Bare Feet, Or Not

Yea, I know, not exactly the usual AAC photo, but I figured if we were going to go with a stock image, we might as well make it cheese- and beef-cake.

I have been writing about coming alongside (docking) in the our latest Online Book for members and that, in turn, has got me into recommending at least one new cleat and/or fairlead on many boats, even though adding clutter on deck is generally something I try to avoid.

And that conflict between the huge benefits of this new cleat and/or fairlead and the dangers of deck clutter got me thinking about other potential downsides, particularly the toe-stubbing problem posed by deck fittings…and that got me thinking about seamanship in general.

No, no, really, I do have a life…really.

Be that as it may, first off, with cleats, it’s pretty easy to make a set of rounded wood blocks that are attached together with shock cord to go around the cleat to protect the errant foot. This also has the benefit of stopping lines getting caught under the cleat horn.

But now I’m going to get controversial…what else is new, you ask.

There’s also another thing we can do to prevent, or at least reduce, foot damage from deck fittings, new or existing: wear shoes. Yea, I know, going barefoot is cool (in more ways than one) and just feels like part of the cruising life…it’s also, in my opinion, unseamanlike.

Here’s why: Sooner or later a barefoot crew member will, even on a boat with the cleanest of decks, stub their toe really badly, and Murphy, being the guy he is, will make sure that happens at a critical moment in a manoeuvre, and that will distract everyone, thereby upping the chances of making a mistake.

And here’s the key point: disasters at sea are almost invariably caused, not by one big screw-up, but by a series of small mistakes added together.

Seamanship is the process of reducing the potential for those disaster-contributing mistakes.

So, for Phyllis and me, wearing good deck shoes or seaboots (not sandals or the like) is just good seamanship, particularly since modern deck shoes and seaboots have a much better grip than bare feet.

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Meet the Author

John

John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

26 comments … add one
  • Ernest Apr 14, 2017, 9:10 am

    Hi John,
    it’s less than having a life but more like keeping it, happily and unharmed.
    I once brutally crashed my foot into a back cleat, shoving the toe nail far back into the flesh, although wearing robust deck shoes. Without them I might have as well ripped my toe off completely.
    My rule whenever I have a say is that deck shoes have to be worn latest when leaving the cockpit, when underway. I’m a bit more relaxed when at anchor or at the dock, but my crew is always warned that barefoot is on their own risk, even then.

  • RDE Apr 14, 2017, 12:49 pm

    Couldn’t agree more unless your bare feet are as tough as those of a campesino from the high Andes. On the other hand a sandal like the Keen Newport H2o offers better support and protection than a conventional boat shoe and has what is advertised as a non marring sole.

    On a related note, if your boat has proper bulwarks then your midships cleats don’t need to be toe stubbers on the side decks, but can consist of horns integral to the hawse pipe. http://porttownsendfoundry.com/hawseholes

  • Gerben Van Duyl Apr 15, 2017, 7:22 am

    As I sit here, recovering from a broken toe, stubbed on a door jam just a few days ago… Could not agree more, shoes are good. We like to wear Tevas, like this one, they are open enough to ventilate and dry quickly, and they offer plenty protection. And yes, you can just jump into the brine with them, so ideal for boating. Remember we are in Australia, where we are rarely that cold that we need or want boots.
    https://www.amazon.com/Teva-Kitling-Closed-Sandal-Turkish/dp/B00KXIKIK6

  • Stein Varjord Apr 15, 2017, 7:51 am

    Hi John.

    I think your statement and on barefoot versus shoes won’t be considered controversial by many here. Protection of the toes is important, and I’d say their antislip properties even more. Barefoot isn’t always slippery, but sometimes it’s as slippery as ice. Normally, due to the mentioned Murphy, the slippery moments occur when not expected and when the resulting fall makes maximum damage/danger.

    I have to admit I’m still a total barefoot fan, most of the time. I sail to enjoy life. Bare feet is an extra bit of freedom and enjoyment. I love freedom, so when land is far away and the weather suitable, more than feet may be kept bare. 🙂

    However, if work on deck may become necessary, shoes are as obvious as harnesses​.

  • Dave Apr 15, 2017, 8:22 am

    John

    You are absolutely correct. Even worse is stepping off the boat onto the dock with out shoes. That includes docks which you are familiar.

  • Tom Westberry Apr 15, 2017, 11:44 am

    At a Safety at Sea seminar, the doctor who presented on health at sea, was asked what the most frequent injuries were. He said broken toes and lacerated feet were most common by far. Since most in my family missed the gracefulness gene, im down with the shoes.

