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Deck shoes and boots by Chatham Marine

The rise and fall, and rise again, of the deck shoe

I was shocked to learn that the old traditional deck shoes like Sperry Top-Siders are the current “in” footwear for kids in secondary school in Ireland.  Everywhere I see kids on the streets wearing their Top-Siders with their school uniforms. Hey, what’s up with this?  So I started to research and boy am I behind the times. It appears that Top-Siders have made a comeback on both sides of the Atlantic, not as boat shoes but as fashion statements. Well good on ya, Sperry!

The Sperry Top-Sider was introduced in 1935, and the Sebago Dockside in 1947. Way back when I first started sailing and these were the only grippy shoes we could get for deck work, I had friends who wouldn’t dream of betraying the original authentic Sperry’s by buying Sebagos. I on the other hand went with Sebagos when they introduced the women’s version in off white leather – which was great quality. It looked so much nicer. I wore pair after pair until they fell apart, or wore down so smooth they lost their grip, which was usually a couple of years into the wearing. Of course, I had to first wear them wet to have them mould to my foot. I think people don’t understand that part today.

I cannot believe that the argument of Sperry vs. Sebago continues to this day, now in terms of street etiquette. My, how the world has changed! There are multiple threads around the world about Top-Sider versus Dockside – an issue I thought was long forgotten. I’ve even found detailed blogs and forum threads on which shoes are the best, most preferred, and most fashionable.  The Top-Sider phenomenon has gone ballistic shortly after going viral. And there are oodles of styles and colours to choose from. Yes, things have changed.

Here are some links to pages where the debate rages on:

Meanwhile, what was once the iconic deck shoe has moved on to the world of high performance sailing shoes. You might call it a footwear revolution, possibly started by (could it be?) Crocs?  Teva contributed to the revolution by introducing sturdy sandals that could handle wet environments but somehow they missed the boat along the way. Tevas didn’t really catch on with the boating crowd. Crocs appealed to the cruiser as an alternative to flip flops and at €29.99 they still do.  Flip flops which are great on dry land, quickly become useless on a wet surface, especially when you stub your toe massively on some piece of deck hardware.  Crocs gave some measure of protection and they dry instantly – or is it that they never got wet to begin with? Whatever! The non-marking, slip resistant sole, Croslite™ material for lightweight cushioning, and over 20 fun colours have made the traditional “Beach” Croc ubiquitous in marinas. And it has been evolving. Now, there are over a dozen lines of Crocs, including a retro Croc, more than 300 styles of footwear, and a burgeoning third party market in Croc ornaments. Crocs Retro have a herringbone rubber outsole for better traction. Founded in 2002, Crocs' revenue likely topped $1 billion in 2012 (WSJ 27 Jan 2013). These homely deck shoes have taken over from the traditional Sperry deck shoes and high-tech sailing sneakers, at least among the cruisers, from New England to the South Pacific.

Then came along Keens.  Keen, founded a year later than Croc, started out focused on sailing and in-water shoes and has now expanded to manufacture a large variety of footwear. Keen’s signature, but not terribly appealing, thick black rubber toe guard starts to look very attractive to those familiar with bloody stubbed toe syndrome. Waterproof woven uppers, non-marking, high-traction soles and easy-on elastic pull tabs make for a worthwhile, if not particularly lovely, boat shoe. Walking down the main street of a Caribbean island, I saw a bearded sailor carrying his ancient boat bag but on his feet were a brand new pair of black Keen Newport H2 sandals. His partner was wearing a pair of Crocskin Limited Edition Crocs along with a torn T-shirt and cut-offs. Neither of the styles can be called attractive, but they certainly have become popular.  And at a rather pricey €99.95 for the Keens and €59.99 for the Crocs, you gotta love them to buy them.

Now move on to the high performance sailing shoe category and everything changes.  Here, the name of the shoe seems to be all important. SLAM, Sharx, ZKG, Wave Extreme, Hydroflux, Vortex, and Churn are all brands that conjure up deck battles rather than sun-downers. What’s cool is that Sebago is right in there along with Teva. Yep, those racers tend to have more bucks than cruisers and so that makes a whole lot of sense. So what kind of shoes do you wear? Me, I have my pink Top-Siders for casual wear – easily the most comfortable boat shoe ever, two-tone DuBarrys for dress, ancient off white Docksiders for backup, LL Bean flip flops (3 pairs) for the anchorage, TEVA deck thongs for hot days, Harken deck shoes for boisterous conditions (which never ever leave the boat), DuBarry sailing boots for extreme environments onboard, and Chatham boots for extreme environments ashore.  My absolutely favourite NIKE water sports sandals fell apart beyond hope after several restitchings, so I’ll have to go on a quest to find a replacement. I may be wrong but the YBC Sharx ‘Beach Boat and Boardwalk Shoe’ are looking good so far. I think I might just have to give them a spin.

As for my husband, he has been wearing Top-Siders for decades. He wears them sailing and as every day shoes to the office. I sent him to a shoe sale once and he came back with six identical pairs of deck shoes. He also has Rockports and Docksiders in his collection. His latest addition is a pair of two-tone Chatham deck shoes, which he swears are the most comfortable yet. For when it’s wet, he dons his DuBarry boots or a pair from Gill – but has his eyes on a pair from Chatham.


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