Getting out onto the water for some fun on your boat is a great way to enjoy good weather and the “life aquatic.” However, when the day is over, and it’s time to rack the boat back on the trailer, your obligations to your boat only just begin.
Like your car, your boat needs a wash from time to time to keep it in its best working condition. Cleaning your boat is an absolute necessity for any owner, and it’s crucial if you enjoy spending time out on the ocean.
The reality is that saltwater is aggressively corrosive. While you might think that your painted fiberglass boat isn’t at risk of corrosion under saltwater, think again. Saltwater dries and leaves behind salt that eats into the paintwork, rusts metallic components (even aluminum), and essentially starts breaking down every element of your vessel.
Even if you only use your boat in freshwater sources like lakes and rivers, you’ll need to clean the vessel to keep it in its best condition. Cleaning a boat takes time and care, and it’s a bit more challenging than you expect.
We put together this guide for cleaning & detailing your boat to help you with your maintenance and retain the resale value of the watercraft.
- Prepare the Boat Detailing Supplies
- A Step-by-Step Guide to Detailing Your Boat
- What are the Common Boat Cleaning Mistakes Made By New Owners?
- Wrapping Up – Should I Detail the Boat Myself or Hire a Professional?
Prepare the Boat Detailing Supplies
Before starting the task, it’s time to gather some supplies. The basic materials required for cleaning your boat are the following.
- A large bucket, maybe two, depending on the size of the boat.
- A washing mitt – this handy cleaning tool fits your hand for easy cleaning and protects the gel coat.
- Two long-handled brushes, one with stiff bristles and one with soft bristles.
- A power-washer (optional, but it makes things a lot easier).
- A chamois leather cloth for finishing.
- Paint-friendly boat detergent, wax, and sealant.
- Chrome polish and applicator pads.
- An electric drill or grinder (preferably cordless) and buffing heads for polishing.
- A glossing product for finishing.
- Microfiber cloths for cleaning the interior.
- Don’t forget safety gear like gloves, boots, and safety glasses.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Detailing Your Boat
Follow this step-by-step guide for cleaning your boat from bow to stern.
How to Clean the Boat Interior
We like starting our cleaning duties with the interior first. You might find that strange, but you’ll understand after you finish the first wash. After you finish washing, the last thing you’ll feel like doing is detailing the interior.
By starting with the interior, you have enough energy to clean the boat’s exterior to perfection. You’ll need to pull your boat onto the trailer for this cleaning process.
The interior cleaning tasks for your boat include going over the following areas.
- Marine carpets
- Non-slip Fiberglass surfaces.
- Vinyl flooring and siding.
- Cushions and seats.
- Heads and other amenities.
- V-berths and cabins.
Most boats with cabins or V-berths feature marine carpeting, and you’ll also find it in the cockpit of many cuddy cabin boats and cabin cruisers. Some fishing boats, like bass boats, are fully carpeted from stern to bow.
Start the cleaning process using a vacuum cleaner to remove the dirt and loose debris from the marine carpeting and flooring. Next, scrub it down with your stiff-bristle brush and some slightly soapy water.
Remember to pull the draining plugs from the boat to let the water escape, rinse away the soapy water with fresh water, and let it air dry while you continue with your other cleaning tasks. If you live in an area where air drying takes hours, we recommend using a wet/dry vacuum cleaner for the job.
Fiberglass Non-Slip Surfaces
Most boats have non-slip fiberglass flooring. Start with a hard scrub down of the surfaces using your stiff-bristle brush and soapy water. You can remove tough stains using a touch of bleach in your cleaner. However, make sure you rinse it way properly to ensure the bleach doesn’t damage the fiberglass.
After cleaning and drying the surface, treat it with a non-skid wax, like Woody Wax or Star Brite Deck Wax. These products don’t actually contain any wax, so you don’t have to worry about creating a slippery surface. The treatment helps to increase the traction ion the fiberglass flooring.
Vinyl is a popular material in boat design and construction. From seating to side panels, vinyl surfaces often feature antimicrobial treatments to prevent the growth of mold and mildew in damp conditions. Therefore, steer clear of aggressive cleaning compounds that might strip away this beneficial layer. For tough stains, look for a specialized marine vinyl cleaning formula.
