Henry Harington sets sail on the high seas to test his Chatham Marine Deck II G2 boat shoes.

rsz_1rsz_deck-chestnut_8210When is a roadtest not a road test? For a number of years I have been receiving shoes, trainers and boots with a note from the editor of Footwear Today saying, “Dear Henry, Please could you do a road test on these shoes for the August/November/January issue of Footwear Today”.

But a recent message was different; please could I go to the shoemaker Chatham’s stand at the race centre at Torquay yacht basin? I duly arrived to be enthusiastically greeted by Chatham’s boss, Phil Marsh, with the words, “Welcome on board Henry, let’s get you a pair of boat shoes and a buoyancy aid and then we’ll sort you out with the boat.”

Before you could say, “cat o’nine tails” Phil had given me a pair of Chatham boat shoes and a life jacket and I had been press ganged into crewing in a yacht race.

All around me were the banners and signs for the “Solitaire du Figaro” yacht race. Well, I’d read about it. It had been in the local press and on television not only because one of the five stopping ports in the race was Torquay, but because there were some local lads sailing the yachts. What I had read was that the “Solitaire du Figaro” is a gruelling, one month solo yacht race over 2,185 miles between five host ports.

The skippers of a fleet of 39 identical 33 foot Bénéteau Figaro racing yachts compete against each other. Because the boats are like peas in a pod none of the skippers can blame his tools: he is reliant on his sailing skills, his navigational ability, his reading of the weather and his stamina. And I mean stamina! Each of the legs between the ports averages nearly 600 miles including repeated transits through one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the English Channel and its approaches. That means being awake and alert most of the time. Modern yachts are equipped with highly sophisticated auto-pilots – nautical sat-navs that keep the boat on course while there is no hand on the tiller. But they are fallible and subject to a myriad of variants including changes in wind, tide and wave strength so the yachts’ skippers can only snatch ten or, at the most, 20 minutes of sleep at a time. If you can call it sleep – to save weight below the decks the boats are Spartan with all non-essentials stripped out. Despite being French-built boats this includes no galleys so the sailors have to sustain themselves on the anything-but-gastronomique, freeze-dried food similar to that used by astronauts.

This was the race in which I was to sail!? “Don’t look so worried,” said Phil as he thrust a glass of Champagne into my shaking hands. “The race today is a bit of a publicity event, it’s a pro-am race and we are the bunch of amateurs and it’s just an afternoon sail, not heading off into the wilds of the Atlantic”. I took a swig of the Pol Roger Champagne which would have made me feel better regardless of the relief that I was not being forced to imitate Sir Robin Knox-Johnson or Peter Goss.

Phil explained that Chatham sponsored one of the Figaro yachts, renamed Chatham, and he introduced me to Sam Matson, its skipper, who happens to live near Chatham’s offices in Exeter and who last year won the race’s “rookie” prize for the fastest newcomer to the race.

Before the race I had a chance to chat to Phil about the boat shoes I would wear on board. He pointed out that although the shoes, a traditional leather boating moccasin are full spec boating shoes, most people who buy them and the variety of other “boat shoe” designs based in it, have never been anywhere near a boat. Indeed most wardrobes now contain at least one pair of this type of shoe. It’s hardly surprising: leather moccasins like my new Chathams are comfortable as (particularly in the case of the Solitaire du Figaro skippers) they may be worn for a long time and they are stylish – in their way a classic and timeless, they will always be in fashion.

They are robust, because they are designed to withstand being dipped or doused in seawater. Their razor cut soles make them safe, giving them a grip on wet surfaces. Phil told me that the original razor cuts were invented because a sailor found his Labrador dog had great sea legs and did not slip and slide on a heaving deck. On examining the Labrador’s paws closely he found the pads had tiny grooves that helped his dog ride the waves. He applied the principle to his boating shoes buy making razor-fine cuts across the sole.

Walking down the pier to the boat I felt quite unjustifiably superior lapping up the admiration of the gaping crowds who had come to watch the sparring of the skilled yachtsmen. There I was in my shades and boating shoes looking the picture of the racing yachtsman. What fraud! I have sailed before; cruising gently around the coast of Brittany or in the Caribbean in well-appointed and accommodating yachts that were more gin palace than rapier-sharp racing yachts!

When racing yachts are jostling to be in the best position on the starting line there can be frenetic activity as they change the sails to quickly tack this way and then that way so as not to lose the momentum they will need as soon as the starting gun is fired. In the process they can come heart-stoppingly close to each other and there can be much blue (or since many of the skippers are French bleu) in the air.

The starting gun fired. We were off. Well not really, the wind had virtually disappeared. But there it was again rising suddenly in gusts and falling away again. The skipper described the wind as “potholey” and under those conditions we sailed, haltingly across Torbay at Brixham. As we rounded the buoy marking the turning point of the race (to much blue and bleu in the air as the skippers jockeyed perilously to put the least space between their boat and the buoy) the wind swung around by 180 degrees. The wind was blowing offshore directly onto our nose, ideal sailing conditions. In full sail the boat surged forward with on side of its hull up in the air and the mast almost parallel to the sea. “Up on the side! Up on the side!” the skipper urged. The crew rushed to balance the boat by hanging their legs over the side as a counter weight to the strength of the wind.

Its funny how your mind works: here we were in an adrenaline-inducing moment, back in contention to win the race, the yacht poised to keep over if there was a wrong move on the tiller and I was preoccupied with the possibility that the waves sweeping over my dangling feet would wash away my new Chatham boat shoes! Phew! They fitted perfectly and withstood the lashings of salt water. And later, as we stood around at the prize giving (no we didn’t win) my shoes dried quickly and the soft leather caressed my feet as if we’d been friends for years.

You don’t have to go sailing to wear boat shoes, but it’s more fun. And to answer the question, “When is a road test not a road test?” When it’s on the high seas of course.

Details: Deck II G2 -One of Chatham’s best sellers, Deck II G2 is a traditional British boat shoe, crafted from the highest quality leather and featuring a new rubber sole unit with enhanced grip. Moccasin constructed and hand stitched on last, Deck II G2 comes with a unique 2 year guarantee. Available colours: Walnut, Chestnut and Navy. RRP: £99 WSP: £41.25
Contact: www.chatham.co.uk 0845 2700 217