Written by Tad Clark
posted on August 13, 2013 07:37
Is it a loafer or a moccasin? It is called a “boat shoe,” and it has a skid resistant, rubber sole. The upper looks like a moccasin with a rawhide thong threaded through eyelets that provides an adjustable opening for the foot. The fit can be made bigger or smaller by tightening or loosening the leather lace that ties at the tongue.
I opened my closet to check out just how many boat shoes I have on hand, and I was shocked to count six pairs. I cajole my bride about her Amelda Marcos appetite for shoes, and yet here I am with six pairs all of one style. At least her ninety-nine pairs are different styles, brands and colors.
I really can’t remember when I bought my first pair of boat shoes, but I do know I made the purchase at Folino’s Shoe Store in Alexandria Bay. Folino’s was an institution for shoes and shoe repairs in the 1000 Islands from 1933 until they closed a few years after Tony Folino, the store’s originator, died in 1997. They carried the Sperry Top-Sider brand, which from all accounts was the first boat shoe.
The Sperry Top-Sider story is well documented. Paul Sperry was a sailing enthusiast who sought a solution for maintaining traction on a slippery boat deck. In 1935 he noticed that his Cocker Spaniel, Prince, had the ability to move around on wet surfaces and even ice without difficulty. He examined the dog’s paws and noticed wavy cracks in the tissue. He cut similar herringbone-type grooves into a rubber outsole, which caused the rubber to spread and grip more efficiently when pressure was applied. Sperry boat shoes have flourished, and are currently the official footwear of the U.S. Sailing Team and other high profile boating organizations.
During the 1980s when boat shoes were featured in the “The Official Preppy Handbook” and again in recent years, this footwear has been at the forefront of fashion. While boat shoes have been in and out of fashion with the general public, this unique footwear has had uninterrupted popularity in the 1000 Islands where boating is the central theme. Dew and rain are frequent companions to boating in this region, and non-skid boat shoes have a ready-made niche.
Some folks kick around in worn out models that should have been thrown out decades ago. I have a pair of Timberlands that are thirty years old. The inserts wore out and were discarded long ago. Nonetheless the stitching is still like new. I have splattered paint on them, and put them through a torture test that would satisfy any consumer report. I recently wore them proudly to a group dinner celebrating outdoor living and the summer camp theme. No one in attendance asked me why I wore a trashed pair of boat shoes.
For some there is increased status associated with continuing to wear a pair of this moccasin-type footwear long after the fashion conscious would have banished them to Goodwill. In the 1000 Islands even society’s upper crust can be seen at upscale functions sporting many of the numerous brands on the market today. No socks is a generally accepted addendum. Brands and prices vary greatly. Some are quite expensive like Mephistos that hover around $300, while Sperry models begin at under $50.
I only have one pair of my current half-dozen styles and colors that I have never been able to break-in properly or use extensively. My favorite model is the Sperry Gold Cup. The eyelets are 18k gold-plated to keep their luster and eliminate tarnishing. The inserts are deerskin for maximum comfort. All my boat shoes slip on like a loafer, and I feel the height of fashion wherever I wear them.
By Tad Clark, Comfort Island and Grenadier Island
Tad Clark, a fourth-generation, summer resident of both Grenadier and Comfort Islands, has been a tennis coach for over 35 years. His growing interest in freelance writing includes commentaries for the TI Sun, the history of Comfort Island: www.comfort-island.com and a profile of the St. Lawrence Skiff, in our September 2010 issue of TI Life, About the Skiff…. When not in the Thousand Islands he and his wife live in Asheville, NC.