Best Way To Clean A Boat

Tom Cline makes a living cleaning boats. In fact, he and 23 others in his employ do nothing but clean other people’s craft year-round, spreading the scrubbing and buffing between T&C Marine Service’s summer headquarters on Lake Erie and the winter operation based in Naples, Florida. Between the two locations, they’ll clean 3,000 boats in a season, and have seen it all.

“The worst is blood,” said Cline, whose been in the business full time for over a decade. “Or a mixture of blood and vomit. Especially if it’s been in the sun awhile.”


“Or what’s left behind when an animal has taken up residence over the winter.”

Okay, okay already.

“Then there’s that stuff we find that we really can’t identify, by sight or smell.”

That’s when Cline breaks out his $20,000, truck-mounted high-pressure cleaning machine. But short of that rather drastic measure, he says, there are ways to get just about anything on a boat cleaned up.

The first thing Cline and every other boat cleaning professional we talked to recommends doing when the boat is first brought out of storage is to give it a thorough washing.

“Even boats that were put away ‘clean’ and covered,” says Jeff Tieger, VP of Star brite products of Ft. Lauderdale, the world’s largest manufacturer of boat care products, “can pick up a lot of dirt over the off-season, and need to be cleaned.”

“But there’s more to cleaning than cleaning,” he warns. “This time of year our toll-free customer question line rings nonstop with questions from boat owners who are getting their craft ready for the season. They’ve learned that their boats aren’t indestructible, that use takes its toll, and they want to know what they can do to maintain their boats.”

And, according to both Tieger and Cline, the local self-service car wash is not the place to start the season–especially for fiberglass boats.

“Gelcoats are soft,” explains Tieger. “A lot softer than car finishes. The high-pressure wands at car washes can actually force dirt into the surface of the gelcoat of a boat. Unless you can turn down the pressure, you could have problems.

“The other problem with commercial car washes is the soap they use. Most are alkaline based, and can chemically etch the surface of the gel coat.”

That’s the same reason you don’t want to use dish-washing or other household detergents for the wash-down, according to the Star brite spokesman.

“Materials used for household cleaning tend to be very alkaline, which is fine for porcelain dishes or metal pots and pans,” explains Tieger. “But on fiberglass, even if you get it rinsed off quickly and completely, you run the risk of damaging a gel-coat with an alkaline-based cleaner.”

Cline agrees, and in his boat-cleaning business uses soaps made expressly for boats, specifically Meguiar’s #54 Boat Wash. “Over the years, I’ve used every cleaning product with the word ‘boat’ in its name,” says Cline. “You definitely want to use a boat soap.”

The difference between a good soap made for boats and household cleaners, according to Tieger, is the way the products attack the dirt. While alkaline-based household soaps use chemicals to eat away dirt and oil, boat soaps use surfactants, materials that lift dirt, oil, and grease off the surface being cleaned allowing them to be washed away with a water rinse.

As for aluminum boats, the local car wash–and the Lemon Joy–are acceptable. There are special cleaners for aluminum boats, however, that do the job better.

According to Marianne Iosso of Iosso Products, which makes several boat cleaning products including Pontoon Boat Cleaner and Polish for aluminum boats, you have to beware when it comes to cleaners for metal surfaces.

“Some cleaners contain acid, either hydrochloric or muriatic acid, in as high as a 50:50 solution,” says Iosso. “Acids are tough on the user, the boat, and the environment, but they’re popular because they eat right through algae on boat hulls. The problem is, they also eat right through the outer ‘skin’ of aluminum. Once this finish layer is broken, the pore structure is opened to the elements and it’s never quite the same.”

Those open pores make it easier than ever for algae to form too, she says. Iosso’s cleaner/polish for aluminum uses a mild (alkaline-based) detergent to remove algae and dirt without taking off the protective layer, and leaves a protective coating that makes it even tougher for algae to form by providing a slick surface over the aluminum.

“The polished aluminum surface will allow you to wash algae off with a power washer or with some scrubbing,” says Iosso, “for at least two seasons.”

