During the long days spent at home last spring, while we were all in lockdown, I may have seen a Ted-Talk or two, or several dozen. I decided to take advantage of some distance learning and find out more about the world of Mycology and Lichenology. For years, I had been seeing all sorts of puzzling growths on long forgotten vessels that owners were looking to resuscitate, wondering what they were, where they came from, and how they formed. I’ve seen plenty of ferns and grasses (even a small sapling or two) growing on boats, so it made sense that other things could ‘float in on the wind’ and get established. I’ve also come to realize, many other things may also float in on the poo raining down from various birds, but who’s to say? Sure, it's nerdy, but really knowing the difference between mildew and mold and lichen seemed prescient to me.
Obviously when any of these are present on a boat, yacht, or what have you, it’s there. ‘It’ has arrived and set up fungal shop. Another way to think of ‘it’ being there, is the term ‘it’s in the’. In the detailing world, the terms ‘it’s in the…canvas’, ‘it’s in the… paint’, or ‘it’s in the…teak’ are indicative of a fusion between a force of nature, and the varying material conditions present on a given vessel. In science, these materials become known as substrates. Lichen form on 'vapor and sunlight' as some eloquent scientists have put it-- a symbiotic community of fungi, algae and photosynthesizing cyanobacteria—this is what you see when you spy lichen, and they are surprisingly resilient and resistant to UV exposure, salty or even anaerobic environments. They’ve blasted these things in the lab with radiation, heavy metal—fuhgeddaboudit, it’s really not going anywhere. Scrape it off, sure. If ‘it’s in the’ honestly, it’s there. We can make it go away, for a while, but I guarantee you, it’s coming back-- as the conditions are prime. If it was left alone long enough to be there, in short, it’s probably time to think about replacing your canvas (if it bothers you).
Radiotrophic fungi have been not only found on it’s own in Chernobyl and on the International Space Station but they’ve also brought it on purpose, for science (by SpaceX) to do experimentation on. Molds and mildew mycelium are out there in space, all on their own, and rusts. They can suspend indefinitely and wait eons necessary to find the right conditions to begin growth again. Harsh environments are nothing to these fascinating fungi that can be found on space rocks of all sorts, which begs the question, where do they really come from. The mycology and lichenology of boat detailing is absolutely fascinating and has put me in touch with some of my scientist heroes, in pursuit of answers about marine fungi. There are astounding discoveries being made currently in the field of mycology and we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of hydrocarbon loving fungi who prefer plastic substrates(!). The inert silica in fiberglass isn’t tasty for mycelium, but everything else is definitely on the fungal banquet table.
I take great comfort knowing that when humans stop making yachts (or anything really), fungi will recompose all our leftovers someday. Mycoremediation is a process we’re only just beginning to understand but it is fun watching it happen on boats, and funny to think about how we intervene to try and slow this process. Although lichen grows at, what feels like an astonishingly slow pace, it’s pretty fast, when you think about it in the context of natural forces.
I’ve wondered about these a couple instances in particular, for a long time. When I didn’t know what they were, I referred to them as ‘the orange lichen’ or ‘the black lichen’. Its been kind of my super star scientist heroes to talk layman science with me about this stuff. If you haven’t fallen asleep already, the orange lichen is Xanthoria parietina known as sunburst lichen, and it is a foliose, leafy lichen. I found this particular little patch, growing on a rehab boat by the Canadian border. You’ll see it anywhere along our coasts. Often, it’s on rocks clinging to the shoreline (or pretty much anywhere), but if you ignore a boat long enough (short enough depending on how you look at it), it will grow well on your canvas, yes even the Sunbrella kind (and yes, I have seen it on teak too, and gelcoat).
I’m probably mistaken, but I believe the black lichen on this particular hard top could be Verrucaria maura, also known as ‘sea tar’ lichen. It has been said these primarily grow on seaside rocks (as they actually aid in the digestion of limestone in particular and also in the formation of mosses), but I would argue they may also thrive on marine paint and perhaps even gelcoat, if left alone long enough. This type of lichen is part of training for oil spill cleanup crews, so they don’t go willy-nilly scrubbing shore rocks of that which is not in fact, oil, but can look strikingly like it.
