The DIY boat cleaning guide

By: Tony Mackay

Presented by
  • Trade-A-Boat

Boat-Clean.jpg Boat-Clean.jpg
Reprovision.jpg Reprovision.jpg

Time to spring clean a boat? Tony Mackay dons the rubber gloves and gets down and dirty

The DIY boat cleaning guide
Buffing glass, bench tops, foggy walls and fibreglass is easy. A fellow I know even buys second-hand nappies (spotlessly laundered of course) for this purpose.

Whoever said that death and taxes were the two unavoidable things in life completely forgot to mention cleaning. At birth you arrive screaming, having been whacked on the derriere, and then a nice nurse starts to clean you up and everything is restored to happiness.
Perhaps that’s a metaphor for cleaning? It’s the secret to a good mood and contentment. Let’s get aboard your boat and consider the matter.

 

CLEANING A BOAT

Call me unhinged, but I quite enjoy cleaning and varnishing and shopping, but the one thing I detest is actually making a start and most people will be the same. However, needs must, with your boat languishing over winter and in a filthy state. Add the sparkle of spring sunshine and the slightly longer days and you should be motivated to get moving. Try and take pleasure from an otherwise mundane task and you will enjoy it that much more. And if you are on a boat somewhere on the Australian coast, it can’t be all that bad can it?

Chinese boats are called junks and most other boats are filled with junk. The first stage of your adventure is to cull the ‘stuff’ which may have been considered crucial at the point of purchase, but is now filling drawers and lockers. I recommend getting virtually everything off and having a stringent assessment of this wreckage. Either take it home or toss it out. Be vicious.

SORTING THE ASSORTMENT
Now sort it all out using some logic. Instruction manuals should be put into an expanding file so that they can be easily found when needed quickly. Plastic containers can store all manner of items in groups such as engine spares, paint and sandpaper, cleaning products, and so on. Smaller containers, clearly labelled, will tidy up nuts and bolts, glues, tools, and you will find this level of organisation extremely helpful.

I use fishing tackle trays for screws, split pins, washers, etc, and have a miscellaneous one for dinghy bungs, small globes, and all those weird little gizmos that normally live in the back of your special drawer. The new type of Dymo label makers are very helpful and you can even put the engine hours on the oil and fuel filters so that the next service is easy to remember.

The galley is a particular nest for excess equipment and one cruiser I know had a full set of 10 copper pots and pans for the dedicated and slightly ambitious chef. Six years later, they still wore the price tags. You need one small pot, one large pot and a frying pan, and most boats will be just fine and dandy with those.

You will also have too many glasses, platters and toothpicks. Bye bye.

In some states, cheap paper napkins, those thin paper plates and plastic forks are grounds for divorce. (Ed: They can be useful if you need to save on water). Whoosh. Other complex cooking apparatus will usually be cobweb infested so it is time to move them on. Make no mistake, I am as guilty as anyone here and my cocktail bar still has little blue plastic marlin swizzle sticks and one of those press-button ice tongs with little claws. Very ’60s.

Remove all sheets, bedding, towels, linen and tea towels and run the whole lot through the washing machine at home. The bunk cushions should be aired in the full sun, one of the great and free decontaminants. If you ever get caught at a smoky party or pub and arrive home with stinky clothes, an hour in the sun and they will be odour free. Next, you can sort through the bathroom products, old books, old bottles of ghastly booze and liqueurs, faded maps and out-of-date flares. Adios!

While everything is out, and as exhaustion is possibly setting in on Day One, you may wish to spray or bomb the boat for cockroaches or insects if there is any evidence of them lurking. Cockroach poo is like little black granules and we need them to disembark, preferably in a deceased condition, up the vacuum cleaner nozzle. And while talking vacuums, you need a proper household model with disposable bags and dust-free performance, unlike some of the shop vacs which have poor filtration and blow dust all over the place. A big wand, crevice tool and my favourite attachment, a dusting nozzle with fluffy bristles, are essential. Clearly, I need to get out more.

