As we’ve seen in our two prior installments on teak, there is quite a lot to ingest when making decisions about how best to care for your investment. New boat owners may struggle with not knowing who to listen to or which path to choose. You might think, well, its just wood that lives outside- must be kind of like the deck on my house, I should probably just seal it up and that will keep it protected. You could think this. You could also do this. I have seen it, and can confirm that people have done this but, I am of the opinion that sealing your teak deck is a bad idea, and I’ll explain why. One thing we’ll need to suss out is how we define ‘seal’. If you’re thinking of sealing your new teak deck with varnish, paint or water sealant, my answer is no, just no, don’t do it- there is a good chance that you may regret the decision long term, unless you sell the boat (and the problem) away to another person.
Sure, it can be remedied if you’ve painted over your teak—you can have all the paint, plus a few millimeters of your deck sanded down to remove the mistake and start fresh (if your deck was new enough and thick enough to take a good sanding). A reminder, think of the poor Burmese elephants. There is a reason why all the best super yachts have raw teak. Its because raw, naked teak is, simply put, the best—and can’t be beat. Nothing compares to the feel of clean, naked, raw teak beneath a bare foot (not to sound too bizarre but its just an actual factual).
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some beautifully sealed teak. I’ve also seen teak that was sealed years ago and not maintained and it looked like Frankenteak. Basically, once you’ve sealed your teak deck, the stakes have risen. You’ve committed to a path that, if not properly maintained can end up a real train wreck on your boat. I’ve certainly seen it done- the sealing of teak- and done well on a long term basis but this has been done by owners who are possessed by the boat and not the other way around. That is to say, people who live on and for their boat and in particular, for the regular maintenance of the boat. In my experience, this represents a very minute percentage of boat owners. The vast majority of boat owners simply don’t have the time to put into caring for sealed teak religiously.
I say the best rule of thumb for teak is to keep it simple- naked and regularly cleaned. But, if you’re really looking for a religious experience with your teak (like at least once every 6 months) and sealing is tempting you, I would recommend using Semco. Semco has a consistency like water and is quick and easy to apply. Less is more when applying Semco, use a rag or cotton cloth to wipe on clean, dry teak- allow an hour or so to dry and apply 2 coats. It looks really, really nice on clean, brightened teak but is definitely a commitment.
If you’re looking for longevity for sealing your teak and thinking maybe we’ll use polyurethane or something along those lines, fuhgeddaboudit! Boats live outside and neglected bright work looks bad too- the risk with trying to varnish seal teak is that if any moisture (even a teeny tiny weeny bit) gets under the varnish, the wood will mold/mildew (think fungi) and rot from the inside out. A crusty old varnished yellowed cracking handrail is one thing, but do that to a teak deck and its just too sad. Please don’t. Again, think of the elephants.
It’s a tale as old as time— Tina and Chad were out on the yacht; one minute she was sunning herself on the bow cushions, next there were screeches and in the water she went—straight jumped ship. I’ve seen this firsthand, heck, I’ve even been Tina myself. They call this the comedy/horror genre and boy, it gets real right quick. They had something with Snakes on a Plane, but let me tell you--Spiders on a Boat could have been just as good, if not far more realistic. Back when John Goodman was still fat and everything seemed right with the world, in good old 1990 (the year Deckhand Detailing was founded), we were all gifted with Arachnophobia—one hour and fifty minutes of sheer terror (or comedy, depending on who you ask). Unfortunately for many, a few hour cruise your yacht is just like teleporting into the Jennings Barn or wine cellar, except there is no Jeff Daniels or John Goodman around to save you.
When it comes to spiders, some people are like “hey little buddy, thanks for eating mosquitos” while others feel like the mere sight of any spider instantly turns them into Frodo, encountering Shelob— the giant spider on the path to Mordor. This is why they call it comedy/horror I guess. I suppose this is also why no one ever seems to come running whenever I’m cleaning a spider infested boat and let out a murderous shriek every few minutes- (upon encountering another Shelob, except smaller and in real life). Although spider messes are good job security for boat detailers, we still don’t enjoy hanging out with them and while we can ‘wash them away’—we can almost hear them laughing as they scurry for cover and wait it out till we’re gone. In this regard, spiders are just like birds sometimes, and we must remind ourselves we’re in their territory.
Boat docks and marinas are prime habitat for bugs, birds and spiders, especially on fresh water and even more so around covered docks on fresh water. (Salt water tends to keep the bug issues to a minimum, but I will say the spiders who live on salt water are just plain meaner than those who live on fresh water.) A great discovery was learning what spider droppings look like, and if you know, you know. I had no idea what spider poo looked like before I started detailing boats; maybe I had assumed spiders were just like little Kim Jong-uns, with no exit parts. But, oh man, do spiders poo—tons! One thing that always cracks me up at marinas on fresh water (with covered slips), is seeing spider tarps/spider netting hung from the rafters! When I first saw some of these my mind just screamed “what could possibly keep a spider from crawling through, under, over, or around it?!”. Logically these make no sense and don’t work in my opinion, even a little bit. My advice, don’t waste your money on hanging a ‘spider net’ over your boat if it’s housed under cover. If there is an existing spider ‘problem’ then hanging up a big net or tarp over your boat isn’t going to solve it.
