Offshore and Rubber sailing boots provide three main performance features for your comfort and safety:
When choosing offshore or rubber boots, start by identifying the type of sailing you are doing. Are you day sailing in fair weather and cooler temperatures where you need dry and warm feet. Is your sailing taking place poor weather, in cool to cold conditions, sailing overnight and up to long passage making where you need the most from a boots performance features? What does the majority of your sailing consist of?
The following scenarios broadly categorize boots by their intended uses:
- Casual rain boot on the boat and on land: Short rubber boots
- Day sailing in warm to cool temperatures and fair to poor weather: Tall rubber boots
- Day sailing to offshore passage making, in cool to cold temperatures, and fair to bad weather: Breathable offshore boots
- Day sailing to offshore passage making, in cold temperatures, and poor to bad weather: Neoprene offshore boots
The explanation of offshore and sailing boot features in this article will give you a more detailed understanding of the options and how they can be chosen to best fit your sailing needs.
Rubber boots are made of either natural rubber (distilled from the sap of rubber trees in the tropics) or PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) and are 100% waterproof, but not breathable. Natural rubber boots will wear longer, be more flexible, provide better grip to the deck, and not stiffen appreciably in cold weather; but come with a higher price tag than PVC on average. PVC is a less expensive material, keeping the price of a boot down while giving up just a bit of comfort, durability, and performance. Some boots are made with a compound consisting of a blend of PVC and rubber which lends them the performance advantages of natural rubber with the cost savings of PVC.
A few boots available in Europe use a Foam PU (Polyurethane) material which is waterproof, flexible and comfortable, but will sometimes deteriorate rapidly when exposed to certain chemicals and/or stored in too warm of conditions. When rinsed after use and stored in a cool, dry place, this is a well-performing boot material. Unlike rubber and PVC boots, Foam PU have a bit of inherent insulation similar to wetsuit material (neoprene).
Both Nubuck and Full Grain Leather are used in sailing boots. Nubuck (made from Top-Grain leather) is sanded or buffed on the grain side or outside to achieve a suede-like finish. It offers excellent resistance to wear and has an increased strength, thickness and softness as opposed to traditional top-grain leather. Full Grain Leather is made from the strongest and most durable part of the hide of an animal, and will have a smooth finish, and retains less moisture from prolonged exposure than do all other natural leathers. Both are ideal choices for sailing boots as they are robust, resistant to wear, and breathable. The leather in offshore sailing boots will be bonded to a microporous membrane like Gore-Tex making them waterproof and breathable.
Neoprene is used in the upper of boots and generally lines the inside of a rubber boot foot. While the material is waterproof, warm, soft, flexible, and provides padding; it is like boots made of rubber in that neoprene boots are not breathable and moisture can build up inside the boot.
Polyester and nylon materials are fast-drying, breathable, and abrasion resistant; and are used in the upper boot construction and incorporate a waterproof and breathable membrane like Gore-Tex. They are incorporated into rubber and/or leather boots to provide additional performance and comfort. Synthetics are the materials of choice for boot gaiters too.
The soles of offshore and rubber sailing boots are made of many different kinds of natural and synthetic rubber compounds but focus less on the materials and more on the actual grip. Generally speaking, the softer the material in the sole the more it will grip. Conversely, the softer the rubber and faster they may wear out. Also, the more channels in the sole the more water that moves out from under the sole, providing better contact with the deck. Soles with a medium softness offer a balance of good grip and durability.
Just like foul weather gear, offshore and rubber sailing boots primarily keep the water out, and do not necessarily keep you warm. Many boots do offer inherent insulation, but all boots require you to choose the right socks for the conditions. This is particularly critical in cold weather. It also allows your boots to function well across a range of temperatures by varying the thickness of socks you wear underneath.
Typically, if you’re wearing sailing boots in poor weather it’s cool to cold out. Even in the tropics, sailing in the rain on a sunless day can thoroughly chill you. The cooler the temperatures and the longer the duration of your sailing, the more insulation you will need. Determine what the majority of your sailing conditions will be and choose accordingly. Sailing boots are either uninsulated, lightly insulated or heavily insulated.
Rubber or PVC boots are uninsulated and add no warmth. Warmth will be a factor of what socks you wear and their thickness. These types of boots will require more and thicker socks to keep your feet warm as compared to breathable and neoprene boots.
Neoprene Constructed Boots
Boots made with neoprene can offer the most inherent insulation of any boot – from medium to heavily insulated. Boots made with neoprene use between 5 – 10mm thick. The thicker the neoprene, the more insulation factor. Thick insulated socks and boots made with neoprene can keep you warm in some very frigid conditions.
Breathable boots often have light insulation from a synthetic lining. With these, both the boot and your choice of socks are contributing to keeping your feet warm. Although not as inherently warm as a neoprene boot, breathable boots can obtain high insulation factor with proper socks, and less in warmer conditions.