SOAPS AND SUDS
To really get you in the mood, I heartily endorse an excursion to a large supermarket and you should move swiftly past the cheese and wine department and make a beeline for the cleaning products. This is a fabulous aisle filled with mysterious and luxuriant aromas, the smell of which will get you really revved up.

You will need some quality cloths and I like the Chux Robust blue numbers with the little holes in them, but not the cheap ones that turn to a soggy little lump when wet. Otherwise, get the yellow or pink fluffy squares which are excellent. Liquid Jif or Ajax is great, but I always seem to use too much of it, so I now prefer Gumption which is a paste and one tends to use a smear which does the trick and uses less water with the rinse. Lemon-scented bleach is useful and there is a particularly nice lemon Ajax floor cleaner in a yellow bottle which smells very fresh. You will have your favourites.

Some metal polish (ED: try the tin that contains a roll of impregnated wadding called NEVR-DULL, available from chandleries), perhaps some Febreeze fabric spray, Windex and lots of quality paper towels, a quality sponge and a good chamois. Try the Oates Enka-fil which is superior. The little boxes of disposable gloves are great, however, a stout pair, perhaps pink for colour and movement, is recommended when dealing with the loo and rancid cupboards. Then come polishing cloths, garbage bags, and on and on.

I have no issue with Mr Sheen, but if your boat has paint or varnish never use these types of cleaners with silicone in them, they will make future painting work a nightmare worse than the Amityville Horror. Similarly, some of those shower products and even Exit Mould are not pleasant for the cultivated nose so sniff first and reject if necessary. Generally, a few quality items will do the trick. (Beware of spraying bleach-based products on canvas).

DON’T FORGET THE RAG BAG
Most people have redundant bath towels and these, washed and tumble dried to remove the lint, are fabulous for windows and general wiping down after all those sprays and products have been swished around.

Buffing glass, bench tops, foggy walls and fibreglass will be easy as pie. A fellow I know even buys second-hand nappies, spotlessly laundered of course. So, lots of towels please.

Arriving back at the boat, you will be in a heightened state of excitement to try your vast selection of patent brand products, so get the hot water, bucket and stuff out and apply the next secret weapon…

ELBOW GREASE WORKS
My grandmother never cleaned a thing in her life, other than herself, yet we were constantly scolded to "use more elbow grease dear!"
Honestly, little wonder I drink, but she was right.

Cleaning requires some vigorous effort, attention to detail and patience not to give up on some festering stain until it is banished.
Move section by section and task by task, unless you are a Gemini and will do everything at once — just as long as it’s all done properly. A little music, perhaps a refreshing beverage administered at suitable intervals, a light lunch and even some friends or family to help. It will be quite a pleasant day if you create the mood.

I have not mentioned the exterior here as the different types of boats require different treatment. Fibreglass needs a wash and polish.
Timber boats are different again, as are other boats with painted finishes such as two-pack paints or varnish.

Use some logic, don’t scratch the paint and be careful with detergents that may be too powerful. Your local marina or ship chandler will stock something that suits, but generally, you will not go too far wrong with a mild soap or carwash shampoo, a sponge and a chamois.

BEWARE THE TEAK DECK
Teak decks require special attention and the two absolute no-no’s are water blasters and scrubbing brushes. Teak has summer and winter growth in the grain and one is soft and the other hard. Pressure water blasters will strip the soft timber out and a scrubbing brush will gouge it out leaving the grain open and rough.

I use a mild enzyme-based detergent which foams up to lift the dirt out of the grain, and then I use 3M green scourer pads to scuff away the dirt. All on hands and knees.

Split the deck into sections and it will not seem so bad, and get some rubber kneepads. There is a 3M doodlebug contraption which holds the scourer on a broomstick. Retired from flying duties, I don’t quite get the traction or enough scouring going with a stick these days. Get down and dirty or lasso a young person to do the scrubbing, and bribe them with cash. Either will work like a dream.

