14 November 2012

Why Sailors Go Barefoot

In this blog I've wrestled with many thorny, not to say dangerous situations: alligators circling the Blue Moon in the Georgia swamps, thunderstorms stalking us across Albemarle Sound, spiling battens snapping in half when bent too far... But never have my wits been challenged as they were this summer.

I'm sure the problem is a common one, but I've never seen it mentioned in any of my old sailing books. The Pardeys must have been too resourceful, the Hiscocks too discreet, Macgregor too virtuous to suffer from it. Neither is the problem specifically chronicled in the adventures of Horatio Hornblower or Jack Aubry, although mention is made of the horrific smell to be found below decks, which must be attributable -- at least in part -- to this sailing scourge.

It might also explain why British sailors chose to work barefoot, even when keeping winter watch in the uncomfortable regions off Ushant.

The problem I refer to is Stinky Boat Shoe Syndrome, or SBSS for short.

Logo of the SBSS Society

I encountered this problem on my long voyage up the coast, but the case wasn't so acute. Perhaps because I was wearing real leather boat shoes, which only smelled like a wet, dead cow. Or perhaps because the shoes never did dry out and thus come to full 'flower'. Or perhaps the smell was mitigated by the bag of damp, unwashed laundry that usually hung in my fo'c's'le.

This summer I switched to a kind of sneaker boat shoe. They were decidedly more comfortable, but the day after a particularly wet sail I noticed -- or I should say, Helena noticed -- an odd smell emanating from the closet.

The odor wasn't too bad at first... just a faint eau du foote... but it grew. Grew to the point where it practically took physical form. Think Pigpen without a head. Emphasis on the pig.

SBSS visualization

I ignored it at first. Rather successfully, in fact. But I knew it was only a matter of time before the crisis came to a head...

"It's me or those shoes!" said Helena one morning after a particularly bad night. That's when I knew I had to find a solution.

No problem. I'm quite handy with this sort of thing, now, I thought.

My first guess was a mild bleach solution. I filled a large bucket with warm water, added two tablespoons of bleach, weighed down the shoes with a pig of lead to keep them underwater for the night. (I bought a 5 lb pig of lead to make a lead for a lead line, but never got around to it. But the pig sure is handy for lots of things!)  Then I put them outside in the sun for a day to dry.

At first, this seemed to do the trick, but as soon as I warmed them up by putting my feet into them, Pigpen came back with a vengeance. I didn't dare increase the bleach concentration for fear of destroying the fabric. Another approach was needed.

I tried several other remedies much recommended on the Internet: popping them in the freezer (no difference after thawing), popping them in the microwave (what the what? a really efficient way to spread the smell through the whole house), plus several commercial products like Oxyclean and liberal spraying of Fabreze or Chanel No. 5.

Actually, the Chanel covered the smell, but got me strange looks down at the yacht club.

Finally, after a summer of experimentation, I am able to announce the UnlikelyBoatBuilder's solution to the stinky boat shoe. Guaranteed to work.

First, rinse shoes immediately after sailing with liberal amounts of fresh water. I just hosed them off on the dock for several minutes. Be sure to remove the liners if so equipped.

Rinsing will keep the smell at bay for a long time if you do it every time without fail. However, if you are like me, eventually you will forget. Then SBSS will begin to breed in your shoes and you will need to take the following, more drastic, steps:

1. Rinse thoroughly with fresh water
2. Soak in a strong vinegar solution. I used half a bottle of cheap distilled vinegar to a bucket of water. You don't want the imported, fruity vinegar here...
3. Rinse, then dry in sun
4. Sprinkle liberally with baking soda, inside and out. Leave in shoes until you need them again, then knock or brush off.

As my friend John likes to say: "There is nothing particularly difficult about sailing, but there are an enormous number of simple skills to be mastered."

You know, suddenly the purpose of those odd-looking poop decks is perfectly clear:

Keeps the Captain's boat shoes dry.

Next Episode: Hot Tugs


  1. I am very fussy about my feet afloat; if my feet are happy, I'm happy. This is a challenge, since my boat is trailer- and beach-sailed, and seldom sees a dock. I've gradually come around to the view that shoes just aren't meant for water--even my rubber & nylon sandals are just too hard to dry. So I always travel with sufficient fresh water to rinse my dogs, and an old towel to dry them, and I put fresh socks and dry shoes on my mostly-dry feet as soon as convenient. I also keep spare shoes aboard in case I forget...

    1. Yes... There are some boats that seem right for barefoot sailing and some that don't. I'm not sure what separates the two, except perhaps number of thing to stub your toes on. The BM definitely has too many toe smashers. I have sailed her barefoot -- particularly in Florida -- but it's risky. Boat shoes gave me a better grip on deck, too.

      On my voyage, I eventually bought a pair of waterproof sea boots. These were a huge improvement over boat shoes, and I still like to wear them if the sailing is going to be wet.

  2. On reflection, I wonder if drying in the sun is really the best advice. The sun is bound to take a toll on the material eventually. But I always wanted mine to dry as quickly as possible.

    Any thoughts on drying shoes?

  3. I found a 2-tbsp dose of baking soda in each shoe after use works wonders. I'll also try your vinegar rinse solution.

    After laundering, washing, scrubbing, soaking, sunlight, spritzes and sprays, good old BS (baking soda) did the trick. I give the shoes a shakeout before the next wearing, and I often end up with BS residue on my feet, but it's worth it (helps with traction on the deck?).

    For drying...I don't live aboard, so they come into the house to dry out, or stay outside in the shade.

  4. Submerge and Soak the shoes in a small as possible pan in which you have thrown a bunch of silver content coins or silver flatware. The Silver Ions (antibacterial) in the water will permeate the material and remain therein after you remove the shoes from the Bath, and without rinsing you allow them to air-dry. The Silver Ion impregnated footwear will inhibit the growth of malodorous bacteria.

    Perhaps if planning a lengthy voyage on a boat without a shower, it might be worth a try Silver soaking your undershorts and socks as well.


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