I recently wrote about the Clean Marina organization that is starting to control what member marinas can and can’t use in and around their properties. The goal of this organization is to help marinas and boat yards reduce and manage their hazardous waste and implement improvements to restore our waterways and protect the environment.
One of the rules we need to start following at marinas that belong to this organization is that we can only use approved boat soaps. This means that no matter who is washing your boat, whether it’s you or your boat detailer, only certain boat soaps can be used. Biodegradable means nothing anymore. They must also be phosphate-free AND leave no suds in the water. I mentioned some boat soaps in my article about the Clean Marina organization last month. In this article, I’ll go into more detail about three soaps you can use if your marina belongs to this organization.
Green Doesn’t Necessarily = Clean
What we’ve found with the “green” soaps that have less chemicals in them and are phosphate-free is that although they are more environmentally safe to use around waterways and don’t irritate the skin or nose as much as other stronger cleaners might, they sometimes aren’t strong enough for the extra dirty boats. Ideally, a boat should never be left uncared for that it gets so dirty that it requires strong chemical-laden cleaners or soaps in the first place, but unfortunately that happens all too often.
The more often a boat is washed, the cleaner it will be and therefore the mild soaps and cleaning products will work just fine and because your boat is cleaned often allowing you to use milder cleaning products, those mild cleaning products will strip less wax so your boat is protected better and longer not allowing water streaks and bird droppings to set into the gel coat but instead wash right off. I agree, it’s a vicious cycle!
Boat is cleaned often > able to use milder cleaning products > strips less wax > boat stays cleaner.
Boat is not cleaned often > must use stronger cleaners to clean away dirt and mildew > strips wax in the process > boat gets dirtier faster because it doesn’t have a layer of wax protecting it > stains soak into gel coat easier.
Now let’s review some of those more environmentally-friendly boat soaps that will help you keep your boat clean if done on a regular basis. I recommend washing your boat at least every three weeks, buffing and waxing the whole boat once per year and buffing and waxing the topside again about six months later if it’s starting to fade a bit.
Starbrite Sea Safe Boat Soap
This is one of the more common (easier to find) boat soaps we’ve been using that is both phosphate-free and doesn’t leave suds in the water. It will suds up a bit in the bucket but it rinses off almost suds-free. I’ve found it to do a good job at helping wash away dirt and it seems to get the boat nice and clean.
Captain John’s Yacht Shine
This was the only boat soap we could find at this time that actually had an “approved by Clean Marina” sticker on it. However, this soap did leave suds in the water, so I’m not sure if they actually tested it or if we just got a stronger mixture this time. It did an alright job of getting the boat clean, but we had to use a bit of extra elbow grease to get some tougher stains out. It’s a soap we often use at the more strict marinas so we can show the harbor master the seal of approval if asked about our supplies, but it’s not typically our first choice for washing.
Zaal Sea Solve
This is a boat soap that was introduced to me a few weeks ago and we’ve been using it ever since. It’s was first designed as a boat soap that was very good at removing salt spray and crystals but it became so much more. It’s phosphate-free and is made of mostly natural ingredients and smells great. Your boat will literally smell like fresh fruit. It’s really good at cleaning tough stains and works well to get dirt out of teak decks. It has a de-foamer in it, so you won’t see suds in the bucket or the water. At first, you feel like you’re just using a bucket of water to wash your boat with since you can’t see any suds, but after a while you get used to it and realize that it’s doing a good job cleaning. However, this soap is almost three times as expensive as the other soaps. We save it for our large yachts and boats with special finishes.
Tips On Green Cleaning
You can try to wash your boat with baking ingredients, such as vinegar and baking soda, but let’s face it, in some cases when there’s more dirt than you bargained for, those ingredients are better for zucchini bread than boat washing. Unless you wash your boat on a weekly basis, completely pure ingredients may not be able to cut through strong stains, heavier dirt or green and black mildew as quickly or as easily as something with a specific cleaning agent in it that is meant for the job.
I’ve always said that cleaner wax is one of the best cleaners you can use because it stays on your boat. You can use cleaner wax to remove scuff marks made by the shore power cord, fenders or lines. Cleaner wax can also brighten up stainless, remove marks in non-skid, remove stains left from bird and spider droppings and leaves, clean and polish plastic windows and remove stubborn water streaks in between your big wax jobs.
One thing I’d like to point out is that some of the spray cleaners that are meant to remove specific stains or that are considered “green” such as Simple Green can remove wax over time. You’re main goal is not to use a cleaning product that removes wax. That’s not doing your gel coat any good. Better to use cleaner wax as a cleaning product before you reach for the spray cleaners.
Q: How often should my boat get washed?
A: As the owner of a boat detailing company, I would like to say that you should have us wash it every three days! That may help me pay for my next trip to Europe, but it doesn’t help answer this reader’s question and it’s completely unrealistic. The truth is that it’s different for every boat and it depends on several factors – where it’s moored (covered or open slip), how often it’s used, where it’s used (salt or lake water) and when it was last waxed.
