because of the internet and free home delivery, and returns. There are also some great online speciality boat stores, which I like to support.
Non-Slip, Grip and Traction
One of the primary functions of a good boat shoe is to provide traction on wet boat decks.
Unfortunately, some boat shoes have poorly designed, hard plastic on the bottom of their soles. This plastic is often added to help provide arch support, and to strengthen the bottom part of a sole. Be sure to pay attention to this feature, because it can be very slippery.
I haven’t personally seen this happen, but those hard plastic and metal bits can also scratch marine fiberglass.
Non-marking soles are made with specialized materials which won’t leave marks on surfaces. This is important in many settings, including gyms, basketball courts and on boat decks.
Most boat shoes have non-marking soles.
For boats in particular, marking soles are a major problem because it can be hard and time consuming to clean shoe marks from a non-skid deck. The countless ridges in non-skid, which give good traction, make it very difficult to remove shoe marks. It might even cause damage to gelcoat, if abrasive cleaner must be used to remove the marks.
Most boat shoes use natural rubber soles, which provide great traction in wet conditions, and are non-marking.
Although all boat owners are different, it is generally considered impolite to board a boat while wearing shoes with marking soles. If you’ve been invited as a guest on a boat, you should ask about what shoes to wear, and what to bring as a guest.
If you’re going on a boat for the first time, it’s good “boat ettiquette” to ask the boat owner what shoes you should wear. Bad boat manners can set an awkward, uncomfortable tone for a day, and might even ruin day on the water.
Every boat owner is different, and everyone has their own preferences. Some captains, especially aboard race boats, insist that everyone wear shoes for safety. They may not even allow barefoot guests.
This might seem extreme, but it’s sensible. I have had, and treated, many bloody feet from stubbed toes. There are many hazards on a boat, and the boat is usually moving. This, combined with slippery, wet boat decks, means that people are often to lose their balance and slip. Good boat shoes, with great traction, can make a huge difference here and may even save a life.
Boat shoes can come with and without ankle support, depending on the model. Some people prefer ankle support in a boat shoe, and some don’t.
Offshore sailing boots often rise up to mid-calf, so feet can stay dry amid boarding waves.
On a sailing dinghy, ankle support may come at the expense of mobility, and so people have different opinions. Many popular dinghy sailing boots come with a “high-top” option, which provides some ankle support.
Boat shoes are often worn for long periods of time, often while standing and moving around.
You may also be performing athletic maneuvers, if aboard a racing sailboat. Good boat shoes must be comfortable, so be sure to test them well before committing to a long day on the water.
You should also be sure to “break them in” before extended use aboard a boat, because new shoes may cause blisters.
If you have wide feet or toes, it may be challenging to find a good-fitting boat shoe; keep looking until you find the right one!
Boat shoes are hard to shop for because they tend to be sized differently than normal footwear.
Be sure to try them on, if possible, or at least read online comments before buying. Pay attention to see if a brand tends to run larger or smaller than usual. This is especially true for width and toe length, too!
Some boat shoes don’t require socks. But, offshore sailing boots present a unique challenge. They may be worn with socks, and in many different weather conditions.
On a cold, 3 a.m. night watch, a thick, dry and warm pair of wool socks can feel like heaven. And, during a sweltering summer monsoon, one would definitely NOT want thick wool socks.
When sizing an offshore sailing boot, you should seriously consider when, and where, you are most likely to be wearing your boots. If you think you’ll be wear them in the cold with socks, be sure to try them on with, and without socks, to find the best fit.
Easy to Put On and Off
Good boat shoes should strike a balance between being sturdy, and also easy to take off.
Many boaters and sailor like Converse All-Star tennis shoes because they can be tied, and are unlikely to be lost overboard.
On the other end of that spectrum, many slip-on shoes, like Crocs, may be easy to take on and off, but may not provide much sturdy protection for the foot.
Slip-on shoes can be a tripping hazard. Further, they may be lost overboard of they accidentally slip off while boarding a dinghy, or while sitting on the “rail” with your feet hanging off.
Should You Wear Flip-Flops on a Boat?
This is controversial, but the truth is that flip flops really should not be worn on a boat, if possible. Trust me, I love flip flops, so it pains me to say this.
Flip flops should not be worn on boats because they’re unsafe. Most flip flops don’t have good soles, so they won’t grip a boat deck well. And, most importantly, flip flops don’t protect against common foot injuries like cuts or broken toes.
Flip flops are great for the sailing lifestyle in other ways, though. They are great for slipping on and off on a beach dinghy landing, and you can easily rinse away sand. Just don’t use them as primary boat shoes.
If you do wear flip flops aboard, be sure to thoroughly clean any oil or other contamination before bringing them onboard.
Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars
Converse Chuck Taylors are a surprising cult favorite among the sailboat racing crowd. They’re preferred because they are secure, inexpensive, and have non-marking rubber soles with great traction.
They are especially popular with sailboat fore-deck crews, who work in wet and slippery conditions at the front of a sailboat.
Many folks have a dedicated pair to leave aboard, so they never have to risk contamination from an oily parking lot. Sailors also recommend “scuffing” the bottom of new shoes on gravel or rocks, to etch the new rubber and help increase traction.
Maintenance for Boat Shoes
If at all possible, boat shoes should never be worn in streets, parking lots, or places where they might be contaminated with oil.
Dirty, contaminated shoes should not be taken aboard a boat because oil is very slippery, and poses a serious hazard on a wet, slippery boat deck.
This is also true for sand, because it can be difficult and inconvenient to fully remove from a boat, once introduced.
Boat shoes must also be taken care of to prevent unwanted smells and corrosion, if there are any metal bits.
If there is metal on a shoe, be sure to rinse it with fresh water after exposure to salt water. Otherwise, metal grommets and decorative pieces will become corroded and pitted over time.
Because natural bodies of water have bacteria and organic material, wet boat shoes often smell after getting wet. Among sailboat racers, this can be a big problem. Some go to crazy lengths to avoid smelly shoes, like storing them in the freezer. To prevent mold, mildew and disgusting smells, clean boat shoes thoroughly after wearing, and dry them before storing.