We’ll talk more later on the differences between an open or closed celled material (substrate), and how oxidation plays a huge role in how ‘open’ to fungal growth your boat may be. Take it from me, just like you, your boat has a mycobiome all it’s own, and although it now seems to live in nature, someday it will become nature, recomposed, thanks to fungi.
If you ask Google, there are millions of ways to clean your teak. If you ask, what’s so special about the properties of teak, it’ll tell you "Teak is naturally water-resistant and physically very strong and durable. It is not prone to significant expansion or contraction with humidity changes. The oils in teak are what make it weather-resistant and it requires basically no care when left outside." This of course, is a lie-- if you want your teak to look a certain way. As with most questions, I find that the answers to teak care tend to be ‘it depends’. Luckily, we can guide you in directions.
*Disclaimer, we’re talking about real teak here, Tectona grandis, not the popsicle stick stuff.
So, getting down to it. First things first would be an assessment. We already know the teak is gray and probably old. If it wasn’t, you likely wouldn’t be reading this. How old though, makes a difference; some people say you should expect 20 to 40 years or more out of the life of a real teak deck. Everyone agrees, teak that hasn’t been maintained, will die young, or be in serious need of repair. Just how much repair? Well, ask yourself a few questions. Is the caulking (black stuff in lines between the wood) ‘standing proud’? Cut it down, or replace it. Are the panels dished? Ready the Dremel and belt sander, or hire someone who knows what they’re doing. Maybe the teak is just gray, and it would be nice to give it a scrub and bring it back to a nice brown color, or even, dare I say (the highly coveted) ‘honey’ color? You may think pressure washer, but you’d be wrong. It’s starting to sound like work now.
If you spend too much time on YouTube, you’ll find yourself bouncing around between an ancient sailor, down on hands and knees scrubbing the deck of his sailboat with a stiff bristled brush and a bucket of salt water uttering the phrase ‘across the grain’ till it hurts, to a teenage deckhand in the Mediterranean on a superyacht, scouring powdered dish detergent or into the teak with a 3M doodlebug, to some guy in Florida who swears by scrubbing his teak swim step with Coca-Cola. Seriously, it’s like, pick whatever channel you want, you’ll find variations on a lot of themes, but I assure you, some of the ideas out there get pretty wild.
If you ask the boat makers, the shipwrights, the shapers and mounters, the installers of the elephant harvested teak from Myanmar, they will give you a list of rules about what to do and what not to do and it will typically look something like this.
1)accept the fact that the wood will become gray, or don’t and see what happens (you’ll probably be just fine)
2)do, always scrub gently with a soft or medium/soft brush across the grain (don’t use stiff bristle brushes, don’t scrub with the grain)
3)increase intensity of cleaning product strength from regular boat soap to white vinegar and water to a small amount of bleach or ‘mildew remover’ and water to oxalic acid, Bon Ami powder, powders of all types, some say various detergents, then we enter the realm of two step acid washes, a realm where some dare never venture- but if you’re after that honey color it’s really your only option, that, or sanding
Ask yourself, how do you like your grain? I’ve noticed the grain effect on super yachts (given the doodlebug treatment) I would describe as ‘smashed, but pleasant underfoot’. I once knew a guy who liked to use pickle juice on his teak, he said the smell helped keep the birds away. One thing that really degrades a deck (other than obviously scrubbing it too hard or using a pressure washer) is marine fungi. Yeah, you heard me, fungi. Mold, mildew, lichen, even mosses (especially here in the Pacific Northwest)-- its all part of the re-composition, where in, nature turns your teak deck back into soil. Fungal communities feed on algae that quickly establish onboard your vessel and yes, there are plenty of hydrocarbon loving fungi out there too, who love even the diesel in your boat engine. Those ones are the sludge makers, also known as Hormoconis resinae. If you’re not paying attention, the fungi will absolutely move in, birds poop it in on the wind, maybe. It’s just out there, man. Don’t feel weird about it though, there’s even molds mildew and fungi that live on the International Space Station. Completely anerobic and even salty environments are a non-issue for many fungi and also rusts (queue blog foreshadow). This is something not many talk about when we’re talking about teak, I know. But, to put it bluntly-- you do have to ‘keep it clean’ if you want it to last-- what this translates into is quite simply, regular maintenance washes.
