Enter the Keen Shoe

In our ongoing quest to discover optimal personal gear, we think this California company is on to something with its hybrid sandal-shoe.


Three years have passed since we visited the realm of sailing footwear (see “The State of Our Soles,” Aug. 15, 2001), and as you might imagine, many new products have come to the market in the intermim. We’ve seen the maturation of the sailing sandal, the refinement of the engineered sneaker, and the duration of the venerable sailing moccassin, known generically as topsiders. (Sperry Top-Sider remains a registered brand of the Stride Rite Corporation; an intriguing history underlies the development of that product’s famous siped soles involving avid sailor and inventor Paul Sperry who in 1935 hit upon the idea of razor cuts in rubber shoe soles after observing his cocker spaniel bound about over ice and snow). 

Enter the Keen Shoe

Not much has changed in the topsider genre, save for some breathable and self-draining features. And the engineered sneaker, though continually evolving, persists in being relatively bulky and thus a liability despite the substantial protection it affords. Fortunately, there’s promise in the area of the sailing sandal.

When we last issued an opinion about sailing shoes, we wrote that “the jury will always be out on the issue of whether sandals can be proper deck shoes….The danger lies in the open design—a line caught between the sole and toes can be a real problem, and sandals offer little in the way of physical or thermal protection for the feet.”

That outlook endures, which is why we were pleased to stumble upon a new product from Keen Footwear in Alameda, CA. Co-designer Martin Keen, like Paul Sperry, is both an inventor and avid sailor, and word is he developed this shoe expressly to protect sailors’ feet.

We purchased Keen’s Newport model at a local shoe store. Admittedly, the $89 price tag was intimidating, but the intial comfort of the fit helped to ease some of that pain.

This product’s departure from the norm (and from sailing sandals we’ve tested in the past) is based upon its molded toe, fashioned from synthetic rubber, which protects pedal digits from the on-board obstructions that abound on most vessels.

The Newport’s tire-like soles consist of siped panels divided by 1/8″-deep channels. Keen uses the term “lugs” to describe the knobs lining the side of the sole, providing additional traction. During our initial tests on non-skid surfaces inclined at 45 degrees, the shoes held well whether oriented toe-down, heel-down, or sideways.

The Newport is fitted with elastic cord “laces” that draw the fingers of the shoe’s uppers together and hold that tension by way of a spring-loaded cord lock. Sailors accustomed to the more open, Teva-style sandal may find these fingers slightly constricting, but they do offer additional protection for the skin with ample ventilation. There are also reflective pull tabs above the heel and at the tip of the tongue.

The uppers are fashioned from waterproof nubuck. (Another Keen model—the H2—has uppers made from polyester webbing, which purportedly dries faster and absorbs less moisture than the nubuck.)

For sailors in the northern latitudes, these are strictly summer shoes, but that, and the price, are so far the only drawbacks. If you can get two solid seasons of wear out of either model, they’ll be worth the dough.

Contact – Keen Footwear, 800/509-KEEN; www.keenfootwear.com.

Darrell Nicholson
Practical Sailor has been independently testing and reporting on sailboats and sailing gear for more than 50 years. Supported entirely by subscribers, Practical Sailor accepts no advertising. Its independent tests are carried out by experienced sailors and marine industry professionals dedicated to providing objective evaluation and reporting about boats, gear, and the skills required to cross oceans. Practical Sailor is edited by Darrell Nicholson, a long-time liveaboard sailor and trans-Pacific cruiser who has been director of Belvoir Media Group's marine division since 2005. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license, has logged tens of thousands of miles in three oceans, and has skippered everything from pilot boats to day charter cats. His weekly blog Inside Practical Sailor offers an inside look at current research and gear tests at Practical Sailor, while his award-winning column,"Rhumb Lines," tracks boating trends and reflects upon the sailing life. He sails a Sparkman & Stephens-designed Yankee 30 out of St. Petersburg, Florida. You can reach him at darrellnicholson.com.