Keeping your boat clean isn’t about just wanting to make your boat look good—it’s a key part of boat maintenance that when done right, protects and extends the life of the parts of the boat that are exposed to the environment. It will also make it easier to sell your boat by showing that you took care of it.
How often should you clean your boat? Good question. If you go boating daily (3-5 times a week), then it’s okay to clean it once every week or 5 days. But if you are boating in saltwater daily, salt particles could stick on the boat and inside the boat’s engine so you need to wash after ever boat trip to avoid corrosion. To really effectively clean your boat, there’s specific areas you should focus on both for the interior and the exterior.
Let’s start with interior surfaces. When cleaning interior surfaces, you need to think about carpet, fiberglass, vinyl, cushions, and head. Once that’s done and the inside is clean, it’s time to move to the exterior, where the focus is the hull and gel-coat surfaces, hull bottoms, canvas and clear canvas, engines, and teak.
Marine Carpet Found in many cabins and may also be inside the cockpits or head compartments of some smaller boats. The best way to clean it is to first vacuum up any loose dirt, followed up with a good scrub using a stiff-bristle brush, soap, and water. Trailer boats can be parked on an incline so most of the water drains away with gravity, but on larger boats and inside cabins you may need to suck up remaining water with a wet-vac, then speed dry by running the air-conditioning and/or fans.
Non-slip Fiberglass These areas can’t be treated like other fiberglass parts, because wax would make it slippery and defeat the purpose of having a non-skid surface. Instead, you need to scrub with a stiff bristle brush, soap, and water. For tough stains, you can use a cleaner that has some bleach, like Soft Scrub, but keep it to a minimum and make sure it’s rinsed away thoroughly. You should also give it a non-skid treatment like Star Brite Non-Skid Deck Wax or Woody Wax. These products really aren’t “wax” like it says in their name but instead are protectants with polymers that help shine and protect the non-skid without making it slippery.
Vinyl There’s lots of vinyl found on boats of all types, especially those designed for watersports. Modern marine vinyl comes from the factory treated with anti-microbials, and these are your best long-term defense against mold and mildew, so stay away from harsh chemical cleaners that can remove them. Instead, wash your vinyl with gentle soapy water and a soft rag each time you use the boat to keep it as clean as possible. Use a dedicated marine vinyl cleaner for tough stains, followed by a thorough rinse and then an application of a vinyl protectant.
Cushions Interior cushions can become musty over time, stained by spills, and taken over by mildew. To clean them, first remove the covers and wash them in cold water. Most (non-vinyl) cushion covers can be machine-washed, but don’t wash them in hot water and toss them in the dryer or you’ll be looking at shrunken cushions!
An easy trick to freshen up the foam is to sprinkle baking soda on both sides of the cushion, let it sit for a few hours, then shake it off. Then mist the foam with a 50-50 mix of vinegar and water. Place the cushion in a well-ventilated area for a few days until the smell of the vinegar goes away. Then spray them down with a hose, squeeze the water out, and spray them again. It usually takes several soakings to get all the grime out. After a final squeeze, let them air-dry completely before putting he covers back on.
Heads Marine heads can be cleaned more or less like the toilets at home, but on a boat you have the added scale and calcium deposits to contend with. Make it an easier clean by running a few cups of white vinegar through the lines once a month.
Hull Sides and other smooth gel-coated surfaces need protection and maintenance to avoid oxidation. Best practice would be to start with a base coat of two layers of paste wax every Spring. Then after each use, wash the boat down with a boat soap that contains some liquid wax and apply a liquid carnauba wax monthly.
Hull Bottom If your boat is kept on a trailer or a lift, treat the hull bottom exactly as you treat other gel-coated areas. If the boat sits in a wet slip, however, you probably have had the bottom painted with an anti-fouling paint.
Canvas and Clear Canvas (Isinglass) Boat canvas needs at least a monthly cleaning to prevent staining and keep dirt from becoming embedded. All you need to clean it is to hose it down, scrub the canvas with a soft-bristle brush and a mild soap, and then rinse. If you need a heavier cleaning, some manufacturers recommend using a cup of bleach and a quarter-cup of soap mixed with a gallon of water, while others recommend a baking soda/soap mix. Refer to the manufacturer of your canvass for recommendations.
Clean clear canvas with a gentle wash with soapy water and a non-abrasive sponge or microfiber cloth every time the boat comes back to the dock. Follow the wash up by wiping the curtains with a squeegee or chamois, to remove water droplets and prevent them from drying and leaving behind water spots.
Engines Boat engines need regular cleaning inside and out, whether you have an inboard or an outboard motor. In the case of outboard engines, start by waxing the cowl and exterior, then wash them down with soap and water after every use. These surfaces are very similar to automotive finishes, so treat them just as you treat your car. Use microfiber cloths or wash mitts, never with an abrasive bristle brush.
It’s important to regularly wipe away accumulated dirt and grime, under the cowl, the engine itself or inboard, however, remember that there are electrical wires and components that can be damaged by some cleaners and chemicals. So beyond a superficial wipe-down, it’s usually best to have the engine cleaned by a professional.
Teak Soapy water is really the best way to regularly clean teak, however, depending on where you live and the air quality and UV intensity, your teak will eventually begin to blacken and look mottled. At this point, you’ll probably need to use an acid-based teak cleaner. There are mild one-part solutions as well as stronger two-part cleaners, and in both cases you’ll want to follow the manufacturer’s directions.
One important note: remove the teak from the boat before using these cleaners. The acids in them will dull and damage gel coat, paint, and metals, and it’s impossible to effectively use these cleaners without getting some on the teak’s surrounding parts if you don’t remove it from the boat entirely before beginning.
And there you have it—cleaning solutions and tips to keep your boat in top shape. Remember, spending 15-30 minutes after every ride on cleaning the boat is good practice. But depending on the boat condition, if it’s good, you can clean every week or two but if you go boating daily, you better be cleaning it every week, and in salt waters, after every ride.