Clean Your Boat Properly to Extend Its Life
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  • Post last modified:March 26, 2021

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Cleaning Your Boat 101

There are no two ways about it: a boat is a major investment that requires a lot of care and maintenance to keep in tip top shape. That being said, while many of us recognize the importance of oil changes, fiberglass repairs, and electronics updates, few people realize that keeping your boat clean is one of the most important parts of regular vessel maintenance.

If you’re reading this and thinking to your self, “Shoot, I haven’t cleaned my boat since I bought it,” you’re not alone. Plenty of people fail to keep their boat looking spick and span, either because of a lack of free time or a lack of awareness about the importance of keeping your boat clean.

Alternatively, some boat owners take things a little too far and get perhaps mildly obsessive about keeping a perfectly clean boat. Generally speaking, you want to keep your boat in clean condition, but you don’t want to go so far overboard (pardon the pun) with boat cleaning that you neglect other critical maintenance needs.

So, to help you out, we’ve put together this great guide to caring for your boat, including all the information you need to wash down the outer decks of your vessel and maintain the quality of your cabin’s upholstery. Let’s dive right in.

Importance of Maintenance

Okay, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s quickly discuss the importance of regular boat cleaning. Boat cleaning is particularly critical for anyone that spends time in saltwater, but is equally as important for your freshwater lovers, too.

What’s so bad about saltwater, you might ask? Well, if you look at a really good up-close photo of a grain of salt, you’ll notice that salt naturally forms into a crystalline structure that has sharp jagged edges (usually cubes or something pretty darn similar).

Now imagine your beautiful boat covered in tiny little salt grains that are slowly digging into your vessel’s fiberglass hull and gel coat. Sounds great, right?

Basically, if you fail to clean your boat regularly, salt will build up on your vessel and cause chalking and pitting on the fiberglass and on your decks. Eventually, the salt crystals will scratch away at your boat and leave behind visible abrasions.

But, that’s not even the worst of it – saltwater is really, really good at corroding things, so if you love rust on your boat, you should go ahead and leave it in saltwater for years without cleaning it, just to see what happens. We can assure you that the results won’t be pretty!

Now, all of that information was just to clue you in to what can happen to the outside of your boat if you don’t clean it for a while. What about the inside of your boat, you might ask?

Well, if you don’t maintain the inside of your boat, you can leave your cabin vulnerable to mold and mildew growth. Since boats are always leaking water from somewhere, even the fanciest of superyachts will have moisture build-up inside the cabin and below decks, so you’ll need to regularly dry out your boat and clean it to avoid potentially harmful mold growth.

Plus, a dirty cabin is, well, dirty, and really isn’t much fun to be around. Keeping your boat cabin clean and organized is the best way to maintain a nice, welcoming atmosphere out on the water for you and your guests!

Cleaning Your Boat: Tips of the Trade

Alright, now that you understand the importance of cleaning your boat, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of how it all actually works. As you’ll see, there are a few things you can do every time you go out on the water, while some other boat cleaning procedures are for when you have more time to dedicate to a deep clean. Here’s what you should do:

Regular Freshwater Rinses

Saltwater is a major problem for boats, both when it comes to fiberglass and gel coat damage and metal corrosion. One of the best ways to stay on top of your boat’s exterior cleanliness is to give it a regular freshwater rinse every time you’re in port.

All you have to do is pull into your berth hook up a hose to the marina’s freshwater supply and spray down your boat decks. It’s really nothing fancy. If you’re visiting another marina for the night, just be sure to check in with the harbormaster about freshwater hookups.

Of course, if you’re going to be underway for days or weeks at a time, freshwater onboard your boat is limited and shouldn’t be wasted. In these instances, washing down the outside of your boat will just have to wait until you get into port. Thankfully, saltwater damage doesn’t happen after just a day or even over the course of a few weeks. It takes months and years of neglect, but it’s easiest to just keep on top of the problem with regular freshwater rinses.

Even if you don’t take your boat out on saltwater, freshwater rivers and lakes aren’t the same as our drinking water and contain loads of harmful algae, barnacles, and other critters that can grime up and damage your vessel. So, you should still take the time to hose your boat decks down, even if you’re primarily a lake boater.

Washing, Waxing, and Polishing

Beyond just a simple rinse with freshwater, every once in a while, you’ll want to scrub down your boat’s exterior with a bit more force. During these deep cleans, you’re looking not just to remove salt and grime on the surface of your boat, but to get rid of any underlying dirt.

