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.
Q: We have a ski boat with a red hull that’s slowly turning pink. I’ve applied wax to it several times, both by hand and with an orbital buffer, and it looks great for a few hours and then looks faded again. What am I doing wrong?
A: Boats with colored hulls must be waxed on a regular basis, about every 6 months and if it’s a black hull, you’ll want to apply wax about every 2 months. But that’s only after you have cut through the oxidation and the only way to do that properly is by using rubbing compound with a variable speed buffer. The rubbing compound has grit or clay in it that will help cut through the oxidation, but only when it’s applied at a high speed and applied evenly. An orbital buffer doesn’t spin fast enough or offer even pressure and you won’t be able to press hard enough with even pressure if you apply it by hand. Using an orbital buffer or your hand to apply rubbing compound will give you splotchy results.
If you haven’t used a buffer before, you’ll want to start with a DeWalt 849x. This buffer has a slow start so you can ease it onto the gel coat and then kick up the speed as you go. Use a compounding pad to apply the compound and buff it in with.
Q: I have a DA (dual action) polisher that I use on my car. Can I also use it on my boat?
A: Yes! There are areas where a DA polisher can come in quite handy if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on a variable speed buffer and if you just want to keep certain areas of your boat polished yourself in between the big yearly wax jobs.
As I just talked about in the previous question, a DA polisher can be used to keep colored stripes buffed and polished on a regular basis to keep them from fading. DA polishers, because of their smaller size, are also great for getting in those hard to reach places such as around corners, under rails or between areas of non-skid.
One area where we often use a DA polisher is on gel coated cap or toe rails. These areas often fade quickly because of their horizontal surface that bakes in the sun (UV rays hit them more directly causing them to fade faster). A DA polisher is also great for buffing the topside of a ski boat or sailboat that has a lot of nooks and crannies.
A DA polisher isn’t as “aggressive” as a variable speed polisher when it comes to removing heavier oxidation, so I wouldn’t recommend using one on your whole boat, such as the hull, brow or transom. They’re best used for smaller areas that you can do more often to remove light oxidation and add a layer of wax throughout the season as needed.
We love the Porter Cable dual action polisher. There are many cheap brands online but Porter Cable has a much better polisher with improved features and a motor that will last a long time.
Q: Should I wax my non-skid?
A: Only if you like slippery decks and lawsuits. We get asked this question all the time. As detailers, we won’t wax someone’s non-skid for them even though there are some products on the market meant just for non-skid. We feel that they’re still too slippery under certain conditions and we don’t want to be the reason you slipped on your boat.
If you want to try one of the non-skid waxes, try the Woody’s Wax. I’ve heard good things about it although you have to apply it often. Try a small one foot by one foot sections of your non-skid and follow the directions carefully. After, see if it’s slippery at all with bare feet, socks or shoes. This will give you some idea as to what warnings you may need to give to your guests if they board soon after you’ve applied it.
Q: How can I remove exhaust stains on the transom and stern area? They don't come off with boat soap or spray cleaners very well.
A: Exhaust stains can turn a white transom gray and make an otherwise clean boat look dirty. Exhaust stains won’t harm your gel coat, but for cosmetic purposes, it’s something you probably want to keep on top of. However, as many of you know, they don’t always come off in the wash. Some spray cleaners are strong enough to remove exhaust stains, however if they’re strong enough for that job, then they’re probably also strong enough to eventually strip that area of wax, only making it harder to clean the exhaust stains off over time. The only way to remove them at that point is to buff and wax that area. Yes, it’s a vicious circle that you’re on, so how about skipping a step and going straight to the wax.
The best way to remove exhaust stains from gel coat is to wax them off. This is something that can easily be done by hand with cleaner wax, such as Meguiars Cleaner Wax. Use any kind of rag to apply the wax with (terry cloth or an old t-shirt) and wipe or rub it in until the exhaust stains are gone. Then use a microfiber rag to wipe the hazy wax dust off. You’ll be left with a nice clean, white surface again and it should be a little easier to wipe exhaust stains off the next time since they’ll be sitting on top of a freshly waxed surface.
As a boat detailer here in the greater Seattle area, we see boats in all conditions from shiny and new to dirty and listing. It takes a lot for us to actually stop in front of a boat as we’re walking down the dock to cause our mouths to drop open, our heads to shake and our camera phones to come whipping out of our pockets so we can document just how bad a boat can get. And by “bad”, I don’t just mean some dirt and mildew. That’s nothing to us.
I mean a boat that has a layer of green mildew covering its once white gel coat, black mold specks in the non-skid, fuzzy moss growing out of the window sills, lichen infiltrating the canvas, green slime oozing out of the rub rail, chalky oxidation and wax-like orange bacteria growing on the walls inside the boat. This is what will stop us in our tracks and cause us to shake our heads and wonder what happened to this poor boat?
We were lucky enough to come across a boat like this just before the September boat show a few years ago. As we walked out on a dock heading to the boat we were working on, a cute little 32’ Tug literally jumped out at us with its chalky blue hull and mildew covered decks crying out for help. Or at least some wax and a pat on the stern. We couldn’t ignore this boat, as it had clearly been ignored by its owner for a long time (12 years we came to find out), so we decided to give it some love and make it our “before and after” boat for the boat show.