  • James Stevens Apr 15, 2017, 1:17 pm

    Hard to argue with today’s premise. Go barefoot, injure your foot sooner or later, maybe badly.

  • Benoît Apr 15, 2017, 2:06 pm

    Experience comes really quick with this kind of mistakes so I would say :
    – don’t be bare feet ;
    – don’t run on the deck (ok I was leaving a mooring solo but still)
    – don’t run on the deck bare feet.
    The good side is that a fractured toe heals by itself, no need to see a doctor, just tape it together with the other one and ice it regularly.
    The down side is that for several days, maneuvering was painful like hell. And .. I wasn’t able to put shoes on, which was the only thing I wanted !

  • Ronnie Ricca Apr 15, 2017, 3:07 pm

    I have used some Vibram Five Finger shoes racing, because they were comfortable, lite, and grippy. They protected your feet but weren’t as cludgey as a shoe. Not that a shoe is THAT cumbersome just that these were much slimmer and glove like. You still had the possibility of jamming a toe though but cuts and the soles were pretty much protected. Something along these lines.. https://www.amazon.com/Vibram-Signa-Water-Black-Yellow/dp/B00BCO8JVK/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1458233192&sr=8-6&keywords=vibram+men%27s&tag=tapainc-20

    For cruising I always here good things about Keens. I think I would look into those or Merrell when we shove off. Right now we use street shoes like Vans that actually work pretty well with their natural rubber soles. Their made to grip long boards and skateboards.

    Regards,
    Ronnie
    s/v Redemption

    • Ronnie Ricca Apr 15, 2017, 3:20 pm

      The Keen shoes for those who want a link as well.

      KEEN Men’s Clearwater CNX Sandal,Gargoyle/Super Lemon,10 M US https://www.amazon.com/dp/B008KIA3U6/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_olM8ybH0J1TRW

      KEEN Newport h2 Sandal, Dark Earth/AcacMen’sia, 10 M US https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01H8LGGRO/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_mkM8ybNK2XV8M

      And for more warmer climates and a little less protection:

      KEEN Men’s UNEEK Flat Shoe, Camo Shitake/Golden Oak, 8 M US https://www.amazon.com/dp/B019HDKHBM/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_tpM8ybMEH6ZC6

    • Drew Frye Apr 16, 2017, 2:38 pm

      My daughter requested Five-Fingers, and I thought they were the strangest thing ever, until she got a too-big pair and I tried them kayaking. Although they are not supportive enough for my tastes for all-day sailing (love them on beach cats, through), they are perfect for kayaking and warm water wading, far better than sandals of any type. They don’t fill with rocks and they don’t get sucked off your feet by mud. In fact, they may be the safest choice, since the agility is far better than boots.

      Supportive deck shoes 95% of the time, Five-Fingers for summer kayaking (dive boots for winter kayaking), and sturdy Chaco sandals when it’s really hot (but not for vigorous sailing–back to deck shoes).

  • Jo Apr 15, 2017, 3:47 pm

    I tried sailing with shoes. It was safer, I hurt my toes less, specially at the beginning of a trip.

    But I gave up again, simply because I enjoy being barefoot. If I want safe, sailing as a whole is a bad idea, just like most other enjoyable things. I’d better stay in a cocoon somewhere inland, far away from the sea, traffic and earth-quakes.

    So to compensate, I move in general a lot more consciously and carefully on a boat. I might be slower than with shoes, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

  • Steve Apr 15, 2017, 9:16 pm

    Shoes and gloves are the only required clothing required on my boat and gloves only when underway.

    • Charles L Starke Apr 16, 2017, 4:32 am

      What about a hat?

  • Steve Apr 16, 2017, 8:01 am

    I said ‘required’ Hat and sunscreen are up to the individual

  • John Apr 16, 2017, 8:14 am

    Hi All,

    Well that’s interesting, I expected more push back judging from the number of boaters I see out there without shoes on.

    A couple of people suggested general use sports type shoes. Each to their own, but I really do think that this is a piece of gear where the extra money for purpose-built boating shoes is worth it for the much better grip.

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m old enough to remember when Sperry (I think it was) introduced the original Top Sider and what a safety break through they were.

    That said, over the years I have moved away from the old leather moccasin type to a more sports type shoe made of synthetics with better support.

