Writing about boats, kayaks, SUPs, wetsuits and drysuits seemed to cover all but one very essential part of the connection to our watercraft – what we wear on our feet to protect them, keep them comfortable and firmly attached to our boats, canoes, kayaks and paddleboards, it came as somewhat of a surprise how seriously boating men and women took the issue of the right footwear for the occasion.
Paul Sperry was the inventor of the shoe we now generically call the boat shoe. A sporty guy, he married a woman who shared his enthusiasm for outdoor activities. They spent their honeymoon hunting ducks from separate blinds on Chincoteague Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Sperry designed and produced balsa wood duck decoys in the early 1920s and started a company, Sperry Natural Decoys, that sold to Abercrombie & Fitch. When his wood supplier raised the price of the wood, Sperry closed his business.
Slipping on the deck of his boat and falling overboard led to Sperry’s next business. He was already experimenting with and working on the development of a non-slip shoe when he noticed his cocker spaniel running on the ice without slipping one winter day. Having a good look at the dog’s paw pads, he noticed the grooves and incorporated cuts in the rubber soles of the brown leather two eyelet boat shoes he had created. The first pairs with black rubber soles left marks on the boat deck but they did the job. He moved on to white rubber soles and the first Top-Siders were launched. Sperry sold them to boaters from 1935 to 1939, when the U.S. Navy started ordering them for their sailors. In 1940 the U.S. Rubber Company bought Sperry Top-Sider and the boat shoe company has gone through several ownership changes before becoming part of Wolverine in 2012.
In 1946 three New Englanders founded the Sebago-Moc Company, named after the second largest lake in Maine. The Company had steady growth and was bought by Uniroyal. In the 1970s the then owner dropped the Moc from the name. They became the official supplier of boat shoes for the U.S. Sailing Team. In 2017 the Company was sold to BasicNet, an Italian shoe company.
The Sperry boat shoe that started out as a basic two-eyelet brown leather shoe with a siped white rubber sole has morphed through ownership changes in the company, selling to a larger market and becoming a fashion statement itself, into a complex mix of the practical and the expensive Gold Cup models that have gold plated eyelets and memory foam footbeds. For those who dress to impress, there are boat shoes that cost more than Sperry Gold Cup shoes – Dubarry of Ireland cost under $200, Samuel Hubbard makes boat shoes for about $250, Gokeys sold by Orvis run just under $300, Butteros made in Parma, Italy run around $400 for their ripple sole model and Calzoleria Giacopelli, a custom shoe maker in Italy has a boat shoe that sells for about $500 (used on eBay recently for over $200).
It’s not just a matter of style and how well they wear – you’ll always find one shoe that fits your foot better than the rest. One of the reasons people gave for liking the Dubarry shoes was that they felt comfortable immediately – no break-in time, well worth the money if you can spend it that way, they thought.
Today the boat shoe can loosely be defined as a shoe with a non-slip sole. Business casual and Dress Down Fridays have encouraged those of us who feel so comfortable in our boat shoes that we don’t want to dress up for work if we can’t wear our boat shoes. I asked friends, customers outside a West Marine store, visitors to the Decoy Show in Hauppauge and relatives about wearing water shoes and boat shoes – do they just wear boat shoes on the boat, how many pairs do they have and with an unlimited budget is there one boat shoe that stands out above the rest that they would like to have.
Mark has five pairs, a variety of brands, likes they all, wears them boating on the Hudson River and to the beach in the summer. He looks for style and comfort when he buys them.
Bob includes a pair of Dubarrys that his wife gave him when they were engaged. Others are Top-Siders and Dexters. He said if there had been any doubt in his mind that she was the right one, he knew when she gave him those shoes she had good taste. He wears them fishing off Point Pleasant Beach in his Hubert Johnson and to Red’s Lobster House and other Jersey shore restaurants.
Tim wears his Sebagos and Sperrys out on his Grady White on the Great South Bay, to work, and for casual wear. He looks for style and comfort and easy off and on – he has three pairs.
Bill wears his Dexters in his Boston Whaler on Peconic Bay and everywhere else, even to church. He has two pairs and looks for price, style and comfort.
Carl is happy with his Timberlands, has two pairs. He also has Top-Siders he doesn’t like as much. He saw a pair of Dubarrys he’d like to have but they’re out of his range. He wears the Timberlands for boating, work and social events if his wife doesn’t complain too much. His boat is a sailboat that he uses every chance he gets, sometimes in sloppy weather on Long Island Sound, so the shoes are a lifesaver because his deck is always wet.
Maryann has Sperry Top-Siders, Columbia, LL Bean and a pair of Eastlands. She and her husband fish offshore in their Luhrs and she values the non-slip soles on her boat shoes. She thought they were all equally good. She wears them everywhere, even to work.
Charlie bought another brand one time but has gone back to Sperry Top-Siders and has two pairs. He said he’s not much of a shopper so he likes things that last so he doesn’t have to shop so much. He wears the Top-Siders on his Contender, fishing off Jones Beach and to work on Dress Down Fridays when they dress more casually in his office.
The first shoes I remember seeing that I’d call water shoes were the neoprene booties in the NRS catalog a long time ago and then I saw a lower version, more shoe-like, that was used for kayaking. My first water shoes came as a result of renting a kayak, going out barefoot and thinking how much better it would feel if my feet would stay where I put them. When I asked people about wearing water shoes and how they use them, I was surprised that so many people wore them and how important they considered them to be.
George is a paddleboarder. He said he was told not to wear water shoes on his paddleboard, that he’d become “one with the board” if he had bare feet. That didn’t appeal to him. He bought Aqua Sox and is using them for the third year, is very happy with them.
Wondering if they had footwear for dogs, yes, there are water shoes for dogs! I went online and found Posse “Water Shoes for Dogs,” a rubber boot that snugs closed with two Velcro straps. They protect dogs’ paw pads from sharp objects and hot sand. Dog owners buy the shoes in paw widths up to 4”. Dogs wear them on the boat, on the beach and in the water.