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How to clean everything

2013 March 7

Start off the season with a clean boat and keep it that way with regular touch-ups

Whether you're a do-it-yourself kind of boat owner or one who believes in letting professionals handle most projects, the basic maintenance of a sailboat usually falls to the owners or their family, and it doesn't get much more basic than cleaning. Not only will keeping your boat shipshape make it a more pleasant place to be, it also helps stave off costly projects down the road. Plus, most boat owners enjoy a little tinkering, and there is a certain amount of satisfaction that comes from gleaming stainless, sparkling topsides or even a freshly cleaned bilge.

Here we offer a few tips on how to clean just about everything on your boat.

On deck
Cleaning and polishing the hull and deck of your boat will be the biggest job, but it's one that will probably provide the most satisfaction.

I like to follow a four-step process on the hull: wash, clean, polish, wax and repeat.

Washing is relatively self-explanatory but there are a few tricks. It's not just a matter of slopping some soap and water around. Many people use dishwashing liquid or a general household cleanser. Those work fine to remove dirt, but they are harsh enough to remove wax too. This is fine just before a full wax job, but for day-to-day washing you should use a product made for washing boats to keep your wax intact. My favorite is Orpine Wash and Wax, which is a soap that leaves a film of wax behind. It cleans really well, and smells good too. A good wash down or at least a freshwater rinse once a week will keep your boat looking great. I like to use a mild scrub pad or stiffer brush on the deck and a soft "poof" type washer on everything else.

If you want your topsides to sparkle, it will take a few steps to make that happen. After cleaning with an appropriate soap and water and letting the hull dry, buff the topsides to remove dirt and oxidation. Then polish it to bring up the shine and remove any fine scratches, and then apply wax to protect it all. I prefer 3M products, though there are other fine products on the market. I like 3M Imperial Compound for buffing and 3M Finesse-It II for polishing. Then I follow with a final coat or two of 3M Marine Ultra Performance Wax. Up in snow country, I clean, polish and wax in spring and fall right after I haul and then just before launch. If you keep up with your maintenance, you may be able to get away with buffing the boat every other year.

I recommend buffing and polishing with power tools and waxing by hand. You'll want a good quality buffer and pads, which you should consider an investment. There are two types of buffers on the market, rotary and dual-action. Rotary buffers are more aggressive but a little harder to use. Consider them a good arm workout.

If your boat is painted, you'll want to follow the maintenance instructions from the manufacturer. Most two-part paints like Awlgrip should not be buffed and look best when polished with Awlcare or the manufacturer's recommended polish.

Polishing stanchions, pulpits and lifelines is a once-a-year job. Polishing stainless is tedious, but it'll look great when you're done. I've seen the best results on stainless steel with Flitz Polish paste. White covered lifelines typically get dirty quickly, but a quick wipe with Soft Scrub followed by a rinse and a wipe of Armor All will keep them looking good.

Your canvas covers, bimini and dodger need cleaning a couple of times a year. Normal cleaning requires a light wash-down with Woolite in warm water followed by a good rinse. A very soft bristle brush can be helpful. If you have mildew problems, a diluted bleach solution can be used-¾ cup bleach and a ¼ cup of Woolite to a gallon of warm water. Wash the stained areas with the solution and allow it to work for 10 to 15 minutes, rinse it well and air dry.

Washing canvas will remove its surface finish and reduces the fabric's water repellency, but these properties can be restored with 303 High Tech Fabric Guard. After cleaning, rinsing and drying the canvas, apply two coats of 303, allowing the product to dry completely between coats.

Teak decks have a couple of cleaning options. The tried-and-true method is a weekly wash down with salt water, which gives the teak a silvery finish. The salt water keeps the deck boards swelled to prevent leakage and inhibits mildew. However, I sail on freshwater, and I like the fresh-milled look. My preference is Teak Decking Systems TCP100, which is a powdered cleaner that is dissolved in hot water for application. It won't hurt the teak, any surrounding surfaces or the environment. Just dissolve a half-cup in a gallon of hot water, brush it onto the deck and leave it for 15 minutes. Follow with a thorough rinse. For tough stains, sprinkle a little extra powder over the wet deck. Teak decks can be easily destroyed by improper scrubbing, so make sure to use a very soft brush and always scrub across the grain.

