Don’t let your boat be the one that stops us in our tracks!

dirty-boatAs 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:

  • Wash your boat at least once per month.
  • Deep clean the interior twice per year, in spring and fall, and do light cleanings after each use.
  • Wax the hull every year and wax the topside twice per year. If it’s heavily oxidized, you may consider hiring a detailer to remove the oxidation and bring it back to glossy again so it’s easier to maintain on your own. You can now keep it up waxing sections of the topside by hand throughout the year. The brow, areas on foredeck and toe or cap rail will fade first, so keep on top of those sections more often.
  • In the wet months, clean the decks and canvas with mildew spray and then treat the canvas with a mildew-preventing product such as Mold Off.
  • If you have teak decks, wash them as you would the rest of the boat each time you wash it and only use the two-part system or other strong solution once a year to remove grease, dirt and other stains. Always use a soft brush and go against the grain.

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!

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