Keeping your boat clean is important to not only make your boat look nice but also to protect your investment. In this article, I describe common boat cleaning steps and identify some of the best boat cleaning supplies based on decades of boat ownership experience and feedback from hundreds of boat owners in our prior surveys. Key topic covered are listed below. To skip to a particular topic, just click on the heading.
CLEANING A BOAT INTERIOR
How to Clean Boat Seats
- The key thing to know about marine vinyls is that they are pre-treated from the manufacturer with antimicrobials. These diminutive agents help protect against mold and mildew. Therefore, you should stay away from harsh chemical cleaners that can remove them. Instead, use a gentle soap (such as Dawn dish soap) or a cleaning product specifically made for marine vinyls. Also use a soft rag instead of a stiff brush to avoid damaging the vinyl or threads.
- For more difficult stains or mildew, try a 50/50 mixture of white vinegar and water or a dedicated marine vinyl cleaner such as this product from Star Brite that claims to be safe for marine vinyls. Be sure to avoid household bleach as this may damage your fabric or threads. A key principle is to always start with the least aggressive product you can get away with and then resort to more aggressive items as needed.
- For an added level of protection, apply a marine vinyl protectant to guard against fading and cracking from UV exposure and to help resist stains. Check out this excellent product from 303 that received much praise from boaters in our 2018 study and that I personally use on my boats.
How to Clean Boat Carpet or Vinyl Flooring
- Start by vacuuming the carpet or vinyl flooring and then rinse to remove loose dirt or debris. Next, mix a mild soap such as Dawn with warm water in a bucket and then gently scrub with a brush.
- You can spot treat stains with a mixture of 1-part white vinegar to 7-parts water. Apply the mixture with a sponge to the area to be treated and then let stand for 5 to 10 minutes (longer for tough stains) before scrubbing. Vinegar is all-natural and environmentally friendly. If this doesn’t remove the stains from your carpet, you can try regular household carpet cleaner products.
- Rinse your carpet or vinyl flooring when you are finished scrubbing. Be sure the surface is fully dry before covering your boat to avoid mildew.
How to Clean Fiberglass Boat Decks (non-skid surface)
If the interior of your boat has a fiberglass surface as is common with saltwater center consoles, you can wash the deck surface much like you would the exterior of your boat.
- Start by rinsing the deck with water from bow to stern using a garden hose or pressure washer.
- Next, mix a cleaning agent such as Dawn dish soap in a bucket and apply with a scrub brush. Note: if you have some wax on your deck that you want to preserve, use a Boat Wash or a “Deck Cleaner” instead since these will not remove the existing wax.
- Rinse with water and air dry.
After you have completed washing your fiberglass boat deck, it is a good idea to also wax it just as you do with your hull to prevent staining and oxidation. A key difference, however, is that you will want to use a deck wax like this one from Star Brite to avoid a slipping hazard.
How to Clean Boat Windshield
- If your windshield is made of glass, then regular Windex is fine to use. Another option, and what I now use, is a mixture of 1 part vinegar to 10 parts water that you combine in a spray bottle. Spray on and wipe down with a soft, microfiber cloth. The advantage of this approach is that it is economical, it removes hard-water spots, and doesn’t streak. Increase the amount of vinegar for tougher water spots.
- However, if you have an acrylic windscreen (commonly used on bass boats and pontoons), do NOT use any detergents or glass cleaners like Windex as these may damage it. The vinegar and water option is definitely the way to go.
CLEANING A BOAT EXTERIOR
How to Clean Hull of Boat
To clean the bottom of your boat, you will need a garden hose or pressure washer, a bucket, a medium (blue) brush with an extendable handle similar to this one from Star Brite that I use, and one or more cleaning agents (which will be described below).
- Start by rinsing down your hull working from top to bottom.
- Next, scrub your hull with a long brush and a cleaning agent. The proper kind of cleaning agent depends on the condition of your hull and whether or not you have wax on your hull that you would like to preserve.
- If your hull is in decent condition (limited scum or marine growth) and you are not trying to preserve wax (or plan on waxing your boat afterwards), then you can use a regular dish soap such as Dawn in a bucket of warm water. Note, however, that this will remove any wax that was on your hull.
- If your hull is in decent condition and you would like to preserve the wax that had been applied previously, then use either a Boat Wash or a Wash and Wax. Neither will remove the existing wax and the latter will add an extra layer of protection (much like going to a drive-thru car wash). Note that this wax application is not a substitute for a full waxing that you should do at least once or twice a year.
- If you have a fair amount of dirt/scum on your hull, then use a boat Hull Cleaner. These are mildly acidic and will remove any existing wax.
- Finally, if you have considerable stains and/or marine growth, then you will need a Bottom Cleaner (sometimes called a Hull & Bottom Cleaner). These are highly acidic and should only be used when necessary. The MaryKate On & Off is very popular and received high marks from boaters in our survey. As a reminder, always use the least aggressive product you can get away to limit any collateral damage to your hull and to the environment.
