Reflections from the Cockpit
"Using Footwear"
February 2003

Two weeks ago as I carried my kayak down to the beach I spotted a very disturbing piece of beach debris. I was very concerned when I picked up a used syringe with the hypodermic needle still attached. Thank goodness the cap was still over the needle. In addition to the syringe there was scattered pieces of wood with rusty nails protruding from two of the boards. Unfortunately civilization has treated the oceans of the world as large garbage dumps. Even if humans stopped all dumping immediately debris already in the ocean and buried in the sand would be haunting us for decades to come.

In the last three weeks I have been involved with kayak training for the future Adventure Program staff at UC Santa Barbara. One of the items of clothing that was on the required list was adequate footwear for kayaking. Students being students sometimes do not do all that is required. When I saw a couple of them going barefooted my mind immediately thought of the syringe and rusty nails.

Over the years I have gone through a number of booties used primarily for kayaking. The vast majority of the wear and damage to my old footwear was in walking to and from my kayak, not from kayaking. I remember a trip I took to Canada and I brought a brand new pair of neoprene booties with a hard sole. Imagine my irritation when I walked onto a barnacle covered beach at the first rest stop of the day and damaged my booties. I was sliding on the wet rocks and I slid sideways into one of the larger barnacles which cut open the side of my bootie and gouged the side of my foot. Since my booties were new I was more angry at the hole in the neoprene than the hole in my foot which was bleeding. I had a practical lesson as to why many paddle with hard rubber rain boots in the northwest.

Over the years my paddling footwear has taken a lot of abuse that could have happened to my feet. I am a firm believer of proper footwear. I am also an advocate for personal freedom and choice in life. One part of my brain says "if you want to go barefoot who am I to say anything about it." The other part of my brain says" if you are paddling with a group and you get injured you are a liability to that group."

The many times I have seen barefooted paddlers I have watched them walking across a variety of surfaces. Most of them have to walk slowly and carefully. I also know there are places they could not walk without getting injured. If that barefooted paddler was in my group could I count on them to get to me or help me without them having to worry about injuring their feet? Can they help carry boats and equipment across barnacle beaches? Can they assist someone over rocky terrain? I can list plenty of kayak locations where bare feet can be seriously injured.

I recommend footwear that protects your entire foot. My newest pair of neoprene booties has a hard rubber sole and hard rubber over the top of the toes, the sides and high up on the heel. The extra areas of hard rubber are in locations of common injuries and abrasions. I remember a trip participant that injured the tops of his toes when climbing onto his kayak. As he kicked the water to get his body up onto the kayak his toes hit a sharp rock reef. The sandals he was wearing were great for the soles of his feet but didn't provide protection for the tops and sides of his feet. It was a painful and nasty injury.

Now lets discuss the reasons for wearing footwear while paddling. Since proper paddling is a full body activity the constant and repetitive action of pressing on the foot pedals can cause abrasions to any place your bare foot is rubbing the kayak. I know of folks who have worn grooves into the bottoms of their kayaks (from the inside) from their foot movements. I personally prefer to have my booties take the rubbing not my skin. Since "Sand happens" (Yakism from Jim Kakuk 1990) the rubbing of you heels on the floor of your kayak is just like rubbing your heels on sandpaper. One friend of mine who loves to paddle barefoot (we debate this topic often) admitted he had some tissue necrosis (definition: localized death of living tissue) after a long multi-day paddle due to the constant pressure on portions of his bare feet inside his kayak. I believe a layer if neoprene would have provided (this stubborn friend of mine) some cushioning and relived the pressure that caused the necrosis.

Those of you that enjoy going barefoot I wish to ask you to reconsider your decision. Not only for your own health and safety but for the benefit to the group in which you paddle. The strength of the group are the assets each participant brings to the group. In sea kayaking, like many other outdoor activities, their are inherent risks. The question we must all ask is "what is an unnecessary risk?" Given my experience and what I have witnessed I strongly believe going barefoot is an necessary risk. I would hope you would want to be an asset to the group and not a potential liability.

I usually like to end on a positive note but since I found that syringe within 12 inches of my foot I will close with a few sobering questions. How would you feel if you would have stepped on the syringe picked up a case of Hepatitis or HIV? How do you think your family and loved ones would feel if you got infected or injured? Is it worth the risk?

Wayne Horodowich


USK Home Page

© Copyright USK