Whether its boat soap, vinegar, bleach, what have you, keeping your teak clean is the key to longevity. Once the fungi has moved in, and if bleach (mildew remover) isn’t cutting it, then you may have to decide which acid treatment is right for you, or get to sanding. Pretty much every commercial teak cleaner doesn’t pass the EPA smell test for discharge into any waterway, and although some work very well, in essence it’s a chemical sanding. The real key is, once you’ve got it clean, keep it clean. Need a sand? We can’t help there, but we can help keep it clean, and this should always be the ultimate goal for maintaining your teak. Leaving nutty pickle juice guy behind, we’ll venture into the realm of “to seal or not to seal” on our next analysis paralysis session of this teak deep dive. We’re going to be talk oiling, staining, painting, maybe dip a toe in popsicle stick flooring and all things imitation teak.
Seattle is one of the biggest boating hubs in the country, hands down, and this pandemic has been a wild ride for everyone, boats included. It was interesting not being able to go outside and detail boats in some of the spring of 2020. We were fortunate to be in the first wave of folks who were able to return to work last year. The nature of what we do is inherently socially distant. We’re outside, and most of our fantastic crew work independently, so we were extra lucky. The ghost town effect in and around Seattle was bizarre to say the least. Parking was free on Lake Union though, so that was pretty exciting for a while.
One thing that became clear over the course of 2020 was that boating was going to become the thing. Europe is closed. Canada’s closed. Hotels are closed. Flights canceled. What to do, what to do? Lets buy a boat! Everyone bought a boat, and everyone is still buying boats this year too. Covid has been a major boom for the entire industry. But with all these new boats, the old boats didn’t go anywhere. The infrastructure plan hasn’t built any new marinas yet. I’m not aware of any plans for major dock expansions. Maybe it’s time to buy stock in a boat trailer company, or a pop up yacht garage company. I digress. One of the quiet things I wanted to mention, that some boat owners may not be ready to face, is that some boats are dying. For every new boat hitting the marina, there are several boats in varying stages of decay.
Neglect is a guilt inducing term, so we won’t use it here. But, the issue of decomposition, especially from boats made during the fiberglass boom of the 1960s and 70s is an important topic and I’ll circle back to it in future blogs. There certainly are plenty of circumstances where there is nothing that can be done, and sometimes there’s more important things happening that need attention before boats, such as pandemics. Lock down can become a complicated thing, especially when your boat is in Seattle and you live several thousand miles away and can’t travel for years. This is the case for a boat our awesome crew member Jaime took care of this week. Feast your eyes on this aging boat for which covid has been a real bust.
When we talk about washing boats, dirt and mildew tend to get a lot of attention, especially in the Pacific Northwest. But, one thing folks don’t talk much about is the need for some serious UV protection, especially for unhoused boats that spend their whole life out in the open. Just as with our own skin, the sun causes the vast majority of damage to your boat, or your boat’s ‘skin’-- which is a good way to think about the exterior of your boat.
Sure, you can get dirt on your skin, it just washes off. But there is a reason your dermatologist tells you to be sure to put lotion on after you shower (and then sunblock, of course). A conditioning protectant is essential to, not only save you from the ashy, chalky look, but also to create a barrier layer between you and the free radical, oxidative stressors inherent in environmental exposure. So, the moral of this story is, as odd as it may sound, after you’ve washed it, lotion your boat. We’ve found the best nautical cosmetics counters and have been conducting extensive boat beautification testing for decades. We can vouch for several great products.
Don’t worry, we’re not greedy, and won’t keep these secrets to ourselves; because we don’t believe in information hoarding at Deckhand Detailing, we’ll go ahead and list some the best products on the market for all those times, between buff and wax Spa Appointments (once the boat has been cleaned) where you’ll want to ‘sunblock’ your boat’s skin. Putting these ‘lotions’ on your boat every month or two will go a long way in fending off crows-feet, never mind the nautical folliculitis that happens when you don’t keep your boat’s skin clean and protected.
