It’s easy to assume that the only way to keep your boat clean and looking good is to devote time and hard work to it using the best products. However, there is much that can be done to reduce the effort needed.
Above all, the key secret to maintaining a boat in pristine condition is regular attention – a boat that is left salty or grimy will quickly attract more grot, whereas one that’s kept clean and freshly waxed will remain that way without much intervention (and don't forget clean means quick as taking care of your hull saves fuel). This point is so important it’s worth emphasising: if you do the groundwork to set the boat up to be easy to keep clean, it’s not an onerous task. But if not, you will always be on the back foot.
This is particularly true of the topsides, where a surface that is mirror smooth and protected with a wax polish will readily shed both water and dirt (for more on this, see: How to finish your topsides: paint, polish or vinyl wraps). By contrast, a dull hull will quickly trap small particles of dirt in its surface irregularities and will therefore require cleaning much more frequently.
Proprietary black mark cleaners are reported to be effective at removing the grey marks that form below aluminium toe rails and similar fittings. Once clean, applying a wax coating will then help keep the boat looking that way for much longer.
Fibreglass and painted decks can be cleaned with a stiff bristled deck brush, or with a pressure washer if badly soiled. However, teak has very soft areas between the grain, which demands more gentle treatment. The best solution for longevity of the timber to allow it to develop its natural silvery patina is by exposing it to plenty of sun and salt water – the latter applied with a bucket if necessary (see our full guide to maintaining a teak deck).
However, if a scrubbed appearance is important to you, gently brushing across the grain using a sponge or soft brush will avoid removing the soft material. But be warned, regular hard scrubbing can erode more than half a millimetre of thickness a year. With some teak coverings less than 10mm thick when new, the timber can be worn through alarmingly quickly.
To avoid scratching the surface of varnished wooden trim, hatches and windows these should be washed by hand using a soft sponge and soapy water. After rinsing with clean water they will benefit from being buffed with a soft cloth (see maintaining flawless varnished surfaces). The same is true of stainless steel stanchions and handrails.
Cockpit covers, dodgers, sprayhoods, biminis and sail covers look great when they are spotlessly clean. However, once a thin layer or dirt forms the appearance of the fabric rapidly heads downhill. A key reason for this is that mould and green algae tend to feed on particles of dirt, especially if the fabric remains wet for extended periods of time.
Regularly washing salt and dirt away with fresh water will help the fabric dry quickly after rain or dew, Once mould starts to form it should be treated with a proprietary mould cleaner, scrubbing gently with a soft brush if necessary. Rinse the fabric thoroughly afterwards and retreat it for water resistance to help stop the problem recurring.
Prolonged exposure to seawater makes ropes stiff and awkward to handle – this problem can be minimised by regular rinsing with fresh water. If a deeper clean is needed, a bath or wheelie bin filled with warm, soapy water is best, although you may need to scrub badly soiled areas with a sponge. With patience this procedure can rescue lines that appear to be badly soiled, but don’t be tempted to wash modern ropes in a domestic washing machine – invariably the outer casing suffers if you do so. For a more in-depth look at modern rope materials see: How to choose the right rope for the job.
Cleaning your boat's interior
The single most important factor in making it easy to keep a boat’s accommodation clean is in ensuring it remains dry. Vessels kept in a berth with access to shore power can do this with a dehumidifier (see our guide to choosing a dehumidifier), but owners of boats kept elsewhere will need to ensure every part of the interior has the benefit of good ventilation. This is easy to achieve for boats on a swinging mooring – even in tidal waters they will spend enough time each day pointing head to wind for it to be easy to establish a flow of air through the boat. However, for those on pontoon or fore and aft moorings it can be much harder to set up good airflow. If necessary, you can recourse to a solar powered vents at each end of the boat, one of them set up to pull air into the interior and the other expelling it.
If the boat remains dry, you will never need to fight mould – a key cause of deterioration of a boat’s interior. Unnecessary clutter is also a barrier to keeping the interior clean and even allows dirt to collect. Investing time in figuring out effective stowage solutions will therefore invariably pay off in terms of reducing the amount of time needed to keep the boat clean.
Just as dirt on external canvas work helps to promote the growth of mould and fungi, dirt that becomes embedded in the fabric of berth cushions and other soft furnishings will promote the growth of micro organisms. It’s therefore worth attacking spilt liquids and foodstuffs immediately, so that they have minimal chance to soak into the material. A mix of detergent and vinegar solution is ideal for many food stains, but try a test area first to check it doesn’t bleach the fabric.
If possible, cushion covers will benefit from cleaning periodically with a vacuum cleaner equipped with an upholstery attachment. Once they are a few years old, and the mould inhibitor with which they were originally impregnated has declined in efficiency, most covers will also benefit from washing on a cool wash, followed by retreating with a water and stain-proofing product. However, it’s important to first check that the material used for your boat is suitable for this process.
Cleaning your bilges
No boat can be kept properly clean if the bilges are in a mess. It’s worth spending effort on making sure that any fluids that leak from engines stay within the engine compartment and don’t infect the remainder of the boat with oil, diesel and belt dust. As well as making the rest of the vessel much easier to keep spotlessly clean, this has the added benefit of making it easier to trace the source of any leaks, which in turn leads to a better maintained and therefore more reliable engine.
For more guides to keeping your boat clean and in tip-top condition, see: How to maintain your boat.