Boots made with microporous waterproof and breathable membranes like Gore-Tex allow the moisture (sweat) in the boot to travel from inside the boot, through the membrane as a water vapor and finally to the outside of the boot. The expelling of moisture is driven by the relative difference in temperature and moisture on the inside of the boot as compared to the environment outside the boot. Warm moisture migrates to the cooler outside of the boot. On dry days, moisture additionally migrates from the moist inside of the boot to the outside due to the relatively lower moisture environment on the exterior of the boot.
Breathable boots, as long as you are wearing wicking socks, will continuously allow moisture to escape through the material of the boot. When wearing boots for extended periods, or day after day, your feet will be noticeably drier and warmer.
Non-breathable boots (rubber, PVC, and neoprene) are waterproof but have no way to get the moisture out. If you are exerting yourself and your feet perspire that moisture will stay stuck in the boot until you can take them off and dry them, and change socks.
Your feet, ankles, and legs are constantly straining on a pitching and heeling boat. Ensuring you have well-fitting boots goes a long way to preventing cold and achy feet. When trying on boots make sure you do so with the socks you intend to wear onboard – this may be a thin, medium or thick pair or any combination thereof.
Is there sufficient room in the toe-box or are your toes cramped? Make sure your toes are free to wiggle and there is not forward or side pressure. Is the footbed comfortably supporting your foot and arch? Most boots do not provide significant arch support, so if you require more support you may need to replace the existing footbed with an orthotic insert of your choosing. If this is the case try them on with your insert. Next, does the heel cup allow some up and down heel movement, but at the same time support your heel without too much side-to-side foot movement? Lastly, is the boots upper wide enough for your leg/calf to comfortably fit, or also not being too wide and difficult to get your foul weather gear trousers over?
Overall, you do not want the boot to fit tight in any area, as this can restrict blood flow and lead to cold and cramped feet. If you will be wearing your boots primarily in cold conditions you may need to go up a size to accommodate your thicker socks and prevent a tight fit.
Socks provide abrasion resistance, wick moisture away from your skin (and out of the boot if your boots are breathable), and help keep your feet warm. Never wear cotton socks as they absorb water and lead to damp and cold feet. Synthetic socks do a good job of wicking moisture and providing insulation, but they do not deal well with a buildup of moisture in the boot. Even breathable boots only expel moisture at a certain rate.
When feet perspire, moisture builds up in the boot and leaves feet wet until the moisture is expelled. Merino wool is the best solution. First, Merino wool is so fine that it does not itch. It not only wicks moisture, and provides excellent insulation, but it also has the ability to temporarily absorb moisture when it is nowhere else for the moisture to go. So when extreme moisture builds up in your boots, Merino will do the best job of maintaining warm and dry feet.
In extreme weather, seas and cold you may opt to wear a very thin sock liner designed to primarily wick moisture away from your foot, then a medium or thick sock over top for warmth (and continued moisture wicking). The key to warm feet is to keep moisture away from the surface of your skin.
For limited protection reduced weight and bulk, a shorter boot is best for casual use. Typically, a tall boot will always provide the best protection. This is achieved by maximizing the overlap between your foul weather gear trousers (worn over and cinch down around the boot) and the length of the boot. Water may rush or migrate up the inside of your trousers a bit in poor weather and sea conditions, but if your boot is high enough water won’t make it up and into your boots.
Consider boots with gaiters if you are doing extensive offshore passage making. When sailing in severe weather and seas, having a gaiter can be the best way to keep water out of your boots. Gaiters provide yet another barrier for keeping sea water from making its way up the inside of your foul weather gear trousers and into your boots. They act as an initial barrier to rushing water on deck or temporarily standing water in the cockpit. Gaiters divert upward rushing water from asserting water pressure directly on your cinched trouser cuffs. Any water that does enters the gaiter will run down and exit through drains belt into the bottom.
To use them put on your foulie trousers, then your boots (with built-in gaiter). Roll the gaiter down the boot and out of the way. Next, put your trouser leg down and cinch it closed around the bottom of the boot’s upper. Now pull the gaiter fully up and other the bottom of your trousers and cinch is securely at its top.
When you do not need the extra protection of the gaiter, you can simply wear them pulled up on your boots with your foulie trouser legs over the top of them.
It is very difficult to dry out wet boots while onboard during inclement weather. If they do get wet and you need to continue wearing them, change your socks as often as possible. If your boots are breathable, the more you wear them the more moisture will escape from the boot (which is driven in part by the heat from your feet). When you are not wearing your sodden boots remove the foot liner to aid drying. Stuffing a bone-dry cotton rag/towel (newspaper is good too) it will transfer much of the moisture out of the boot.
The life of your offshore or rubber sailing boots depends on proper care. Periodically rinse leather boots with fresh water, clean and condition them. Ensure they completely dry inside and out, and store in a cool and dry place.
Rubber boots only require a fresh water rinse, time to dry, and a cool and dry place for storage.