We wanted to show people that no matter how long you’ve let your boat go, you can still bring back its cosmetic luster and help protect its gel coat and wood. (You can see the before and after pictures of this boat on our web site.)
If you haven’t cleaned or detailed your boat in a while, the first thing you might notice is that it’s not as shiny as it used to be. That’s because the gel coat has started to oxidize and there isn’t any wax protecting the gel coat from UV rays that come through on both sunny and cloudy days. You may also notice black specks in the non-skid that don’t come off when you wash the boat. Those are specks of black mold and we see that a lot during the winter and early spring seasons here in the Pacific Northwest. Our mild temperatures mixed with rain cause mold to grow at a very fast pace. Green mildew also grows quickly and loves to attack the edges of the canvas and underside of the bimini cover. And of course water streaks and a good layer of dust will almost always cover your boat, which isn’t a problem if you wash your boat on a regular basis, but can become a more difficult task to remove if you don’t keep it up.
The 32’ Tug we came across was a great example of just how much extra work it takes to bring a boat back to new again when it’s been neglected for a long time. No amount of boat soap was even going to make a difference at this point. It would take a lot of specialized detailing products, buffers and mildew and mold killing sprays along with a lot of hard work. And because we knew that the oxidation and mildew on this boat would only laugh at a deck brush laced with soapy water coming at it, we went straight for the big guns and powered up the buffers.
Once a boat is heavily oxidized, it requires a lot more than just wax to remove oxidation and bring back a shine. You’ll need a power buffer with rubbing compound and it may require several passes to completely cut through and remove all oxidation. In our case with the Tug, it was an older boat and hadn’t been waxed in a long time, therefore causing actual deterioration of the gel coat. The gel coat was thin in some areas, so we could only use so much pressure with the buffer while using rubbing compound. We were also working with a blue hull. Any mistake and you would be able to see it clearly. It took several passes with the buffer and compound, but eventually we started to see shiny blue gel coat come back to life. After removing the oxidation, we then applied a polish to seal the gel coat and then a good coat of wax to help protect it further from oxidation.
Now that the hull was taken care of, it was time to attack the topside. Before compounding and waxing the topside, we needed to remove the green mildew growing all over the white gel coat and in the non-skid. We used a mildew killing spray (that you can buy at boat supply stores or in the cleaning aisle of a grocery store) to treat the decks and clean the gel coat with. It took a few passes and we had to let it sit on the decks for a few minutes each time, but eventually the mildew and black mold came out. Once we had clean gel coat, we were able to continue buffing and waxing.
There wasn’t any canvas to clean on this boat, although had there been any canvas covers, based on the condition of the rest of the boat, they probably would have been good candidates for the garbage bin. You can only let canvas go for so many years without cleaning or treating it before it becomes thin, riddled with mildew and can no longer protect what it’s covering. However, if you do have neglected canvas and want to try and bring it back, the best thing to do is remove it from the boat and clean it while it’s spread out on the dock. Use a deck brush and mildew spray to treat and remove all mildew and then wash with soap and water. Hose it out well and then hang it somewhere it can dry completely before putting back on your boat.
Our next task was to treat the teak wood trim and doors. They were black with water and mold stains, as well as dirty from general wear and tear. However, having been neglected for so long, the grain was very open and we knew the wood could only take so much. In order to really bring back a golden honey color, we chose to use the two-part cleaning and brightening solution (Teka Part A and B formula). However, because of the wood’s condition, we could only use a soft brush to apply the product with and couldn’t let the chemicals sit on the teak for too long. We carefully and quickly cleaned and brightened the teak and to our surprise, it truly came back to life showing its beautiful golden color once again.
After all of this work, we then washed the boat and enjoyed the sight of glossy gel coat again. Well, on half of the boat. For the boat show, we decided to leave the other half untouched to emphasize our work and to show that you can bring a boat back to glossy again. It was fun to watch boat show attendees walking down the dock looking at shiny new boats only to look further down the dock and see our little Tug. Their eyes were always drawn to the bad side first that hadn’t been detailed because it was such a shocking sight that it was hard to turn away from. And then they saw the glossy gel coat and clean topside on the other half and just had to come down to take a closer look. It was rewarding to see their shock and awe and to share with them our techniques on how they too can bring their boat back to glossy again if it no longer has that shine.
If you’re a do-it-yourself’er, the best way to keep your boat clean and prevent it from getting so dirty that it requires more work than what you can provide is to put it on a cleaning schedule and work on small sections throughout the year. Here is a sample plan that can help you get back on track with regular maintenance:
A plan such as this can help you maintain your boat’s cosmetic appearance and keep the gel coat, teak and other surfaces and materials in good condition. A few hours a week or one weekend each month may be all you need if you have the right gear and products and a list that helps you stay on track of your maintenance plan. And hiring a detailer at least once per year to do the deep cleaning or remove oxidation can help you take care of your boat in less time and with less work the rest of the year. But whatever you do, don’t let your boat be the one that stops us in our tracks and causes our mouths to fall open…and then write an article about it!