Seats and Cushions
Interior seating cushions can accumulate a musty smell over time, and they require cleaning to prevent odors and mold or mildew from growing under or on the seats.
Remove the covers from the seating cushions and clean them in cold water. Some boat models may have seating covers that are machine washable, which will save you some time with your cleaning tasks. However, make sure you don’t put the covers in the dryer after washing, as the fabrics may shrink.
Sprinkle some baking soda on the seat foam to pull out moisture and odors and leave it for a few hours to do its work. Shake the baking soda and mist the foam with a 50/50 diluted white vinegar and water solution.
Let the solution sink in overnight, and then rinse it out with water the following day. Wait for the foam to dry completely before replacing the covers.
You can clean the head much like you would the toilet at home. We recommend running a few cups of spirit white vinegar through the head system once every month to keep calcium deposits and scale from clogging the lines.
V-Berths and Cabins
Clean the V-berth like you would your home. Polish and protect all wooden surfaces, and use a microfiber cloth to prevent scratching.
How to Clean the Boat Exterior
It’s time to tackle the exterior after finishing with the interior work. The areas you need to address on the boat include the following.
- Hull and gel-coated surfaces.
- Clear Canvas and canvas surfaces.
- Wood surfaces.
Hull and Gel-Coated Surfaces
The hull and hull sides of the boat have a gel coating protecting the paint. If you remove this layer, you’re going to see a rapid deterioration of the paint and accumulation of fouling in the affected area of the hull.
Start with a base-coat of paste wax. Make sure you complete this task at least once a year, preferably in the spring, before you take the boat out for its first run. Use a liquid carnauba wax formulation to polish the hull and sides once a month during the operating season.
The wax protects the paint and gel-coat from saltwater, brings a lustrous shine to the hull and hull sides. When the boating season arrives, make sure you wash the boat down after every use with a soap formulation containing some wax.
Treat the hull bottom with the wax formulation if you keep your boat on a lift or trailer. However, if the vessel stays in the water, you’ll need to pull it once a year to anti-foul the hull.
Canvas and Clear Canvas Surfaces
The canvas surfaces on the boat require monthly cleaning to stop the soiling of the material and prevent staining. Hose the canvas down and scrub it gently with your soft-bristle brush and lightly soapy water to remove the dirt and grime.
With clear canvas surfaces like polyvinyl, polycarbonate, or acrylic, start your cleaning duties with a light wash with soapy water. Use your wash mitt or a microfiber cloth while cleaning to prevent scratching. Wipe down cabin curtains with your chamois leather to remove any water droplets.
The boat engine requires maintenance after each use. If you’re using your boat in saltwater, then forgetting to clean it after use will damage the engine parts and lines, requiring an expensive replacement or repair.
With outboard motors, start with washing the exterior and the cowl and finish with waxing. Treat these surfaces like you would if you were cleaning your car.
Scrub down wood panels and flooring with lightly soapy water and rinse clean to prevent blackening and mottling of the material. If you’re using specialized teak cleaners, make sure you remove the wooden panels from the boat before treating them.
Topside Boat Detailing Tasks
After finishing with the exterior, let’s review some final topside cleaning tasks for your boat.
- Wash the windshield and windows with a soft bristle brush and finish with your chamois leather.
- Vacuum the seats and floors.
- Polish chrome railings, ladders, and cleats.
- Apply a vinyl protector with UV resistance.
- Clean the dash and instrument panel with dash cleaner.
If you have a boat cover, make sure you clean the inside of it to prevent mold and mildew from growing.
What are the Common Boat Cleaning Mistakes Made By New Owners?
Many boat owners love spending time out on the water skiing and fishing, but they can’t stand the thought of having to clean their boat after the excursion. However, it’s a critical task you can’ put aside, or you’ll end up ruining the vessel’s resale value.
If you’re a first-time boat owner, then it’s a good idea to build the right habits into your boat cleaning and maintenance schedule. Most boat owners make the same mistakes with caring for the vessel; it’s a learning process.
However, we recommend reading through these tips and avoiding making these mistakes.
Using the Wrong Cleaning Agents
Many boat owners think they can apply the same cleaning techniques and chemicals to the boat they use for their cars. While the method of cleaning your boat is similar to your vehicle, you’re going to need entirely different cleaning agents.