Deep cleaning your boat decks is a process, especially if you also want to maintain the quality of your boat’s gel coat and aesthetic. Thankfully, it’s really not that difficult, it just takes some care and attention. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Freshwater Rinse. It’s always a good idea to start with a quick freshwater rinse of your boat’s decks before doing a deep clean
  • Use a boat cleaner. Once you get the surface grime and debris off, it’s time to call in reinforcements. You’ll want to get yourself a dedicated boat cleaner, which is purpose-built to remove grease, salt, fish entrails, and other similar icky bits. With a hose, a large scrubbing brush (a scrubbing broom is particularly useful) and the boat cleaner in hand, lather up the outside decks of your vessel to get rid of all that grossness.
  • Rinse again. Don’t let any soap dry up on your boat decks as this can actually damage your vessel’s finish. Instead, wash small sections at a time so you can rinse, lather, rinse, and repeat for a perfect clean.
  • Inspect your vessel. After you do a thorough clean of your boat, go ahead and have a walk around. Inspect the vessel for any spots that you might have missed, and don’t be afraid to wash it down twice, if need be.
  • Buff the exterior. If you love having a shiny boat, putting in some time with a rotary buffer can help remove any potential oxidation from the surface of your boat. This will help bring out the boat’s natural shine and even get it ready for the upcoming waxing stage of the cleaning process.
  • Wax the surface. Wax is really the only way to get that perfect shine back to your boat. Plus, waxing your boat gives it a protective layer that helps protect it against debris and grime build up int the long run. Waxing a boat is very similar to waxing a car, but you’ll want to make sure you buy special purpose-built boat wax for the job. Remember to focus on small areas, applying the wax and buffing it as you go.
  • Finishing touches. After you wax your boat, consider adding things like a marine protectant to strengthen your boat’s plastic, rubber, and vinyl from UV damage. You can even wipe down the gel coat with a special detailing solution to give it extra shine and long-term protection.
  • Sit back and relax… for a bit, at least. Congrats! You’ve completed the cleaning process on the outside of your boat. Think you’re done? Well, not quite yet. You still have to clean the inside of your boat, which we’ll talk about next.

Cleaning the Interior

Once the exterior of your boat is clean, it’s time to start spiffing up the interior. Although the outside of your boat is what gets beat up by the elements, the inside of a vessel is also at risk of mold, mildew, and rust development, so you need to take the time to clean your boat’s cabin, too. The good news is that cleaning the interior of a boat is really about putting in some elbow grease. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate. Mold and mildew love to grow in warm, wet locales. Fight this off by maintaining proper ventilation inside your boat’s cabin at all times. If you’re cleaning your boat and notice it’s a little damp inside, open up the hatches, get a fan and a dehumidifier and try to contain the damage.
  • Get a multi-surface cleaner. The vast majority of stains and smears are easily dealt with by using a multi-surface marine cleaner. These cleaners are found at all marine supply stores and make wiping down nearly all of your surfaces a simple and mess-free process. Often, you can even use a multi-surface cleaner to remove stains from the floor.
  • Spot clean tough stains. If you’re cleaning your boat and find that you have a tough stain that just won’t give up, consider a spot cleaner. These cleaning solutions are a bit stronger and more potent than their multi-surface cousins, just be sure you can use that solution on the surface you’re working on.
  • Be careful with metals. The one real exception to a multi-surface cleaner is interior metals. Stainless steel and aluminum metal have a naturally reflective coat that can experience streak build-up if you use a multi-surface cleaner to wash it down. Instead, use a purpose-built metal cleaner and a soft cloth instead to protect these delicate surfaces.

Upholstery and Carpet Cleaning

Our boat’s fabrics, upholstery, and carpets are particularly vulnerable to mold and mildew growth. While adequate ventilation inside your boat’s cabin is the best way to prevent this mold and mildew from growing in the first place, you can also regularly clean your boat’s fabrics to kill off any potential mold growth.

To clean a boat’s upholstery and carpets, you’ll want to start by using a marine fabric solution to get rid of any stains. Then you can wrap things up with a vacuum cleaner, which can be useful for removing and dirt and debris stuck in between cushions or in small spaces.

Final Notes

Ultimately, keeping a boat clean is a labor-intensive, yet important process. Regular washing and cleaning of your boat will help remove any salt build-up above decks. However, frequent deep cleans are what will really tackle that dirt and grime, keeping your boat looking fresh and new for years to come.

That being said, just make sure you don’t neglect to clean your boat’s cabin to prevent harmful mold and mildew built up inside. Regular vacuuming and spot cleaning can stop a problem before it gets worse, while ample ventilation within the cabin can prevent mold and mildew build-up in the first place.

If all of this sounds like a lot more work than you want to take on, you can always hire a professional boat detailing service to take care of it for you. Of course, you should still give your boat a freshwater rinse at the end of a day on the water, but frequent cleans by a professional detailer can do wonders for your vessel.

Whatever you choose to do, just ensure that you clean your boat regularly and with care so you can spend more time out on the water doing what you love.

John Allen

With more than a decade of experience cruising the lakes in my Crestliner Grand Cayman pontoon boat and my Boston Whaler, I now want to share everything I've learned with my community here at Boating Hub.

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