Investing in sensible shoes puts a mariner on solid footing

After paying my way through California Maritime Academy, I entered the industry as a deck hand for a large West Coast towing company. I was over $20,000 in debt and had no money for new work shoes. The topsiders and sneakers I had worn at the academy would just have to last me for a while on my new job. Unfortunately, 12 hours of watch each day on a deck rough from non-skid paint made fast work of my old footwear. During a short-haul tow from Los Angeles to San Francisco my topsiders disintegrated. Then a few weeks later, near the end of that same work tour, my sneakers grew progressively larger holes in the soles.

With two days to go before crew change, and worried they wouldn’t make it through another watch, I made an emergency repair to keep my shoes intact — with duct tape. Everyone in the crew had fun commenting on my duct-tape “fashion” footwear. From a practical standpoint, while the taped shoes held together, they dangerously provided no traction or support. With essentially no foot protection and a taped hole in my shoe, my feet ached from pounding the steel deck. Then, I stepped on a piece of angle iron while making a round of the engine room and cut my foot. The final straw happened on the morning of crew change day. While washing the boat down, I slipped on one of the ladder steps and took a hard tumble. The first thing I did when I got off on vacation was drive to a big box store and buy a pair of work shoes and a pair of sneakers to pack for the next trip.

My new work boots were great — they didn’t have any holes. Although, one afternoon a couple of months later, I found out they weren’t as wonderful as I’d thought they were. That day I had another lesson on what makes good work footwear. Joe, the other deck hand, and I were draining the 1.5-inch fire hose at the end of a fire drill. We then began to re-stow the firefighting gear, and as he was connecting the brass nozzle to the hose it accidentally slipped out of his hand and dropped to the deck — right on my left foot. I yelped in pain thinking my big toe was broken. It wasn’t, but the next day my foot had an awful bruise and my big toe nail fell off. Jeff, the mate, gave me as light of a workload as he could for the following few days as I continued an aspirin-and-ice-pack regimen, but my foot and toe still hurt a week later. Both Joe and Jeff told me that for the next work tour I’d better show up with a pair of steel-toed boots. So, after that trip I went back to the box store when my toe wasn’t swollen anymore and bought new steel-toed boots — and have used steel-toed boots on deck ever since. That lesson learned.

After working on tugs I got a job as a third mate on oil tankers. Thank goodness an old friend from Cal Maritime, who’d been sailing on tankers since we graduated, told me about oil and slip-resistant soles — before I learned another footwear lesson the hard way. Dave reminded me that most boots will slip easily if there is even a sheen of oil on the deck, and that petroleum products can eat away at regular boot soles. Before joining the ship I went out and ordered a pair of steel-toed boots with oil resistant non-skid soles. Because I have a hard-to-fit foot, I never dreamed how much perfect-fitting, high-quality safety shoes could cost — but I took a deep breath and wrote the check after the boots came in. I have had them repaired and resoled numerous times, and still use those same boots 20 years later.

I thought I finally had everything set up well footwear-wise, until working on a tanker in Richmond, Calif., during a downpour. On deck for hours during the start of cargo operations, my boots got so wet that the leather seemed to be peeling off the steel toes. Afterward I put them upside-down near the room heater to dry. By my afternoon watch the rain had stopped, but my boots were still wet through and through. I ended up walking around in wet feet for a miserable four hours on deck. By then my heels were rubbed raw and my athlete’s foot was back in full-itch mode. On vacation a few weeks later, I went the next step and bought another pair as a backup.

It may have taken me 30 years, but after all my “footwear experiences” my sea bag now contains two pairs of steel-toed leather boots with oil/slip-resistant soles, low-top hard sole shoes for the wheelhouse and my travel sneakers as back-up bridge shoes just in case. Because of my size 8.5 EEEE feet, those four pairs of shoes/boots cost me about $1,000. There was a time in my career when I didn’t have the money, but knowing the danger and the pain the wrong shoes have put me through over the years — I now pay the price willingly.

Some vessel operators help their shipboard employees cover the cost of safety shoes, which in my opinion shows that they understand the need for proper footwear aboard ship. Based on my own experiences, even if the company doesn’t reimburse you I think that specialized, top-quality footwear is a must for all mariners. So, when buying your work shoes and boots, go for the best. You’re worth it.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.     

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff