You need to know how to clean your boat. It’s finally a beautiful spring day and you decide to head down to your boat to get the engines running or take it out for a spin. But what you see when you get there causes shock and awe. Your boat is heavily dusted with a brown layer of dirt. Footprints from your last outing of the previous year remain on the nonskid. Something slimy and green is oozing out of the rubrail. The gloss on your hull is missing. The gelcoat is covered with water stains. And worst of all, it looks like entire bird colonies have been dive-bombing your boat (and only your boat) all winter long.
Why Clean Your Boat?
This seems like an easy question with an easy answer. Why clean your boat? To get it clean. But there’s more to it than that, and more to it than meets the eye. To answer a question with another question, what will happen to your gelcoat if dirt, airborne particles, stains, and moisture are allowed to remain on it for long periods of time? The answer is that these agents start to break down the integrity of the gelcoat. A brand-new boat with a nice glossy finish can look dull and faded within a year if it isn’t cleaned on a fairly regular basis. Of course, the best way to protect a gelcoat finish is to wax the boat once or twice a year, but regular washings can help prolong the gelcoat’s appearance and protection.
Small airborne particles of dirt land constantly on the hull and decks. Unless you clean your boat regularly to remove this layer of dirt, you are basically grinding it into nonskid deck surfaces and scratching the gelcoat with it as you walk around your boat and brush against the side of the house structure and elsewhere. Likewise, if your fenders or lines sit on or rub over any section of the gelcoat, they will grind in dirt particles and leave marks in those areas.
Bird and spider droppings, if not washed off regularly, will eventually stain the gelcoat. If your boat is docked near a tree, sap may fall onto the gelcoat, creating a sticky residue that attracts dirt and other particles. Any rainwater or moisture that does not bead off the gelcoat but instead remains standing on the finish will eventually cause mildew growth. Salt spray that remains on the gelcoat or windows will eventually etch into the finish, especially if the boat sits in direct sunlight. Over time, your once glossy gelcoat finish will fade, becoming lightly scratched in high-traffic areas and acquiring light brown stains from droppings that have soaked into the finish.
Gear and Supplies
If you’ve owned a boat for a long time, you probably have a dock box full of half used cleaning products you bought over the years that promised magical results. Now would be a good time to go through those products and throw out any that are almost empty or look old. Also throw out any cleaners in containers that have cracked, rusted, or ripped. You can be sure that the integrity of the cleaning product has deteriorated, and there’s no reason to handle rusty cans or sharp edges. Take the Turtle Wax, dish soap, and any other auto or household cleaning products back to the garage, and find another use for any cleaning products that aren’t biodegradable or meant specifically for marine use. If your half-used boat-specific products are no more than two years old and have been properly sealed in containers that show no signs of wear and tear, consider them usable. A few household cleaners are useful on the exterior of a boat, but they should be used sparingly and wiped on and wiped off (as opposed to being hosed off) if possible.
Most of the boat cleaning and washing products you’ll find at a boating supply store say “biodegradable” on them. This simply means that these products are capable of being decomposed by biological agents in the water, such as bacteria. A biodegradable product like boat soap will eventually “break down” in the water, whereas a non biodegradable product (such as oil) will remain in its current state or form. Still, biodegradable products can kill or sicken waterfowl and fish. This is because most soaps and other cleaning agents contain phosphates, which encourage excess plant growth.
Soaps and Stain Removers
I’m the first to admit that the best soap for washing pretty much anything, including a boat, is good ole dish soap. Who doesn’t appreciate all of those hardworking suds and a lemon-fresh scent? And it’s tempting to use dish soap, because we all own plenty of it, it’s easily portable, and a little goes a long way. But whatever you do, please don’t wash your boat with dish soap . . . or Soft Scrub . . . or Ajax . . . or Windex. These products may be excellent choices for their intended uses, but not for cleaning a boat. Leave your household cleaners at home, or at least most of them.
Let’s talk about boat soap first, since that is the main product you’ll use to maintain your boat’s cosmetic appeal and keep it clean on a regular basis. All boat soaps on the market are required to be biodegradable, and most contain an agent that creates suds. Some contain wax. Many are pink. You shouldn’t choose a soap by its color, but neither should you choose one by what the back of the bottle says it can do for your boat. They all help to get the dirt off your boat, but only because you’re standing behind the deck brush moving it back and forth. None of them do the work for you.
If you want to give your boat a thorough wash (for example, cleaning all surface areas, nooks and crannies, hatch gutters, and drainage holes), you’ll need four types of brushes: two deck brushes with soft and coarse brush heads that attach to a long handle, and two hand brushes with soft and coarse brush heads.
Make sure the long pole handle is made of aluminum so it’s lightweight and floats. Long deck brush handles can be fairly expensive at boat supply stores, and the last thing you want is to watch yours sink straight to the bottom of the lake or harbor when you accidentally drop it overboard. You need to buy only one handle; the deck brush heads are detachable so you can swap between them. One soft and one coarse brush head will cover the majority of boat washing chores.
The soft head should be soft enough that it doesn’t feel scratchy when you run it over your face. This is the brush to use on all smooth gelcoat. If you’re using Shurhold products, the blue brush head is their soft brush; West Marine’s soft brush is yellow. Again, if a brush is soft enough for your face, it’s soft enough for smooth gelcoat.
Most deck brushes come in a medium-grade coarse and a heavy-grade coarse. There is no reason to buy both because the medium grade is coarse enough and is all you’ll need. This is what you’ll use on nonskid and possibly when trying to remove waterline scum that a soft deck brush won’t touch. Shurhold’s medium-coarse brush head is yellow. (The white one is their heavy-grade coarse.) West Marine’s medium-coarse brush head is blue.
The remaining brushes you’ll need are smaller hand brushes for hard-to-reach places or for use on narrow side decks or walkways where a deck brush attached to a long pole would be awkward. Here, too, you should have a soft one for smooth gelcoat and a coarse one for nonskid surfaces. You can buy these brushes in the household cleaning or auto section of most stores.
Water Filters and Softeners
If you want a spot-free boat when you’re done cleaning it, or if you moor your boat in an area with hard water that leaves mineral deposits and other particles that produce spots, you may want to consider buying an in-line water filter and/or water softener. The culprit is not the water itself; rather it’s all the minerals that exist in every drop of water. These minerals remain on paint or gelcoat long after the water has evaporated, etching permanent spots into the finish. The calcium and magnesium actually harden into deposits called “scale” inside pipes and on other surfaces, including your boat. The only way to avoid such deposits is with a water softener. Sodium ions make the water feel “slippery,” and this causes it to sheet off surfaces more effectively; any water that remains on the boat’s finish will not leave spots.
Other Cleaning Gear
You might think that hoses and nozzles are self-explanatory, yet there are several issues to consider. Your good ole garden hose from home isn’t the best type to use around your boat, simply because garden hoses are fairly stiff and thus difficult to coil and store in a small space. I equip my crew with a typical -inch-diameter round green multipurpose hose. Make sure your hose is 20 to 30 feet longer than your boat so it will reach easily from the spigot to the far side of your deckhouse or the far corner of your flybridge. Also, be sure to clean the outside of your hose every now and then so it doesn’t leave marks on your boat, especially if the hose has come in contact with a creosote piling.
Plastic nozzles are better for our purposes than heavy-duty metal ones. Not only are they cheaper, they won’t leave scratch marks when inadvertently dropped on deck and won’t sink if accidentally knocked overboard.
You’ll need a bucket, of course. Any 3- or 5-gallon bucket will do. ‘Nuff said.
Cleaning Gear and Supplies Checklist
Here is a quick checklist you can take to the store or consult to make sure you have everything you need on your boat or in your dock box:
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Cleaning your boat—preferably on a regular basis—is an important task of boat ownership. It should be an enjoyable task, and I can assure you that when you have the right gear and products on hand and know exactly how to tackle this job, you’ll find it peaceful and easy work. How many other ways can you think of to experience nature, fresh air, a peaceful environment, and healthy exercise while accomplishing useful work with results that are immediately and gratifyingly obvious?