Sole Searching

How seaworthy are your shoes?

People pick their onboard treads for looks, comfort, brand allegiance, or any other reason under the sun. But when you take a walk on the wet side, does your shoe of choice help you stay on your feet? We went in search of an answer by using a device capable of testing the traction of footwear on both wet and dry surfaces. We picked the three most popular types of boat shoes and sacrificed them in the name of science. To test the shoes, we visited Design Research Engineering, a Novi, Michigan-based company that owns the Slipmeter. Designed by a physics geek (that's a term of endearment around here) and using a motion that replicates ankle and heel impact, the CO2-powered apparatus presses a quarter-size cutout of the sole against a wet or dry surface. The traction - or lack thereof - is then measured on a scale of 0 to 1. With an inert rubberlike material called Neolite to provide a baseline, the range goes from an extremely slippery 0.1 (wet gel coat) to a downright sticky 1.0 (dry carpet). In factories, supermarkets, and other work areas, 0.5 is the standard for safe flooring. Using the Slipmeter, we tested how different shoes fared on molded nonslip. (We also padded around on the nonslip sole of a Sea Ray - both dry and doused with water - while underway.) Here are our test results.

SPORT SANDALS BODY GLOVE MESH SANDALS DRY: 0.53; WET: 0.35 With their Velcro wraps and palm-print logos, the Body Glove Mesh Sandals we tested were nifty blue numbers that looked good in a dude-ish kind of way. Dry, the shiny black-bottomed sandals came in last among our group - but still better than OSHA factory requirements at 0.53. But when wet, they kept up with the vaunted Sperry Top-Sider at 0.35. Pretty rad for togs that the company touts (and trademarks) as "water-loving footwear." FINAL FOOTHOLD: The Velcro around the top of the foot, but not around the heel, let my foot slip a little too much when trying to stand in the Sea Ray while cruising. The sandals, though, are great for bumming on the beach or prowling around poolside. Price: $30. (310)896-1266, www.bodyglovefootwear.com

SNEAKERS NIKE AIR MAX DRY: 0.61; WET: 0.26 Any way you slice it - and we did cut a nice little hole in the heel for the Slipmeter's sample - Air Maxes are groovy, futuristic cross-training shoes with a shock-absorbing pad of air and red nodules between their soles and your feet that kick ass when pounding pavement. But what about when negotiating potentially slick surfaces? The numbers fell sharply when wet. That increased amount of slip was evident when walking on a damp Sea Ray deck. While rocking in the waves, it was difficult to walk around and stay upright without holding on to the railing. FINAL FOOTHOLD: A comfy cross trainer with great traction on pavement and dry surfaces, but not a true boating shoe. Price: $149. (800) 344-6453, www.nike.com

DECK SHOES SPERRY TOP-SIDER MARINERS DRY: 0.93; WET: 0.35 Looking at the dry number - 0.93 - ought to inspire admiration for the old-school Sperrys that every preppie in suburbia seemingly wore during the Reagan Administration. After all, their traction level approaches Neolite on carpet. Certainly that explains the suctionlike grip when walking on dry surfaces. The falloff when spritzed with water, however, was precipitous, to 0.35. Still, that's pretty decent. Onboard the Sea Ray, they had the best traction of the three in sea conditions. But please, heed these words from the fashion police: Forget the white socks when you wear them. FINAL FOOTHOLD: Perhaps the most recognized brand in nautical footwear earns its stripes when pitted against the Slipmeter and the competition. Price: $100. (800) 666-5689, www.sperrytopsider.com