After washing the decks with any cleaning product, make sure to give the topsides a good rinse to prevent runoff from damaging the finish.

Running rigging
Running rigging will do well with a freshwater rinse as often as you can, but you may want to consider washing it periodically. A thorough wash and rinse in a washtub is a possibility but you can also use a large front-load washing machine. I recommend taking these to the laundromat where they have jumbo washers. Regardless of the method, a little non-chlorine laundry soap and fabric softener will do the trick. Be sure to keep all bleach and chlorine products away from your line, especially nylon.

If you choose to use a washing machine you'll need to take a few steps in preparation to avoid a large tangle. First, remove shackles if you can. If you can't, cover them with a sock held on with a zip tie to protect the shackle and the machine. Next, bundle the rope. A coil can work but a daisy chain-a long series of loose slip knots often used to shorten a dock line-is even better. A daisy chain will prevent a tangle but allows the rope to move freely through the water. Once the rope is daisy chained, place it in a mesh bag or pillowcase and secure the bag with a zip tie.

Engine room and bilge
Most people don't show off a shiny engine, but a clean engine is easier to maintain. Any little drips or leaks show up clearly and it's just nicer to work on when it's not a dirty mess. I don't think it's a good idea to spray or steam clean an engine. I like to use a spray degreaser with some rags and wipe everything I can get to. My favorite cleaner for this tough work is Amazing Roll-Off, this is a great cleaner that leaves a little waxy sheen behind. The cleaner is a little aggressive so cut it by about 20% with water. After the engine is clean and dry, spray a little CRC Marine Corrosion Inhibitor on all the unpainted surfaces, staying away from the belts and pulleys.

The bilge and area below your engine can be a nasty place. Some people like to brag about dusty bilges but the reality is that there is often a little water, diesel and dirt floating around. Many "boat smells" can be traced to the bilge. The best way to tackle this problem is with hot soapy water (Amazing Roll-Off works well here) and a toilet brush. Start by turning off your bilge pump and spraying down the bilge with a hose. Then brush everything you can reach with water and rinse again with a hose, if you can connect your hose to hot water the results will be even better. To protect the environment, you'll want to remove the dirty water from the bilge with a wet-dry vacuum, and you may need to empty the vacuum a few times. Finally, rinse again with a hose, and pump out the rinse water with the bilge pump.

To keep any oil leaks or spills under control, place a bilge diaper-an oil absorbent miniboom-in the bilge under your engine. These pads will absorb oil but reject any water.

Cleaning belowdecks is a lot like household cleaning and most of the same products you use in your house will be fine. I like OrangeGlo or a similar product for varnished wood because it removes dirt and leaves a non-slippery shine behind. In the galley, I use a disinfecting spray cleaner for quick clean up. For larger cleanups in the head and galley, nothing beats a bucket of warm, sudsy water. Something like Mr. Clean or Simple Green works great.

I have found Mr. Clean Magic Erasers really effective down below and on deck. They just look like a chunk of foam rubber but they clean really well. The outdoor variety are a little denser and seem to last longer. Do be careful with these on any polished or painted surfaces, they are very subtly abrasive.

Dacron sails will benefit from a bath every year. Spread the sail out on a lawn, avoiding abrasive pavement or gravel. Wash the sail, rinse it well and let it dry. The good news is that there is no better place for a sail to dry than while hoisted on a gentle reach. A solution of two tablespoons of Woolite and one cup of vinegar per gallon of water works well on Dacron sails, but avoid using any kind of soap on nylon sails like spinnakers or drifters.

Washing a large sail can be a lot of work, and a sailmaker can point the way to a professional sail cleaner.