SOLE DEEP
Smart people will lift the floors and have a good poke around in the bilge. This may require more significant attention, and an extra set of eyes helps, as does intensive yoga lessons. Have an expert check the skin fittings, bilge pumps and hoses, shower sump pumps and rectify any damaged or perishing items, particularly the electrics or the fuel tank lines and fittings. This is a very critical part of your annual maintenance schedule and should not be underestimated. A funeral director I knew never lifted the floorboards as the carpet was screwed down, and had all sorts of engine and maintenance issues, silently, but expensively coming to pieces in the dark. As one wag put it, "It’s like his coffins, mate. All shiny on the outside and rotten on the inside!" Check it out — it could save your life.

For those less impacted by the dreaded GFC, perhaps a little update with the carpet, upholstery and curtains, is in order. New décor, don’t you know, is cheaper than a week on Hayman Island and with longer-lasting benefits. If you have purple and grey tapestry fabric and a grey-blue spotty carpet, I should respectfully advise that that fashion train has gone. Get someone with taste and style to advise on a little makeover. Why not? It will make you love your boat even more.

Women reading this will probably be doing all this drudgery once a year in any case, unless you are my grandmother. Men in charge of the boat duties need to realise that your dear wife or girlfriend or partner will be very receptive to being on the boat with everything ‘just so’, and this may be an even better aphrodisiac than the cheap champagne and dozen oysters you had cunningly planned on. Give it a try and report back. I will be fascinated by your results. If you want to go the whole hog, iron the sheets, tumble dry the towels and make everything look like a five-star hotel. You will get more action than the First Light Artillery!

And the final hint, which will conclusively prove that I am an idiot searching for a village, is to open the vacuum cleaner and squirt your favourite perfume or aftershave on the bag and start work. The boat will smell like a dream even if it still looks like a nightmare. Happy boating.

 

HANDY BOAT CLEANING TIPS

FIBREGLASS
Unless your boat needs a serious polish, which it probably does by now, avoid harsh cleaners such as truck wash and the many products which have acid in them. These products strip the protective wax from your fibreglass and leave the surface clean but dull. Use a soft-wash product or a boat or car-wash product with wax in it. Really dull surfaces may be enhanced by the professional application of products such as Poliglow, which puts a film coating on the gelcoat and usually lasts about nine to 10 months. When gelcoat has deteriorated to a chalky finish, you need a buff. Should this prove ineffective you may need the services of a spray painter.

TIMBER
Most timber boats are painted or varnished and you need to be very gentle not to scratch the surface and remove the shine, which can then only be restored with a fresh coat of paint. Not letting it get dirty in the first instance will help the paint last longer. Single-pack paints go dull in time and cannot be polished. Some two-pack paints can be polished, but this depends on the system and products used. Be very careful with any polishing or waxing when varnish is present as the wax will create a nightmare.

ALUMINIUM
The natural finish is best as aluminium oxidises and then protects itself from further deterioration. Painted aluminium requires more science and you should refer to the manufacturer or paint recommendations for advice. Blistering paint is extremely common and requires some skill to rectify, and this is a subject on its own.
Consult your paint specialist. People in the motoring industry are usually conversant with two-pack painting.

GLASS
I use water, a chamois and fluffy towels to buff dry, which eliminates chemicals and all that smearing and fogging which seems to turn up several hours later. Single-sided razorblades, other than for slashing your throat when the repair bills arrive, are handy to remove spots of paint, varnish, bird muck, etc. The towels are the key.

CLEAR COVERS
Lots of soft soapy water to release the dirt into a fluid state will avoid scratching and dulling the clarity of your clears. Wiping them when dry and you may as well use Jif or sandpaper. There are several polish products for clears (Plexus is popular, Vuplex is new and great, but your Ed uses Imar products imported from the USA) and I have even seen them buffed with a machine, however this requires professional attention. Lots of water please, and back to my chamois and towels system.