A wonderful, top-shelf product is 303 Marine UV Protectant. Its safe for use on several surfaces, but it works especially well for vinyl seating. Use it on your dinghy tubes, dash area, it really is a fantastic UV blocker and also repels dirt and dust. It’s spray on, wipe off application makes it especially quick and easy. Meguiar’s 59 Quick Wax is a real gem to use on your gel coat; again, the spray and wipe application makes this especially quick and easy, and you can use it everywhere. Using a product like Rain-X (StarBrite also makes a similar product) on your glass, also goes a long way to help prevent the formation of water spots and aids in repelling dirt and preventing mineral deposits caused by hard dock water. Plexus and IMAR Strataglass Protective Polish work very well on any type of isinglass or plastic windows.
I will keep one outstanding product line in this arena a secret, for now, but will tell you all about it soon, we promise. So, whenever you think or hear ‘don’t forget the sunblock’, remember to share that love with your boat too.
The calls started coming in late January 2021. Many vessels had been affected and the evidence was everywhere in the form of inordinate black greasy blobs ranging in size from pencil tip to pea or even bean. Some boats were more covered than others; some cleaned-up easier than others. No one knew quite when it happened, what had happened or who the perpetrator was, but no one could deny that something had happened and at one of the fanciest marinas in Seattle -- to boot.
I got off the phone with Jordan, the Harbormaster at Elliott Bay Marina yesterday. I had left a message and he called me back lightening quick. I think we were both hoping one of us had some information, some answers. These little grease balls had caused quite a stir. Folks were talking property damage claims and had their boat insurance companies on speed dial. My phone had been ringing off the hook and the old inbox was full. “I kept waiting to hear something about it in the news,” I told Jordan. He had been hoping the same, but nothing had materialized.
Not long after the incident everyone had become a sleuth, positing all sorts of wild theories about what could have happened, who was to blame. Fingers were pointed in lots of directions. Jordan spoke with an airline pilot and even spoke with the mechanics from the fishing fleet that took off from Seattle en masse in January to see if any of them could have had something to do with it. Turns out they don’t even have boilers, so it couldn’t have been them. Dozens of calls were made to the EPA, other local marinas and even the Coast Guard. No one knew anything or even seemed interested in investigating, and the more time passed, the more it became clear that whoever, whatever did this was going to, and presumably had already sailed away scot-free.
The best we could come up with, is that it must have been from container ship traffic in Elliott Bay. Some ship must have been storing up it’s ‘feelings’ in a boiler during the quarantine days of 2020 and quite literally blew it’s stack in January 2021 while cruising by beautiful Elliott Bay Marina. What ship was it? We don’t know. No witnesses have come forward yet and somehow this does feel a bit like a crime. No other marinas in the area were impacted. Jordan and I are still left quite a bit puzzled though. The EPA apparently didn’t care much, and never sent anyone out to check on the residual atmospheric discharge remnants blanketing parts of Elliott Bay. Jordan mentioned the EPA seemed to have a markedly different attitude because the greasy oily blobs were merely settled on the boats and marina infrastructure and not perceptible in the water-- shame.
One shining light in this dumping scandal was that well cared for boats with fresh wax jobs suffered very little; a few minutes with a hose and the job was done. For neglected boats, thirsty for a wax, the clean up was more nightmarish, creating smeared greasy Jackson Pollocks all over open pored dry gelcoat and crusty old canvas. Apparently, even if we can’t save ourselves from literal fall out from atmospheric discharge, at least we can guard ourselves from more serious aesthetic damage by keeping a protective wax barrier on our boats, even through fall and winter. Pro tip: join our wax list as early as possible as we tend to book up sometimes several months in advance.
Buckle up as we take a ride on the teak highway, from Lake Union in Seattle all the way to Myanmar. We'll be doing some time travel as well, so put your helmet on, and get ready to hit a few destinations along the way including the Netherlands, en route to the land of unemployed elephants. At the end of this leg of the journey, you'll understand why the question "where did your teak come from" is the new "where did your diamond come from".
When I talk with boat owners who are interested in 'the how and why' of all things having to do with boats, I usually find myself quite capable of being longwinded. If there is a teak deck involved, sometimes this conversation could go on for hours. There is so much to say about teak, and this is why Google will give you 2,090,000 search results for "how to clean teak on a boat". You're probably all like, yeah, yeah, I came for the blood diamonds part. We'll get into it, I promise. To be truthful, given the breadth of the subject, this may need to become a multi-blog topic, but I'll try to cover some ground here, starting with a disclaimer.
