Waterproof boots made of polyurethane are cheap, but when sailing boot manufacturers ask a lot of money for rubber, Gore-Tex, breathability and comfort as well – is it worth it? Bruce Jacobs of Rubicon3 adventure sailing finds out.
Your feet can be warm, your feet can be dry, or your feet can smell (vaguely) acceptable when you pull your boots off after a hard watch on deck battling the elements.
That, traditionally, has been the choice we sailors face when choosing sailing boots. You can definitely have any one of the three. You may be lucky and get two of them. But all three?
Well, it may be possible, but the demands on a sailing boot are huge. They need tremendous grip, they have to be fully submersible and stay dry, they have to breathe, they have to have great thermal insulation and they have to do all this while being contorted out of shape and wedged into odd spaces.
The choice can usually be boiled down to one simple question: do I go for rubber boots that will never let moisture in or out, or do I go for ones with a breathable membrane that may ultimately do both?
Thankfully, with the new generation of boots that combine plastics and breathable membranes, the choice is becoming less stark. From our expeditions in the heat of Morocco to the ice-laden waters off Svalbard, we’ve seen spent a season seeing what different boots can do.
Be warned, there are some seriously good boots here.
Polyurethane or rubber?
Boots without a breathable membrane are usually made of rubber or polyurethane (PU).
PU is an artificial rubber. It is lighter but still flexible and with good thermal properties. It’s a tough material and tests have shown that polyurethane boots can last two or three times longer than boots made from rubber.
Rubber on the other hand is a largely natural material, made from the sap of rubber trees that grow in the tropics. It’s more flexible and naturally comfortable than PU and probably has a better grip, hence its common use in boots.
Dubarry Crosshaven boots – £349
Overall rating: 4/5
This boot was developed by Dubarry in association with a Volvo Ocean Race team and it really shows. A Gore-Tex lining keeps the inside of the boot both waterproof and fairly free from sweat and condensation.
Where boots often fail is at the seams, which eventually open up from (often lateral) wear and tear. This boot has minimised the seams to prevent this and after six months’ hard use, it remained impregnable to the sea.
The upper sections of the boot are a mixture of leather and Cordura, a super-tough, canvas-like fabric, and the inside of the boot is full of thermal insulation. A really good-sized gaiter is made even better for having drainage at its base.
There’s no denying that these boots are mighty expensive, which reduces their final score a bit, but the mixture of performance and durability meant our skippers loved them.
Overall rating: 4/5
Guy Cotten Ultralite boots – £49.99
Overall rating: 2/5
I was keen to try these industrial-style PU boots after my last two pairs of Gore-Tex lined sailing boots had failed fairly quickly. They looked indestructible and were the cheapest of the boots on test.
They performed faultlessly in that they showed no signs of wear after some hard use over the season and never let a drop of water in. However, they also never let a drop out and a sweaty foot gets pretty damp anyway!
My feet also… how to put this delicately… smelt strongly, or so my crew told me. Another issue I found was that the sole was a bit too wide for a yacht and kept getting jammed in gaps between deckware.
Finally, with no insulation, you can really feel those cold days at sea unless you are wearing thick thermal socks. These are very light, well made boots but are probably best kept to their intended use – on fishing vessels.
Gill Breathable Performance boots – £169
Overall rating: 4/5
One of our first mates wore this boot all season and still raves about it.
These are really thick, comfortable boots and she reckons they are the most comfortable ones she has ever worn. Not only that, they are probably the warmest too, with fantastic insulation.
The padding all around the ankle is a godsend when it’s time for putting in some hard labour on the foredeck and the grip is brilliant, which is certainly an important factor on a serious boot.
On the downside, the breathability could only be described as average, maybe as a result of all the thermal insulation, and the boot seemed a little wide, meaning it got stuck in a few areas at crucial times.
As with every boot it’s a trade-off, but for colder climates and serious ocean sailing, this boot is a real contender.
Le Chameau Alize Ponti rubber boots –£150
Overall rating: 3.5/5
Mention Le Chameau to a serious sailor and you get a dreamy look on their face. This is a top quality brand; many a Volvo Ocean Race team has used their boots and the famous red gaiter is instantly recognisable.
The Alize Ponti has been used all season and been really well received. It is a rubber boot, so guaranteed waterproofness year round, but a bit hot and sweaty inside and not a great deal of insulation.
The gaiter at the top of the boot is essential and keeps any sea water out.
What really marked these boots out for us though were the comfort and the grip. Both were superb – which can be unusual for a rubber boot. This level of grip is something Le Chameau really focuses on and it shows.
Designed for coastal sailing, they performed really well all season.
Helly Hansen Aegir Ocean Gaiter II –£150
Overall rating: 3.5/5
Helly Hansen has produced a very good rubber boot here.
Yes, the Aegir Ocean Gaiter 2 offers little breathability, like any rubber boot, but after a season’s hard use our skipper gave them a big thumbs up – because they do exactly what a sailing boot should do: 100 per cent dry, loads of grip with the specialised Helly-grip rubber soles and a superb gaiter to keep rogue sea water out.
When things got really cold, they perhaps lacked a little of the thermal properties that some of the pricier boots had, but that would be our only criticism.
Indeed, we have to be honest and admit that looks do matter, even for sailing boots, and these boots were the best looking pair on test.
Bruce Jacobs is the co-founder of Rubicon 3, an adventure sailing company that specialises in expeditions and voyages to some of the world’s more remote and exciting locations. The expeditions are open to everyone. From the heat of Africa to the wilds of Greenland and Svalbard, these routes are the ideal proving ground for testing sailing equipment. www.rubicon3.co.uk