When we think of marine footwear, most of us conjure up the classic oiled-leather, moccasin-style boat shoe with a gum-coloured, super-grippy, non-marking sole; the kind with leather lacing, brass eyelets, oversized stitching and an intense brownness that stains your feet like a smoker’s fingers. While boat shoes of this very traditional yacht club style continue to be adored by people who know the Commodore and have aspirations to ride horses, there’s no doubt that the industry now offers a much broader choice of alternatives.

Chandleries are full of street-style trainers and ‘amphibious’ mesh shoes with quick drainage systems and easy-dry fabrics. Marine companies have created footwear ranges encompassing shoes that combine serious marine practicalities with attractive, non-specialist styling. And even mainstream brands like Nike and Adidas have got in on the act with shoes that mimic the look (if not the practical ability) of marine footwear. In short, with an ever-expanding range of technical fabrics and design approaches, the boater in pursuit of a shoe has never enjoyed greater choice.

The price of boat shoes

For those whose boating activities require a boot, you can get a grippy, waterproof rubber model with a polyester lining for around £50. At this level, however, you’re basically looking at marinised wellies, so for both warmth and breathability, you need to move up the scale. Fabrics like breathable leather, Gore-Tex and Cordura (which is essentially upmarket nylon) are a much better bet for preventing sweat as well as water from spoiling your day.

Pricier boots (from £100 to £300) also tend to offer more substantial linings and thicker midsoles, both of which help improve the thermal performance of your footwear; and sizing options also tend to increase as the budget grows, with adjustable calves and half-sizes making the fit just that bit more bespoke.

As for shoes, mainstream prices range from £25 for basic canvas deck shoes to around £160 for the most advanced and desirable models, again with a similar progression in terms of materials and fitting options. However, while boots are usually oversized to enable the use of thick, thermally insulating socks, shoes tend to correlate quite closely with (or come up slightly smaller than) the sizes of non-specialist footwear. So while Internet shopping is the way most of us now shop, trying before you buy remains an essential part of a successful marine footwear purchase.

Men’s boat shoes

Fellas, I know it’s tempting but don’t be tight. If you enjoy boating all year round, you need at least two styles of shoe and if you want them to survive, neither should be worn when you’re out and about in town. You’ll destroy your soles and you’ll look like a nauseating Shoreditch socialite. Try to break your shoes in slowly around the home before heading out for a day at sea; and if you absolutely must wear socks with your deck shoes, buy a proper pair of boat shoe socks (yes, they really do exist). As for prices, you can expect to pay 10 to 15 per cent more than women for much the same thing. Don’t cry about it. That’s just the way it is.

Women’s boat shoes

A woman’s foot is not the same as a man’s. Aside from being considerably more pleasant, the heel is narrow in relation to the forefoot and the relatively low weight of a woman enables the use of less dense cushioning in the sole. While plenty of manufacturers (and buyers) ignore this truth, it’s always best to hedge your bets by ignoring small men’s models in favour of female-specific product lines from specialist manufacturers.

Some of the best include Helly Hansen, Sebago, Chatham and Timberland. Designs tend to be lighter and more flexible, sizes tend to be more specific (often with variations in width as well as half-sizes) and the styles are suitably prolific. With its moccasin construction that wraps the foot in a single piece of leather, plus three width fittings, lots of half-size options and a broad choice of fabrics and colours, Sebago’s Dockside shoes are fine examples of their type.

Six top boat shoes

1. Gul Portland
The Portland boat shoes come with a fully breathable cotton canvas upper, padded tongue and collar and a non-marking rubber outsole with vulcanised construction for a secure bond. It’s obviously quite a lightweight, fairweather shoe, but with marine-friendly traction, decent style and a giveaway price, its merits are beyond doubt. RRP: £25.00.

Gul's Portland boating shoe canvas

Gul's basic canvas boating shoe.

2. Gill Deck Tech Race Trainer
Gill’s non-absorbent, quick-drying Deck Techs encompass a removable dual-density insole, anti-microbial treatment, reflective detailing and an abrasion-resistant toe designed to offer a hundred times more durability than standard leather. RRP: £89.00.

Gill boating trainer

Gill's boating trainer.