- Apply the cleaning agent in small sections and then rinse off before continuing so that the soap does not dry on your hull.
- When you are all finished scrubbing your boat, give it a final rinse and then wipe with a microfiber cloth or chamois to avoid water spots.
- Note: if you have an outboard motor, you can wash the outside at the same time and in nearly the same way you wash the hull. However, it is recommended that you use a rag or a soft (yellow instead of blue) brush to avoid scratching the surface.
How to Wax a Boat
Waxing the hull of fiberglass boats is important to inhibit stains, minimize oxidation (dull, chalky look that occurs with too much exposure to the sun) and help your boat look nice. You should do a regular waxing at least once or twice a year. There are two general types of wax to use for this purpose. Be sure to get one that is specifically made for marine use:
- Natural paste waxes (e.g., made with Carnauba). These will give you the best shine. Since there are dozens of products to choose from, you might be wondering what is the best boat wax. Though Meguiar’s was the most popular brand among boat owners in our prior study, this product from Collinite received rave reviews from survey participants and is definitely worth a try. It is available in both paste and liquid form. The former might give you a little longer protection while the latter is easier to apply.
- Polymer Liquid Sealants. Though often labeled a wax, look for the term “polymer” or “sealant” on the label. These are synthetic products but some have a natural wax blend. The key advantage of a synthetic “wax” over a natural wax is that it better bonds to the boat’s surface and therefore lasts a lot longer. Plus, because they come in a liquid form, they are quicker and easier to apply. I have used this Premium Marine Polish from Star Brite with good success. Note that the term “polish” implies that it has some mild abrasives mixed in to help remove oxidation when you rub it in. If you are a fan of Meguiar’s, their Premium Boat Wax is a polymer too and has received numerous 5-star reviews on Amazon.
- In addition to the above, there are also spray waxes that are also a polymer and are a quick and easy way to keep your boat looking shiny between regular waxings. The Lucas Slick Mist was especially popular among bass boat owners in our survey.
Whether it is a natural paste wax or a liquid polymer, the process is similar. Just apply in a small circular pattern and then wipe off when dry with a soft cloth or orbital polisher like this one from WEN that I use. It is reasonably priced and receives very high ratings on Amazon. The advantage of an orbital polisher vs. a traditional sander/polisher is that it reduces the chances of creating swirl marks in your gelcoat.
Note that if your hull has some defects or oxidation, you might want to treat it with a polish or compound before applying the wax (and you will definitely want an orbital polisher for this job so that your arm doesn’t fall off). Check out my previous article on “Washing and Waxing: How to Detail a Boat” for a more detailed description of the different types of products to use to treat hull imperfections.
Many people view boating as a way to relax and unwind and enjoy time with friends and family. Spending time cleaning and waxing your boat certainly detracts from that goal. But, if you follow the steps above and use some of the products listed, it should make the process a little easier and remove some of the guesswork.
Please note that I provided links to many products above for your convenience. These are things that either scored highly in my prior research or that I personally use and have had good experience with. If you click on a link and buy the listed product or any other, I will receive a small commission that will help support BoaterInput.
- BoaterInput, 2018, “Best Boat Cleaning Products”, based on a survey of 250 boat owners, https://boaterinput.com/best-boat-cleaning-products/.
- BoaterInput, 2018, “Washing and Waxing: How to Detail a Boat”, https://boaterinput.com/best-boat-cleaning-products/.
- BoaterInput, 2018, “Best Boat Wax: Unbiased Review”, https://boaterinput.com/best-boat-cleaning-products/.
- Discover Boating, (n.d.), “How to Clean a Boat: Boat Cleaning Basics”, https://www.discoverboating.com/resources/boat-cleaning.
- BoatSetter, 2021, “How to Clean a Boat”, https://www.boatsetter.com/boating-resources/how-to-clean-a-boat
- American Boating Association, (n.d.), “Boat Cleaning Tips”, https://americanboating.org/clean_boat_cleaning.asp
- Saltwater Sportsman, 2017, “Tips for Washing Your Boat”, https://www.saltwatersportsman.com/washing-boat-tips/
- wikiHow, 2022, “How to Wash a Boat”, https://www.wikihow.life/Wash-a-Boat
- Alumacraft, 2022, “How to Clean Your Alumacraft Boat”, https://www.alumacraft.com/us/en/explore-alumacraft/blog/cleaning-aluminum-fishing-boat.html
- Goldman, D., 2022, “How to Clean Your Marine Boat Flooring”, https://www.marinevinylfabric.com/blogs/marine-vinyl-blog/how-to-clean-marine-vinyl-flooring.
- Mankarious, M., “Protecting Your Car with Car Wax and Sealants”, https://nextzettusa.com/protecting-your-car-with-car-wax-and-sealants/
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