When I say teak, I'm talking about the real deal, Tectona Grandis-- not the fake stuff, which I like to refer to as 'popsicle stick flooring', or the various other iterations of imitations in foam and composite. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate what the alternatives are trying to accomplish, they just happen to be a nightmare for detailing. Teak decking is also a nightmare for detailing. As with the diamond trade, many people have little inkling of the ramifications that go into the acquisition of these raw materials, and the varying shades of associated 'legality' depending on country of origin. Now you may be thinking you were promised a ride on a highway, not a rollercoaster but by now you're strapped in already, helmet on. PPE, check. Keep your hands and arms inside the ride, remove dark soled shoes, here we go.
In 2006 Djimon Hounsou, Jennifer Connelly and Leonardo DiCaprio brought the complicated topic of 'conflict diamonds' (mined in war zones and sold to finance conflicts in Sierra Leone) to the American zeitgeist via the silver screen, with the movie Blood Diamond. In part, the growing consideration for where and how ‘items’ or ‘materials’ are 'harvested' was spurred on by this film, and gave rise to the now highly sought after 'conflict free' diamond, along with notions of becoming an educated consumer. Terms like 'fair trade', 'sustainably sourced', 'ethically sourced' started hitting the mainstream around this time and all of the sudden child labor became a consideration when you popped into Sephora to pick up a new eyeshadow pallet and had the thought, "where does mica come from", never mind the diamond you've been after.
Like most diamonds, teak has no real markers on it to say where it came from, or how it was sourced and likewise the usual answer to either question on teak or diamonds origin, is typically answered with a shrug and an 'I don't know' or ' couldn't say'. In 2013 the EU implemented strict rules surrounding 'illicit timber'. What a provocative term! In 2014 Myanmar (the country also known as Burma and current worldwide winner, for longest civil war) banned the export of wild teak logs. This was big, because Myanmar has all the good teak, having the most tropical forest in Southeast Asia. Despite the issues around deforestation (especially in the regions known for teak) and the governments ban on export, Uncle Pennybags demands only the best teak for his yacht building and all logs must be harvested using elephant labor. But for real, apparently, it's like, a big problem in Myanmar-- what to do about all the out of work elephants, especially during the pandemic. I know, it all sounds a bit like theatre, but I swear its true! The below photo is courtesy if the Dutch Police from a multi-pronged teak raid in 2019 of smuggled Burmese teak found in numerous locations in the Netherlands via the Czech Republic.
I kid you not. Apparently the Tectona grandis is, no joke, hotter than drugs and the authorities are looking to crack down. The yacht makers (some names have been named in media reports) must have their Burmese teak fix though, and will not be denied. Sure, there is a myriad of ethical questions one could consider, from the laborers (my god, the poor elephants) to the environmental impacts, but ultimately, those lawsuits are being played out in high courts in other countries and the powers that be are charging the middlemen in the supply chain-- the 'dealers' and the 'shippers'. By the time your new teak deck arrives in the Pacific Northwest, as a mere user-- one can assume those fines have already been paid. But the now, illicit nature of it does make the status symbol of having a deck teak more of a rarity and it will become increasingly more difficult to acquire as raids and unavoidable restrictions increase.
These developments in the teak market and global trade have only added to the mythos of having a teak deck. This also makes it all the more important when a boat owner has to weigh decisions about how to care for and maintain their teak, especially with an understanding of the unicorn-like nature of both a new or old teak deck. Stick around as we peel back the layers and layers of teak care. We're going to talk caulking, sanding, washing, scrubbing, oiling, brightening, products, tips and tricks, things to look out for and then, we'll talk same on all variations of 'fake teak'. For now, the ride is coming to a stop. Keep your dark soled shoes off, summer is nearly here. Leonardo did not win, although he was nominated in 2007, for best actor. You may remove your helmet, we'll pick back up with this deep dive into teak in the next one.
What are the water streaks on your boat (sometimes referred to as black streaks) and why do they keep happening? Where do they come from, how can we remove them, and once they're removed, how can we keep them from coming back? Keep reading for tips and tricks to learn how to keep your boat looking it's best year round in the Seattle area with Deckhand Detailing.