If those are the factors, then X = a boat that doesn’t require strong cleaners or soaps to get clean. X does not equal “a clean boat” because you can get a clean boat by washing it with acetone or bleach (not that anyone ever would – just making a point), but you don’t ever want your boat to get so dirty that it can’t easily be cleaned with mild cleaners. That’s why X = “a boat that doesn’t require strong cleaners or soaps to get clean”.
I make this point because a lot of marinas these days are changing their policies and not allowing certain types of cleaning products or boat soaps to be used at their marina anymore. As boat detailers, we run into this all the time and have had to change the products we use to comply with these new rules. So if this is the way things are heading, then best to make the change now by making sure your boat never gets so dirty that it needs cleaners your marina won’t approve to remove stains or mildew.
I’ll get off my phosphate-free soap box now and finally answer the question. You’d think that if your boat is in a covered slip, you don’t need to wash it as often because it’s not getting rained on. With a covered slip, you’re basically swapping water streaks for spider droppings and you definitely want to wash those off your boat quickly as they can stain permanently if left on the gel coat long enough and especially if your boat hasn’t been waxed in a while. If you have spider droppings and don’t have time to wash your boat, at least go around with cleaner wax and wipe them off. If your boat is in a covered slip and you’re quick to remove spider droppings, you can get away with washing your boat every eight weeks or so before it becomes a bigger job than just a basic wash.
If your boat lives outside (not in a covered slip), you can get away with washing it every three to four weeks as long as it has a good coat of wax on it so the water streaks and bird droppings don’t start to set in. However, each time you take your boat out in salt water, wash it as soon as you get back to the dock to remove all salt spray. A quick hose down isn’t good enough because that salt spray can be quite sticky and it will eventually etch your windows with water spots that never come off. If you only have time for a quick hose down after a salty trip, at least spend a few extra minutes washing the windows and wiping them dry. This will pay off greatly in the future.
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.
Q: Is it OK to use a pressure washer on my boat?
A: We get asked this question a lot. You come down to your boat in early spring and are amazed at how dirty it is with green mildew actually growing on the gel coat and canvas and black mold in the non-skid. It would be tempting to use a pressure washer, but even set at a lower pressure, we highly advise against it for many reasons. First of all, you’ll be removing any wax that was left on the gel coat. Even if you’re planning to wax your boat soon after, using a pressure washer won’t improve the gel coat’s condition for waxing. You’ll still need to use a buffer with rubbing compound, so it’s not saving you much time. Especially when there are many things that can go wrong when using a pressure washer on a boat.
Even the lightest of pressure can put a hole in older canvas. Medium pressure can remove fittings and ruin teak. On a colored hull or topside, a pressure washer can make areas look uneven or splotchy because of the spray pattern. On a painted boat, the pressure can easily remove paint. In the end, a boat “washed” with a pressure wash will still require you to clean certain areas by hand and the boat will need to be waxed immediately after in order to keep the gel coat from oxidizing further.
We see a lot of boat detailing companies out there attach a dirty boat or teak decks with a pressure washer and we cringe every time we see this. Fittings go flying off into the water, paint starts to peel and teak decks end up with wide open grain and ugly spray patterns. It’s always best to spend some extra time washing your boat with a good ole’ bucket of soap, a soft deck brush and a soft hand brush. It’s the best way to remove the dirt and know that you’ve touched every inch without ruining your boat along the way.
Q: How can I clean the rust from screw heads and other uneven surfaces?
A: Grab a tooth brush with medium stiff bristles and some cleaner wax. Pour a very small amount of cleaner wax over the screw and use the toothbrush to work it in. Let it dry to a haze (this is why you only use a small amount) and then take a different toothbrush with softer bristles and use it to clean out the wax from the screw head. Then wipe away completely with a microfiber rag. Not only will this remove light to medium rust stains, but it will also protect the metal and prevent them from coming back over time. To further protect the screw heads once you’ve removed the rust, simply apply spray wax to them and wipe off.
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: The caulking on my boat is dirty and has mildew or black stains on it. How do I clean it?
A: Very gently is how you clean caulking. The main thing you need to remember is that it only lasts for so many years, so try to clean it gently every time you wash your boat, but once it starts to turn black, it’s probably time to replace it soon anyway.
While you’re caulking is still new and white, use a soft brush or rag with a gentle boat soap to clean it. Never use anything with course bristles otherwise it can start to tear into it and lift it from the seam that it’s sealing.
Once you start to see stains in the caulking that don’t come out with soap and water, you can try stronger cleaners such as Simple Green or a black streak remover spray with a soft brush or sponge, but if that’s not taking the stain out, just let it go. The whole point of caulking is to seal the “seams” of your boat. The last thing you want to do is scrub so hard or use something so harsh on it that it removes the caulking along with the stain. Best to just have those areas re-caulked on a regular basis.
Deckhand Detailing, established in 1990, offers affordable and high quality boat cleaning and detailing services including boat washing, buffing and waxing, interior cleaning and more. We're experienced, friendly and easy to work with because we love what we do!