3. Helly Hansen Hydropower 4 Shoe
This versatile new deck shoe design is lightweight, breathable and flexible, with open-mesh construction, structural foot protection and a removable midsole with a quick-dry antibacterial surface. Available for both men and women, the provision of half-sizes and a street-savvy aesthetic are the icing on the cake. RRP: £90.00.

Helly Hansen boating shoe

Helly Hansen's boating trainer.

4. Musto GP Race Shoe
Musto’s very modern race shoes come with suede/mesh uppers, a thick, grippy stub-resistant sole and good comfort for recreational cruisers as well as sail racers. RRP: £99.99.

Musto technical boating shoe

Musto's race shoe - as with other brands, Musto offers a range of very technical shoes as well as traditional designs.

5. Timberland Icon 3-eye padded collar
Timberland boat shoes are an iconic brand and with its 360-degree lacing system, premium leather lining and rugged rubber outsole, this well established classic doesn’t need to change the recipe. It’s all about fine materials, tough construction and good looks. Even at £110, it remains a high-value proposition. RRP: £110.00.

Timberland boat shoe

Timberland have certainly dominated the traditional boat shoe market.

6. Sebago Crest Docksides
Sebago’s famous Docksides are given an extra dose of appeal in these flagship ‘Crest’ models, with sheepskin lining, cushioned memory foam, polished detailing and classical handmade moccasin construction in leather, nubuck or a combination of both. RRP: £149.99.

Sebago docksiders

Sebago is one of the other iconic boat shoe brands, their Docksides being particularly famous.

boating boots

Three examples of boating boots. A technical boot from Gill on the left; Chatham's budget boot in the centre; Dubarry's Ultima boot on the right.

Three top boating boots

1. Chatham Rig Waterproof Sailing Boot
With a retail price £100 lower than the market’s more prestigious models (and frequent dealer discounts available), these British leather sailing boots, with breathable Cordura panels, bamboo lining, rubber sole and twin adjustment straps, represent uncommonly good value for money. RRP: £149.00.

2. Gill Performance Breathable Boot 914
Gill’s flagship waterproof ocean sailor’s boots come with ankle impact shields, robust grab handles and a soft mesh lining – and while they may lack the classical luxury of leather, they make up for it with great protection, breathability, user-friendliness and price. RRP: £169.00.

3. Dubarry Ultima
These high quality marine boots come with soft, easy-fit leather, a moisture-wicking Goretex lining, a high-grip dual-compound sole and a Lycra expansion panel to accommodate bigger calves. And if £250 is too great a stretch, then check out Dubarry’s more affordable Cordura-equipped ‘Newport’ boots. RRP: £249.00.

Top tips for buying boat shoes

  1. While there is an endless range of styles and colours for both men and women, it’s important (particularly with traditional deck shoes) that you buy a pair built for the foot shape of your own gender.

  2. As the budget increases, look for additional features like a flexible, sealable boot top design, heel and toe reinforcements and fabrics with optimised breathability and (where appropriate) greater thermal performance.

  3. Traditional razor-cut (siped) soles are by far your best bet, not just for reliable grip on a wet surface and the avoidance of aquaplaning, but also for preventing a scratched deck from trapped grit or shale. The pay-off for the traction of a good marine sole, however, is relatively rapid wear during everyday use, so they are best saved for boating trips only.

  4. Marine boots are designed to accommodate a medium weight sock so avoid picking a larger size than you would normally take. By contrast, many traditional deck shoes are comparatively snug, so always try before you buy.

  5. If you go boating on a regular basis, buy two pairs of boating shoes and alternate them so each gets a chance to fully dry out.

  6. Don’t forget to attend to your boat. As far as possible, eradicate all trip hazards and ensure that the walking surfaces are fit for purpose, because no shoe (however good) will get decent purchase on a shiny wet curve of moulded fibreglass.

Written by: Alex Smith
Alex Smith is a journalist, copywriter and magazine editor with a long history in boating and a happy addiction to the water. He’s worked on boats, lived on boats, bought boats, sold boats and – when he’s not actually on board a boat – he can generally be found in his Folkestone office, tapping away at the computer and gazing out to sea.