Now the vegan inside us all might say, “but spiders can’t be a ‘problem’, spiders just are, man”. So there are some ethical and even legal questions to contend with in the realm of spider mitigation. Spiders themselves are not a problem, but they are a problem for your boat, if it’s trying to stay clean. One must acknowledge that ‘staying clean’ while living outdoors is, at the very least challenging, and in many cases, nearly impossible. There are some detailers out there who may wonder things like, ‘can spiders swim’, and I am one of those detailers. (The answer is yes, and even somehow worse than yes, so just trust me, don’t google it.) There may be some detailers out there who squish to kill (can’t say for sure). We can only address spiders boat by boat, however— the larger infrastructure of their habitat needs to be considered. We cannot and will not spray insecticides in on or around any boats we work on. Our cruelty-free methods include manual eviction and sometimes using a product called SpiderAway (which, hot tip— is basically white vinegar with some mint essential oil in it if you’re looking to save some money and get a few gallons for the cost of one 22oz name brand bottle- mix until the smell reminds you of pickles). This will work well as a natural spider deterrent, and I have seen great successes using this product for small/regular spider ‘problems’. Spray around the dock edges/dock lines and on canvas regularly for best results (don’t spray directly on gelcoat, but it works great on porous surfaces). For big spider ‘problems’, one must use even bigger mitigation weapons.
While our manual eviction process may ‘get’ many of the spiders, you must know their aunties and cousins are living by the thousands under the dock and on that silly spider netting you might have hung over the boat and... they can swim. If there is a big problem, the big spider net isn’t going to save you. My recommendation for big spider problems is to get the property and marina maintenance staff involved. The primary means to tamp down the spiders in peak season (which is now) is to order up dock pressure washing (and this would need to include the ceilings/rooves of covered slips in order to be effective). This request may make some marina staff go a bit slack-jawed, but it really is the only way (short of using illegal insecticides). Pressure washing the entire dock infrastructure (and sending someone in a dinghy and/or man lift to get up under the dock pylons and the underside of the dock and the roof) is no easy task and it will create a huge mess all over the boats. Luckily for you, we’re happy to come out for a wash. Unlucky for you, this is one request I guarantee you will find immense resistance to from most marinas. Most marinas only do this once a year, if that (and typically don’t get under the dock or roof where spiders reign).
Once the spiders have been evicted, their droppings will need to be cleaned up. Spider poo leaves little black dots or streak stains that won’t wash out. After a wash, little gray or tan dots and stains may remain that need to be faded out by the sun. Sometimes (if caught early enough) these can be cleaner waxed but often times these will need some UV exposure to help fade. Occasionally we run into gel coat staining cause by bird droppings with similar stain power to spider droppings. Sometimes we detailers are left to ask “what did they eat” or “how long has this been here” as the answers to both these questions can have quite an impact on the results we’re able to achieve. It can be down right comedic, or horrifying dealing with arachnids on your vessel but we’re right there with you and willing to lend our deckhands to help mitigate the problem one shriek at a time. As long as you can keep a good supply of SpiderAway on hand and the manual evictions in place regularly, we should be able to keep our Frodos or Tinas from jumping ship.
Most of your standard boat names are run of the mill— containing some iteration of the word ‘knot’ or ‘sea’, a cheeky double entendre, Italian words that indicate a boater’s preferred pace. There are myriad categories of boat name too, but I do find the “we finally made it” category to be one of the more expressive genres. Some folks put about as much thought and energy into naming their boat as Gwyneth Paltrow and that guy from Coldplay put into naming their kid, “Apple”, but the power of a great boat name to really knock socks off, can’t be understated. Not just a good boat name, but a spectacular name is essential for many reasons, chief among these— respect. What will your boat name project, what story will it tell?
If you cruise by some boat with the name Shrimp Pickler or Sea Jockey, you’re probably going to think twice about it. Most boat names tell no story at all and are boring and predictable, but every so often you’ll come across a boat name that tells quite a story. More often than not, it’s a story about the boat’s owners, and sometimes that story can be sad, joyous or profound in some way. Sometimes the boat’s name is more than a name. Some boats are thought of as their own sentient entity, with quarks and personality and It's own story, apart from the owner’s—these types of names are for owners who are possessed by the boat and not the other way around. There is the status symbol names category-- which tends to fall on the spicy side, and make some reference to the cost of the boat or it’s status as a financial asset in the owner’s life. Then there’s the lifestyle, tortured souls category— those are the boat names like Money Pit or Buyer’s Remorse—these never fail to get a laugh.
There's the intellectual category, these are the ancient Greek or Latin names, names referencing math, sciences and theories, as well as famous writers, historical figures and what have you. The impact of these names often depends more on the boat itself; a 23 Boston Whaler named Poseidon will not have the same story to tell as, say, a 90 Ocean named Poseidon. Many boat owners sign up for detailing at the start of their journey with a vessel, so I’m often running into boats about to have their name changed, and its fascinating. Part of my job is asking, “does you boat have a name” and the embarrassed answer “its called Knot In The Office (or something like that), but we’re going to change it” always gives me a smile.
I feel like there’s something to the boat name thing. Its like the boat in Donnie Brasco, “The Left Hand”—sometimes these things just pack a whole lot more meaning than you’d expect on face value. That’s just a movie, but in real life, boats like The Endurance (think Shackleton) never made it in Antarctica, and the Santa Maria (yes, 1492) probably wrecked around Haiti some place (and we still haven’t found it). One can read into anything if you look hard enough- finding all the angles on Tony Soprano’s Egg Harbor, The Stugots was pretty funny. Boat names can mean nothing at all, or they can be a celebration of who and what you and your boat are. I say, pick wisely, take all the time you need and remember—we can always help you remove an old name and prep the boat for a new one. Change can be a very good thing indeed.
Here is a picture of a really interesting boat name on a yacht we detailed a couple years back at a Seattle Boat Show in the before times- this is named for an American crafted, Russian inspired vodka brand (made from American corn) but if you didn’t know that, you’d probably think twice about this name for sure.
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. Feast your eyes on these aging boats 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.