Cline said that you can run into similar trouble cleaning aluminum with steel wool as well. “Some aluminum is brushed over with epoxy, which you rub right off with the wool,” said Cline. “Aluminum also has a grain to it, and you can scratch it by rubbing against that grain, so use wool as a last resort, and even then be careful, and polish over it to protect the pores.”

Some people have been known to take their aluminum boats to commercial truck washes that offer an acid wash to clean the big rigs.

“I suppose you could do that with a boat,” said Cline. “But you’d have to replace the surface coat with polish or wax, and you’d have to be mighty careful with that acid. I sure wouldn’t recommend it.”

If you have damaged the aluminum surface of your boat, or would like to give it a good scrubbing, consider 3M’s One Step Aluminum Restorer and Polish. The paste can be used to remove oxidation and algae stains and then may be buffed to a glossy finish that will repel further growth and seal pores in the metal surface exposed by harsher cleaning efforts.

Tough stains on fiberglass surfaces take some special attention. The black marks left from tie-down rope or boat cover chafing, spilled fuel, and dried Dr. Juice on a light-colored gelcoat can be tough. Davis Instrument’s FSR Fiberglass Stain Remover is a cleaning gel specially formulated for these types of stains, including rust. Because there are no abrasives in FSR it won’t scratch the gelcoat. It’s great for water spots and removing exhaust, chafe, and oil stains as well.

There’s more than fiberglass and aluminum surfaces to clean on bass and walleye boats. Carpeting is another major area of attention, and one of the toughest to clean.

“The old scrub brush, soap, and garden hose is as good as anything out there,” says Cline when it comes to cleaning boat carpets. “When things are really bad we’ll use a steam cleaner with sanitizer and deodorizer solutions.”

Simple Green cleaner is a product that Cline seems to use on a regular basis, as a glass cleaner and on fishing-related stains to remove any “fishy” smell. Cline said that most citrus-based cleaners are especially good on carpet stains that have an odor about them.

Tieger has had success using his company’s Black Streak Remover for use on dried fish blood both on carpets and on other surfaces, with Star brite’s Boat Carpet Cleaner handling most common carpet clean-ups aboard. The high-pressure wand at the self-service car wash may be used on marine carpeting as a last resort, but go easy, for you can loosen carpet adhesives, liners, and fibers with too much high pressure directed for too long a time in one spot.

Cleaning vinyl boat seats is another matter altogether. Vinyl is soft and flexible because of the presence of plasticizer between the molecules of vinyl and plastic. Think of plasticizer as a sort of ball and socket joint between the two, which allows them to flex and twist and feel soft to the touch.

UV rays from the sun, and certain chemicals and solvents in popular cleaning products, damage those plasticizers, rendering the vinyl stiff and causing cracking. Some solvents actually leach the plasticizer right out of the material, says Tieger.

Another culprit is chlorine, according to Iosso, which is used in some cleaners recommended for vinyl when mold or mildew are a problem. She said that chlorine-based cleaning products attack nylon and polyester cottons, degrading the fibers in fabrics and bleaching-out the colors in the material. Iosso Products offers a multi-purpose cleaner in the form of powder that, when mixed with water, works on most surfaces. Iosso Mold and Mildew Strain Remover can be used as a all-purpose boat wash as well as a vinyl cleaner and is nontoxic, nonhazardous, biodegradable, and contains no chlorine of bleach. By mixing into a thick paste-form, it can be used on blood and other tough stains as well.

Pro cleaner Cline likes Meguiar’s vinyl cleaner for boat seat and interior cleaning; Tieger recommends his company’s Vinyl Shampoo for tough stains as well as Star brite Cleaner/Polish, which leaves a protective waterproof coating with a UV block. Boat Armor’s Heavy Duty Universal Marine Cleaner is good for tough stains on vinyl and carpeting, and is safe for gel-coats as well. 303 Protectant is a good coating to wipe or spray on any vinyl that has been cleaned, for it contains UV blocks and seems to restore some color to faded vinyl (and most other) surfaces.

In fact, just about every surface you clean on a boat should be sealed with a protective coating of one type or another, for most detergents break down whatever protective layer was on the surface in the first place. But that’s another story altogether…