  • Marc Dacey Apr 16, 2017, 8:40 am

    I wear grippy sandals for the most part as my feet are too wide for most Topsider styles and Gill seaboots when the decks are awash. The only time I’ve damaged a toenail is while using a dock cart to transfer stuff to the boat. Ow! But then we have “coffee can” welded in bollards with the horns higher than toes. A Herreshoff-style cleat without a stand off pad or a surround of the type you mention could really do a mischief at speed. Having broken a foot and lower leg on sloping ice, I can report that speed to be significant and usually involuntary, so a feral crouch, a teather, and decent footwear are the orders for the watch.

  • Mark Long Apr 16, 2017, 3:46 pm

    I also wear various water-shoes for toe protection and added grip. Something to keep an eye on, I bought the Keen Mckenzie last time as they have a mesh to help keep the stones out during dinghy landings and surf walks, but they also have a thin insole that when wet will slide around and bunch up under your arch or behind the heel. I haven’t found a sturdy waterproof insole yet, let me know if anyone has a recommendation.

  • Eric Klem Apr 17, 2017, 11:31 am

    Hi John,

    We take a slightly softer approach but agree in spirit. Our cockpit is pretty free of foot dangers so we don’t require shoes in the cockpit underway or anywhere aboard when not underway. Out of the cockpit, we require shoes and if it is rough or there is moisture, we require them in the cockpit. The key to making this work for us has been having shoes that are easy to slip on that we like (in my case Chacos) that are always stored in a little spot in the cockpit so there are very low barriers to putting them on. I also have a secondary motive as a tall guy which is that my height is very close to the headroom in many boats and often having shoes on is enough of a difference that I can’t stand up properly. It is kind of like our opinion on davits, we think that they are great for most coastal work but you have to have the discipline to put the dinghy somewhere else offshore.

    I suspect responses also have something to do with the climate where people sail, bare feet or sandals are only a consideration for 2-3 months a year for us and in many places they never would be.

    Eric

  • Tom Jelsing Apr 17, 2017, 3:02 pm

    I would recommend Crocks, which I think is the ultimate shoe for use on a boat. Not pretty, but you stand steadfast onto the GRP and teak and no problem that the shoes get wet. I wear a pair up each year.

    • Stein Varjord Apr 17, 2017, 3:14 pm

      Hi Tom.

      I’ve also used Crocs, both genuine and fake versions. Quite comfy, but my experience is that when the feet are wet, they slide around inside the crocks, quite a lot too. Also, i have noticed that the sometimes grip quite well and other times, notably on wet smooth surfaces, they give the illusion of stepping on wet ice. My choice has been to say they’re ok in harbour, never at sea.

      • Tom Jelsing Apr 17, 2017, 3:46 pm

        Hi Stein

        My experience is actually the opposite. On the boat I stand unwavering firm but at the harbor the Crocs can be icy on a hard metal surface, for example a stainless steel plate on a bridge or a finely polished concrete floor.

  • John Apr 19, 2017, 7:16 am

    Hi All,

    In view of the comments above, I reiterate my recommendation that purpose made deck shoes and boots are the only way to go. One fall will negate the cost benefits of using generic footwear on a boat.

  • David Wright Apr 22, 2017, 5:03 am

    I am late to this conversation…but I gave up the “barefoot in the tropics” illusion decades ago after injuring my left foot in Bora Bora-(toe stub, ashore no less), right foot in St Barth’s-(cut on beach crap)-and again my left, (another toe stub aboard Don Street’s yawl Iolaire on a cleat in the early ’70’s). I now wear appropriate footwear on a boat or ashore. Period.

    • John Apr 22, 2017, 7:46 am

      Hi David,

      Good point. You are like me, have to learn stuff the hard way!

  • Matt May 3, 2017, 9:43 pm

    As usual, I’m going to go with “it depends”.
    If we’re out exploring, I usually pick some kind of leather-and-mesh hiking footwear from MEC. The ones I have now grip about as well on a wet deck as “proper” boat shoes, but are considerably more durable for dock-and-trail use (I walk about 100 km a month, and I hate getting shoes that last less than two or three years).
    When work’s being done, it’s time for CSA-approved steel-toes. Katy and I both have some of these in running-shoe form factor. Very handy when dealing with propane tanks, trailer tires, lumber, outboard engines, etc.
    For launching and retrieving at the beach or ramp, we have cheap not-quite-disposable water shoes to protect against zebra mussels and other toe-cutters. They only last a season, but they’re also only seven dollars.
    There are also plenty of times when we don’t bother wearing anything, but this isn’t such a risk on most of our family fleet as the boats we use most frequently were designed with going barefoot in mind – so their cleats etc. are all well clear of possible travel paths, and things you might stub a toe on are all sloped and rounded to gently deflect an accidental kick.

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