Choosing the right sea boot is a bit like picking a spouse. It gets personal, and if you don’t get it right you can feel the chill and the friction for a long time. Getting it right consists of making three correct choices, which are, in order—
Use. Will you be cruising the coast, crossing oceans, big-boat racing, or scooting around the buoys in a Laser? And just where will you be doing it?
In long-distance racing, you’ll find yourself continually at the mercy of whatever Mother Nature deals you, and the boots you bring are the ones you’ll be stuck with for the duration. If they fill with water on Day One, they’ll still be cold and clammy on Day Four. In this case, a tall boot (14″-16″) with good insulation is best.
If coastal cruising, when conditions are more benign, watches are shorter, and there are chances to put in for the night and dry things out, a shorter boot—calf-height—may be better.
Similar logic applies to what you usually do on a boat. If you stand long hours at the helm, or sit on the rail without moving around, a tall boot with better insulation is called for. If you mainly work the foredeck, you need something lighter, more flexible, and more maneuverable.
The weight of a too-high boot can make a big difference. A three-pound boot is a lot more of a burden to a 110-pound crewmember than it is to someone who weighs 210.
Depending on your location—Florida or the Gulf Coast, the Chesapeake or Mid-Atlantic states, the Great Lakes, New England and Down East, Southern California—you may or may not have to worry about foot warmth and insulation. In some places it can be mighty important.
Construction. Materials vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. PVC boots are the most durable, but they can become stiff in the cold and they can crack (one reason you won’t find many PVC boots with insulation). PVC’s advantage, at least from the manufacturer’s standpoint, is that the taping and seaming of a boot’s parts are easier—the stuff literally melds to glue. Another advantage of PVC is that it’s generally less expensive.
Polyurethane boots are not as temperature-sensitive but, being more clothlike, they require both gluing and stitching during assembly, which adds to cost.
That leaves good old-fashioned, but reliable, rubber—most bootmakers’ material of choice. Rubber is also somewhat temperature-sensitive. It’s also heavier, and rubber boots have seams, which are a potential source for leaks.
So much for uppers. Equally important are soles—where your foot meets the deck. Hevea and Musto use a “suction cup” sole—small round suction cups that act like an octopus’ tentacles in grabbing the deck surface. This is an innovative sole that provides excellent traction. The trade-off is that the spaces between the suction cups can and do trap pebbles and other debris if you wear them ashore.
The remaining boots we tested feature siped, or razor-cut, soles, and some are more broadly siped than others. (It was difficult to find any correlation between siping width and traction. This issue has been debated without resolution in the deck-shoe community forever.)
Heel/toe reinforcement is particularly important, since the last thing you want are bruised toes when your foot connects with a cleat, hawsepipe, rope clutch, or hatch cover—and we’ve kicked ’em all.
Fit. There are three things to consider here. First, how’s the overall comfort? Too snug? Too loose? Does the insole conform to your foot to give support? Does the upper boot conform fairly closely to the leg to allow it to be worn under a pant, or does the upper flare far out—meaning the pant may have to be worn inside the boot. (For maximum protection a closer fit at the top is better, as long as the boot still goes on and comes off easily.)
Second—and this gets back to height—is the boot tall enough to keep out the weather, or is the height of the boot an encumbrance when you’re kneeling, crouching, or sitting? These are all trade-offs, which is why it’s important to determine which set of circumstances the boot will be best-suited for.
Third, if possible, try to spend 20 minutes wearing the boots in the store before buying them. Even the best-made boots can rub some feet the wrong way, usually along the back seam at the heel, across the toes, or at the edge of the instep. If you notice something beginning to grate on your foot after a few minutes, try a different size or a different boot. Don’t take it home thinking you’ll wear it in eventually. It’ll never happen.
What We Tested
When we last reported on sea boots over a decade ago, we couldn’t find a product over $100. In fact, the average price of the boots we tested was $55. But times change. Our task this time was finding good, serviceable boots for under $100.
Sea boots, for reasons we’ve yet to divine, have now joined the ranks of high-end apparel. Yes, they’re better—in durability, comfort, traction, and warmth—than they were 10 years ago. But with the dwindling number of companies that make sea boots today (Sperry, Sebago and Vredestein have pulled out and Henri Lloyd now sells only to clubs and race teams), the competition has gone south—or elsewhere (Sperry and Sebago have opted to concentrate on high-tech boating shoes). Result: higher prices across the board, with some models (Dubarry, Gill Gore-Tex) costing upwards of $280.
We weren’t interested in the high-end boots for this evaluation, since we knew there were also good products out there at more affordable prices. And, as you’ll see in our comparison chart below, we found a bunch. We even checked out commercial fishing boots, figuring that if there’s anyone who demands a lot in a boot and dishes a lot of abuse in return, it’s someone who makes a living pulling traps and hauling nets.