Boats feature construction with several different materials, and you need specialized cleaning solutions for everything on board the vessel. Make sure you purchase a marine-grade boat wash-and-wax formulation that won’t remove the gel coating on the hull and sides of the boat.
Use the right metal polish to complement the chrome finishes and surfaces on the boat, such as the railing. Saltwater eats into these materials fast, leaving puck marks on the surface if you don’t clean it after each use.
Failing to Rinse Before Your Scrub
When you pull your boat from the ocean, the water starts drying immediately, leaving behind a layer of salt. Failing to rinse the boat before you begin washing may cause hairline scratches on the surfaces.
Rinse the boat with fresh water to remove the salt before you start scrubbing. It’s important to follow this procedure if you’re using the boat in freshwater as well.
Using the Wrong Cleaning Materials
Make sure that you clean the hull with a soft-bristled brush. All painted surfaces on the boat require a thorough but gentle cleaning. This action prevents damage to the gel coat and paint.
Use microfiber cloths for removing tough organic deposits and chamois leather to wipe the boat down after cleaning and rinsing.
Failing to Inspect the Propeller
The boat propeller requires maintenance after each use, especially in saltwater. The salt can easily corrode the props, leaving pucks on the surface that drops the operating efficiency of the motor. After each use, check the props for signs of corrosion and rinse them off with fresh water.
At the end of the boating season, send the motor to a machine shop for propellor polishing before sending the vessel to storage.
Not Covering Your Boat When Placing It in Storage
If you’re sending your boat to a dry storage facility over the winter, make sure you have a cover to protect the interior and exterior of the boat from dust accumulation. Leaving the cover off the boat means you’re going to have one heck of a cleaning task on your hands the following spring.
The cover is especially important if you’re storing your boat in an outdoor boatyard during the offseason. The cover not only keeps the dust and debris out of the vessel but also protects the exterior from damage and fading caused by the suns intense UV rays.,
The cover also prevents rodents and other pests from entering the boat and making a nest. Rats or mice could chew away at the wiring, causing the need for extensive and expensive repairs the following season.
There are plenty of boat covers available for any boat design. We recommend going with a cover offering you the best protection possible for your vessel. You might have to spend a little more, but you’ll thank your good judgment the following season when you put the boat in the water.
Letting the Boat Air Dry
Many new boat owners make the mistake of letting their boat air dry after pulling it from the water. This action is a huge mistake. As soon as the saltwater dries, the remaining salt starts to eat into the gel coat, damaging the paint.
You’ll need to rinse the boat down immediately after pulling it from the water. Rinse the boat down and use your chamois to dry the exterior surfaces before taking it home or to the boatyard for cleaning. After finishing the exterior wash, wipe it down with the chamois to give the boat the best-looking finish possible.
Neglecting Your Upholstery
Some boat owners don’t understand that they need to clean down the upholstery in their boat. They leave it and then wonder why they have mold and mildew growing everywhere the next time they take it out onto the water.
Even if your upholstery has a marine-grade vinyl cover, you’ll still need to clean it after every use to prevent organic materials from growing in the dark areas under the seats. Use a marine-grade vinyl cleaner to remove any dirt or salt from the covers and a mildew stain remover if you discover any infestations.
Clean the cushions after the trip and let them dry out completely before placing them back on the seats. Removing the cushions allows the air to get at any mold or mildew, preventing it from building up.
Wrapping Up – Should I Detail the Boat Myself or Hire a Professional?
Some boat owners enjoy spending time cleaning their boats. We appreciate it too, it’s a great way to take your mind off your stresses, and there’s a great sense of satisfaction after you finish cleaning and pull the cover over the boat.
However, some boat owners might not have the time to clean their vessels themselves, or they might just despise the cleaning process. If that’s the case, send your boat to a yard for cleaning after pulling it from the water.
Many docks and marinas offer cleaning and detailing services, and you don’t have to worry about using the wrong cleaning agents or missing your cleaning duties. It might cost you a few bucks, but the result is worth the money.
Even if you clean your boat yourself, consider sending it in for detailing before you send it to storage for the winter. Most boatyards and detailing services will charge around $50 per hour for their services.