CANVAS & COVERS
Vinyl covers can be scrubbed and you can even use stronger detergents such as diluted bleach (10 water to one bleach) to deal with mildew and stubborn stains. Spot test an inconspicuous section before getting carried away. A water blaster will also deal with vinyl, particularly those impossible sections around zippers and stitched borders. However, you can easily blow the stitching to smithereens. Stitching on regularly cleaned covers needs replacing in as little as five years.

Canvas should be treated with slightly more care as the water repellent will be removed with strong detergents. I have run big covers through a commercial laundry with impressive results and there are products which can be used to replace the waterproofing. I have seen someone use concrete sealer to do this, applied with a paint roller. Just remember, the stronger the detergent the shorter the lifespan, so gently does it. If they have had the sword, move swiftly to the skip bin, which is now filled with your other former treasures.

NON-SKID
Fibreglass non-skid is easily cleaned by using your wand, the one attached to the water blaster. For those with no wand, even the magic variety, a small scrubbing brush will do the trick, but it is a slow road from misery to happiness. Single-pack painted non-skid will probably flake off under water pressure, so soft bristled brushes are the answer.

ENGINEROOMS & BILGES
You now are in the realm of degreasers (kerosene-based) to remove oil deposits and the residue from exhaust fumes and eroded fan belts. Sugar soap is also effective in here and there are lots of products designed to give this section a spruce up. Just be careful with water and electrical components, and don’t just pump the muck overboard.

Commercial operators have suction machines if you have a serious mess to deal with. Remember to wear facemasks to protect you from dangerous fumes in enclosed areas and avoid highly flammable products such as acetone. I often use supermarket carry bags and lots of paper towels to do my preliminary clean, with disposable gloves at the ready. Your yoga course and Pilates lessons will pay off while managing the innumerable contortions required to clean an engineroom. Smart people use the very reliable point-and-pay system which involves a pointed finger and a wad of cash thrust at an eager and impoverished minion.

SOFT FURNISHINGS
There are lots of products that allegedly clean fabric, however, I think they only spread the mess or are so severe that they leave spots everywhere. If sofa and bunk covers zip off, it is often advisable to refit them while still damp from cleaning so that they dry back in shape and you avoid excessive shrinkage. Who needs that? I have always enjoyed the great theatre of someone refitting laundered bunk covers which have shrunk and the English language is often stretched further than the fabric ever will. Try and buy fabrics which are serviceable, cleanable and durable. If you have leather, there is plenty of excellent cleaning kit out there. Automarts are loaded. Your Ed enjoys good interim results using Armorall leather wipes.

CARPETS
I detest dirty carpets and unless you have a very rich and asthmatic relative and want to speed up probate, you should clean carpets very thoroughly. No amount of 12V power with those plug-in Dustbuster machines will efficiently clean carpet to a level which would satisfy me. You need a household unit of considerable power or you can rent a Britax steam cleaner from Woolworths and give them a proper seeing to. If they are really on the turn, then O-U-T they must go.

STAINLESS STEEL & CHROME
For those irritated by their poxy looking railings, remember the word is stain-less and not stain proof. Metal cleaners in the toothpaste tubes are best and this process requires the less-is-more application method, other than the dreaded elbow grease, where more is better. It is laborious and requires patience and lots of soft cotton cloths. (Ed likes the wading from NEVR-DULL polish/cleaner). Still, it makes a very pleasant Sunday afternoon at the marina. Wear a hat.

ECOLOGY
Other specialist cleaning items are usually straightforward and require some effort and the appropriate product. Detergents with enzymes in them usually lift dirt during the foaming process and these will be preferred products. Try not to dump all this foaming muck into the bay or harbour as the little fishies will glow in the dark. For those wishing to slow the demise of the planet, there are books about the use of vinegar and bi-carbonate of soda which will do no damage to the environment, and many of these methods are ecological and non toxic. Buff with mink gloves for a heightened shine!

 


Want the latest stories delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for the free TradeBoats e-newsletter.