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.
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.
Q: How do I clean the green mildew that has formed around the edges of my deck carpeting in the cockpit?
A: If you see green mildew forming around the edges of the deck carpet in your cockpit, simply spray with a mildew spray, work in with a light bristle brush and pat dry with a rag. You may want to pull the carpet up during the wet months and put back again in the spring. You can find mildew cleaner spray at either your local boat supply store or in the cleaning aisle of your grocery or home improvement store.