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Washing and waxing

2010 May 1

Proper boat care will protect your gelcoat and your investment

It was early spring, the boatyard hummed with activity, and I was among the many sailors prepping their boats for the long-awaited splash date. The tattered blue tarp was off my 1976 Bristol 24, bunched up in an unruly pile next to the aft jack stands. Armed with a bucket of water sudsy from a generous squirt of dishwashing detergent, a sponge and a rag, I began cleaning, but the black streaks making the white hull look something like an anemic zebra stopped me dead.

I rubbed and rubbed and rubbed some more. No change.

Exasperated, I tried acetone. No change.

Even more exasperated, I wet some 200-grit sandpaper and went to town on those streaks, removing them in no time. I thought I was a hero.

I didn't realize it then, but I was doing real damage to the gelcoat, sanding off layers of an already thin covering. Plus, abrading the surface was making it more likely to collect dirt. Back in those days of blissful ignorance, I frequently used sandpaper or Comet to clean the hull and decks-not a brilliant move because harsh abrasives degrade gelcoat and ruin the finish. I also used dishwashing detergent without considering that it's a degreaser and therefore quite effective at removing the wax I had laboriously applied. Wax, after all, is a form of grease. Eventually, though, time and experience put me on the right path to boat maintenance.

Cleaning and waxing the hull is about as basic as it gets when it comes to boat maintenance, but it's worth noting that detailers who make their living at it take the issue very seriously. The ones I know thrive on finding the most effective products, using the best materials, and applying cleaners and waxes in just the right way to enhance the beauty of the boats they work on. Here are some cleaning and waxing tips you may find useful for spring commissioning and throughout the sailing season to come.

Skin care
Gelcoat is like skin. It is relatively soft and porous, and those pores trap dirt, oil, grease, salt, slime, mildew, pollen-you name it. Chances are your boat's gelcoat has, at the very least, collected some dirt wherever the hull was exposed during the winter. Dust kicked up in the boatyard and even pollution in the air can make a hull look dirty. Deep stains may indicate that the gelcoat is particularly porous, which is normal as it ages, as is oxidation and color fading due to ultraviolet rays from the sun.

Depending on the condition and age of your gelcoat, a simple scrub with boat soap will prep the hull for waxing. Be sure to follow the instructions. Really. More isn't better when it comes to boat soap. Use too much and it can actually wear down the wax and dull the finish. Be sure to rinse the soap off before it dries on the hull since it can create a hazing effect that's hard to remove. I clean and rinse in sections from top to bottom, as opposed to soaping up one entire side of the hull before rinsing, and I clean with soft pads and brushes early in the morning to keep the sun from rapidly drying the soap before I can rinse it off.

Products like OrPine Wash & Wax are excellent because they contain a small amount of wax along with the cleaning agents. Every time you wash your hull, you're adding a little wax too. Meguiar's Flagship Premium Wash is also highly recommended. For painted surfaces, Awlgrip's Awlwash washdown concentrate is a good bet. The rule is to use the right product for gelcoat or paint.

When the hull is dry, it should be shiny. If it is, you're ready to apply wax to fill the pores of the gelcoat and protect it from ultraviolet rays that can permanently fade the pigment. 3M Marine Liquid Wax, Collinite Liquid Fleetwax 870 and Meguiar's Flagship Premium Marine Wax are all good products.

To check for the level of oxidation present on your gelcoat, take a damp rag and dab the surface of the hull. If the color improves in appearance when wet but is still dull, you should probably go for a cleaner/wax. Cleaner/wax has mild abrasives in it, but is less abrasive than polish and far less abrasive than compounds. Cleaner/wax can yield excellent results on boats with gelcoat that is still in good shape, but merely needs a little TLC.

Polish also contains mild abrasives. When you apply it, you're removing a thin layer of gelcoat. It's just less aggressive than compounding. For polish to work properly, you need to remove any remaining wax residue from the gelcoat with a wax remover, apply the polish with a light, circular motion, and then lay down two or three coats of pure liquid or paste wax.

If you see chalky residue on the rag (or your finger), then you'll probably have to turn to compounding as a solution. Compounding is serious business because it strips a thin layer of gelcoat away, more than when you use polish. Don't do it often, perhaps only once or twice in a boat's lifetime, or you'll cause real damage. I suggest hiring a professional to "restore" your hull. When it's done properly, a restoration will make your boat's gelcoat look almost like new, and it's a last ditch effort before having to consider painting, which should also be done professionally with a sprayer.

Wax on, wax off
Regular cleaning and waxing (with the right products) greatly prolongs the life of gelcoat. In northern climates where boats are typically covered and on the hard for six months or more, waxing twice every year makes good sense. In southern climates with intense sun and high heat, waxing four times every year is in order. Applying one coat is okay, but two or three coats is better because wax wears away over time. If you don't have the inclination to wax that much, hire a detailer, especially if you have a new or fairly new boat that looks great. You'll be protecting the resale value of the vessel. Cosmetic dock-appeal sells boats.

Wax should be applied carefully and in the right amounts in cool, dry conditions for the best results. Waxing in direct sunlight can cause trouble because the surface of the gelcoat will be hot. The wax will dry rapidly and be tough to buff out. Some waxes begin to break down when applied in temperatures above 90 degrees. I like to wait for a cloudy day with low humidity and wax in one-foot by two-foot sections, which allows me to buff out well before the wax starts to dry.

Using an electric buffer may be convenient, but if you aren't trained you can damage your gelcoat or end up with streaks and swirl marks. Many detailers I know don't put a wheel on gelcoat at all, preferring to buff out with clean, lint-free rags. Naturally, if you're doing a restoration job with multiple steps, a buffer can speed up the process. If you do use a buffer, make sure it is rated for light-duty work, apply slight and even pressure, and work in a circular motion.

There's a myth about wax that deserves to be debunked. I'd heard that applying a coat of wax and not buffing it out at winter lay-up would protect the hull. I tried this once on my poor, abused Bristol 24, and it was a nightmare to remove it in the spring. I've since spoken to detailers about this practice and they all said it's a bad idea. If you're going to wax at winter lay-up, which is a great habit to get into, buff the wax out, too.

Keeping your boat's gelcoat looking beautiful is easy. Wash the boat down with fresh water after you return to the dock, clean the hull and decks regularly with the right soap, and ensure that the protective coating of wax is renewed at least twice every year. The longer life of the gelcoat and retaining the cosmetic appeal of the boat is well worth the effort and money. It will pay dividends in a higher resale price when you decide to sell.

Quick Tips

  • Avoid abrasive cleaners that can damage the boat's gelcoat.
  • Dish soap is fine for washing dishes, but can leave streaks and wash away protective wax finishes.
  • Wash in sections and rinse regularly to prevent soap from drying on the hull.
  • If polishing, use a wax remover to clean the hull of any wax residue before applying the polish.
  • Because of the damage it can do to gelcoat, compounding should be done only if necessary and sparingly.
  • Wax is best applied in cool, dry conditions and should be buffed out with a clean, lint-free rag before it's allowed to dry.
  • Waxing without buffing before an extended lay-up is a myth: always buff out the wax.