Sailing Footwear: Why It Matters and How to Choose

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Sailing, like all recreational and sporting activities, implies having the right gear. Clothing and footwear are the two least understood categories for most newbies, and the sheer range on offer may be confusing at first. You’ll want something that provides adequate protection, safety, and comfort when out on the water. But also something durable, versatile for different uses, and within budget. 

Footwear Basics

Footwear used in dinghy and yacht sailing differs vastly in how it’s used. It varies in many areas, but mostly in the level of grip and protection it provides. 

For general yachting purposes, the standard models of sailing boots will cover most bases, but there are also lighter and more agile options, as well as traditional deck shoes or docksides that have also gained popularity as the go-to choice in coastal areas. Dinghy varieties, where more movement is required, are covered with hiking boots, while lighter and more flexible skiff booties are what you want in trapezing and competition-level racing. 

There are also general-purpose hybrid boots as well as more affordable wetsuit boots. So, quite a selection to get your sailing juices running. Just remember, going barefoot or with flashy flip-flops might seem fun, but you’ll regret that choice on the first slip or when your feet or toes get caught in ropes, pulleys, and handles.

Why opt for a Decent Pair of Sailing Boots?

If you spend more time on the water, either leisurely cruising or full-on racing, you’ll need different footwear for different purposes. Boots keep your feet protected from the elements, meaning water, salt spray, and sunburns, as well as dry, so you can comfortably negotiate swift movements in and around the vessel. 

All have decent grip and prevent slipping on wet decks, so mishaps are less likely. And they’re sturdy enough to prevent scratches and cuts when scraping against rope and boat hardware. Lastly, boots need to be comfortable for longer periods, both off and onshore.

Boots that Make a Difference

For casual sailing, you can’t go wrong even with the most basic and affordable pair of classic rubber boots. These are sturdily built to withstand the rigours of occasional bouts on the water lasting a few days at most but still get the job done. They’re waterproof, have decent comfort for the price, and will last. While lacking in warmth or breathability, they’re a good choice for the recreational sailor and any guests they have onboard. 

Spend a little more, and there’s more attention to detail, with features like wraparound soles, lining in the midsoles for more comfort, and adjustable straps to ensure a snug yet comfortable fit. Most mid-tier sailing boots are made of high-quality neoprene, the same material in wetsuits, so inherently waterproof as well as flexible and paired with high-grip rubber soles. 

Move up to a leather upper, Gore-Tex linings, and composite soles if need the best possible sailing boots when the price isn’t an issue. With these, you get the best comfort, warmth, and insulation levels, so suitable for wearing for longer periods. 

Moreover, they provide the highest levels of heel and toe protection when scrimmaging around the deck in speed, as well as the best grip so you stay on your feet at all times. Almost all will have added features like loops to get them off or on in a jiffy. The only downside is that you pay for everything you get. 

Choosing the Right Boots

Being an essential part of all aspects of sailing, a good pair of sailing boots should be based on the following factors: 

  • High grip with a non-slip sole – the best traction on wet surfaces and with vessels facing rougher seas are offered by boat boots that have rubber or composite soles and with tread patterns that stick the boots to boat surfaces. You’ll want the best grip your budget offers, but even entry-level all-rubber boots do a good job here. 
  • Water resistance vs waterproofing -rubber boots are water-resistant but not completely waterproof due to their open designs, so if dry and warm feet are your priority at all times, spend a little more on neoprene or leather uppers and with lacing or straps so yet can get comfy. These materials not only deal with water but are also breathable, so you’ll keep cooler over the long run. 
  • Quick drying – to prevent soggy socks and cold feet, also get shoes and boots that dry quickly. 
  • Durability and protection – boots that are well made, with ample amounts of stitching in the right places will last the longest even under more demanding conditions. The combination of hard-wearing materials helps in this respect, but so do minor details and proprietary tech from competing brands. Boots that undergo thorough testing before hitting the shelves will demand a premium but are worth the extra. On a related note, more expensive boots have reinforced ankle, toe, heel and arch support to prevent injury. 
  • Non-marking soles- no boat owner wants eyesores left from dirty or marked footwear. Rubber soles are best in this sense, especially for racing applications. Avoid boots, shoes, sneakers or sandals with more aggressive tread patterns and harder soles. 
  • Fit and Comfort- these determine whether you’ll enjoy wearing the boots over a certain time or not at all. Before buying a good idea is to try on boots, socks included, to see if they’re comfy and have a snug feel. Uncomfortable boots can not only cause unease and blistering but are unsafe too. 

Getting the Right Size 

The last thing to consider is getting the right size. Generally, boots for sailing are true to size, but there can be slight differences between different manufacturers. There should be enough wiggle room for toes and heels, but not so much that they affect stability and grip and that the boots stay on in rougher water. If you find you’re between sizes, the reasonable thing is to go a size up. But as with fit and comfort, trying before buying is often the best advice.

Just keep in mind that some brands offer unisex as well as men’s and women’s footwear with particular sizing and differences in designs to anatomically suit different foot shapes. 

Summing Up

While there are dozens of types of footwear that do a good job when out on the water, for serious sailing purposes, you’ll want a good pair of well-designed and durable boots. These should be waterproof, have good grip levels, be breathable, and most importantly, be comfortable enough to be worn over longer periods. Particular design features like the varying choice of materials in addition to straps, gaiters, insulation lining, and reinforced toes and heels keep your feet dry and protected but can up the price. Consider how often and where you’ll be sailing, and get boots in the right size from dedicated sailing stores. 

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