Thanks to Helene Cote at Wilcox Marine, which supplies the commercial fishing fleet in Point Judith, RI, we also gained some insights that you won’t find at your local marine haberdashery. Fishermen, for example, prefer a solidly reinforced toe; when you’re kicking fish around, you can’t afford a puncture. Safety is important, but so is warmth. That’s why commercial fishermen prefer tall boots (more protection) as well as boots one to two sizes larger—so they can wear two pairs of socks, put the boots on without sitting down, and kick them off quickly if they go in. Fishermen also prefer lugged soles, all the better to withstand the asphalt-like abrasiveness of a working boat’s deck tiles.
Though you probably don’t need the beef of a commercial fishing boot, we included them for one reason: Price.
How We Tested
First, and most obvious, how does the boot fit? Is it snug in the right places? How easy is it to flex the boot? How cumbersome is it when scooting about deck? How easy is it to put on and take off?
Sizing, we found, is critical—and it’s easy to get it wrong. Thankfully, most boots now come in U.S. sizes. It wasn’t always so. Early on, most came only in European sizes, which meant using a conversion chart, and from manufacturer to manufacturer they often didn’t agree. Whatever their size, most boots are built to fit a European foot, which, for some reason, is conceived by cobblers to be generally shorter and wider than its American counterpart.
Today’s boots also generally come in only full sizes. If you’re a half-size, you’ll have to size up or down. For women, the experts at Boat U.S. suggest the following: When purchasing men’s or unisex boots, order two sizes smaller than your normal shoe size. In other words, if you normally wear a size 8, buy a men’s size 6. Of course the only way to really be sure is to try the boots on at a local store.
Next, traction. How well does the sole grip? For this test, we used a traction board coated with two abrasion grades of non-skid compound (heavy and light). We also tested the boots on a slick gelcoat deck hosed down to increase slipperiness. Although all boots passed our traction-board test, only one type of sole scored well on the slick surface—the suction-cup design on the Hevea Pacific and Musto M1.
Several boots (Norcross, LaCrosse, Harvik) come with a split sole, in which—as in a conventional shoe—the heel is raised and separated from the tread under the ball of the foot. At first, since this means less of the sole is in contact with the deck, we thought the configuration might reduce traction. As it turned out, this wasn’t the case. In fact, when tested against the flat-sole boots, we found no difference in traction at all.
How warm is the boot? For this test, we put a thermometer into each boot at room temperature, sealed the top of the boot, and put it in a 35-degree refrigeration locker for 30 minutes. Then we checked the temperatures. Oddly, boots with claimed insulation features (LaCrosse, Servus Seafarer) were generally no warmer than some boots without insulation. We did find that the heavier the construction (or the more extensive the areas of reinforcement), the warmer the boot.
Finally, drying time. No matter how much protection sea boots claim to offer, sooner or later water will find its way in. Besides the chill and squishiness of clomping around deck in a waterlogged boot, wet boot liners and insoles breed mold. So it’s important to dry them out fast. How fast? That’s what we attempted to find out, by saturating the boot with water, then placing it upside down on a thermal-convection boot dryer.
Drying times varied from 30 minutes (West Marine Explorer) to 90 minutes (West Marine Offshore).
To hasten drying time, always rinse the boots in plenty of fresh water—any remaining salt will only retain moisture in the boot. Then remove the insoles. They’ll dry quickly on their own when exposed to sunlight and outside air, while at the same time drying air will circulate more effectively throughout the interior of the boot.
We don’t know yet whether a sea boot under $100 can provides the fit, warmth, and comfort of boots costing far more. Gill, for example, makes a sophisticated high boot with Gore-Tex, Kevlar, Cordura, and treated leather—for $280. It better keep your feet dry. For that price it should give you a foot massage and a pedicure, while it’s at it.
No boot, no matter what its price, is going to be ideal for every sailor. As we said at the outset, given the fact that every person’s foot is different—in shape, bulk and structure—the choice gets personal. Nonetheless, the Hevea Pacific and Musto M1 (they’re virtually the same boot), come pretty darn close to being just right, for the right price.
Finally, as a practical matter, we like the advice of Martha Parker, a grand-prix-level foredeck hand, and owner of Team One Newport in Rhode Island: “Think cross-use. Look at the conditions and situations in which you’ll be using the boot, then decide. You don’t want to invest in separate boots for every situation. The question is, how long are you willing to be uncomfortable? What’s the trade-off? You don’t want to be clumping around in clunky boots—but if you get into a nasty squall with the wrong boot, your feet can get more than a bit wet.”
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Musto and Hevea: Same Boot, Different Price.”
Click here to view “Value Guide: Sea Boots Under $100.”
Click here to view “Dinghy Boots: The Way To Take A Hike.”
Contact – Aigle, 33 (0) 549 02 38 98, www.aigle.com. Boat U.S. 800/937-2628, www.boatus.com. Euro Marine Trading (Hevea), 401/849-0060, www.euromarinetrading.com. Douglas Gill, 770/945-0564, www.douglasgill.com. Musto North America, 800/553-0497, www.musto.co.uk. Ronstan, 727/545-1911, www.ronstan.com. Team One Newport, 800/847-4327, www.team1newport.com. West Marine,800/262-8464,www.westmarine.com. Wilcox Marine, 888/655-2526, www.wilcoxmarine.com.