Secrets of a Boat-Cleaning Girl
Margarita Xistris has spent 30 years making yachts sparkle.
Here’s some of what she’s learned along the way.
Runaway, a Cabo 45 Express, sparkled like brand new in her Stamford, Connecticut, slip. But she’s not new: John Vlahakis has owned her since she was built in 2008. When I visited, Runaway had just been cleaned up after four days of fishing in the Atlantic off Montauk, a long weekend that will leave any boat in need of some TLC. Runaway gets hers from the nitpicking boat cleaners at Nautical Details; Vlahakis has relied on Nautical Details to maintain Runaway since he bought her, as he relied on the company to keep his two previous boats spotlessly clean. And spotless she is.
Margarita Xistris started Nautical Details (www.nauticaldetails.com) 30 years ago, when she was just 16, and even then she had ten years of boating experience. From the very beginning, she had to be better than the competition, she says, because she was “just a girl,” and had to compete with men in a decidedly male-oriented sphere. Today, the Nautical Details team maintains a slew of yachts, most ranging between 24 and 75 feet; the average is around 40 feet. After three decades of cleaning, compounding, and polishing, Xistris has a lot of hard-won advice for the rest of us who want our boats to shine.
First, she says, understand your dirt. For example, Stamford is under the flight patterns of several major airports; within sight of lower Manhattan on a clear day; and downwind of New Jersey in the typical summertime afternoon southwesterly breeze, so, like many other coastal areas of the United States, it is home base for industrial and auto pollution mixed with jet exhaust. According to Xistris, it’s important not to rub this gritty stuff into whatever surface you’re cleaning. Some surfaces are especially susceptible to scratching—for example, the clear panels of a helm or flying-bridge enclosure. (Runaway’s were so clear I thought at first they were rolled up.) “Don’t wipe the surface without a lubricant,” says Xistris. “Trap the dirt in a lubricant, then remove the lubricant.” Even soap and water is a lubricant, she adds, but there are purpose-made products that do a better job when properly used.
And be sure to match the cleaner to the material. “If you use the wrong product, it can cause premature cracking, cloudiness, scratches, and yellowing,” says Xistris. Hard plastics (e.g., Lexan in a deck hatch) require a different product—Plexus (www.plexusplasticcleaner.com), for example—than softer materials like the isinglass or Strataglass of a soft enclosure, which should be cleaned with something like IMAR’s Strataglass Protective Cleaner (www.imarsales.com). This and other products have UV protectants that also prevent premature aging of the clear panels. And always use clean, preferably new, microfiber cloths. (“You can get them at Costco,” says Xistris.) Never use a cloth that’s had wax on it. And finally, “Read the back of the bottle so you don’t make a mistake.”
Whether you live in polluted air or not, the sun is also your boat’s enemy, and it’s a good bet you don’t do enough to protect your gelcoat. Waxing once a season isn’t enough, especially if you live in a hot climate. Nowadays the “wax” of choice for Xistris isn’t a wax at all; Nautical Details’ techs use eco-friendly Bionic Banana Shield (www.detailjuice.com), a polymer sealant that cross-links with gelcoat. Even under tropical sun, according to its creator, Garry Dean, it’ll last many times longer than traditional carnauba wax. But there’s a trick to applying it correctly: After washing or compounding the gelcoat, wipe it off with a 50/50 mix of isopropyl alcohol and water, says Xistris, which makes the bond much stronger. (Garry Dean recommends using distilled water—not always practical at a marina.) Seal your gelcoat religiously in this way from the day you get your boat, and you may never have to compound, adds Xistris.
Don’t be afraid of sealing nonskid areas on deck, either; the sun will damage them, too. Use the right product and they’ll stay grippy. Woody Wax (www.woody-wax.com) and Sure Step (www.auroramarine.com) both work well; Sure Step takes a little longer to apply, says Xistris. Again, follow the directions: For example, Woody Wax should be brushed onto a wet surface, then rinsed off and the surface dried with a microfiber cloth or terrycloth towel. (Woody Wax also shines and protects plastic, vinyl, and even anodized aluminum.)
Fishing is usually fun, sometimes so much fun that blood is shed—either by the fish or the fisherman. And too often some of that blood gets on expensive upholstery. Xistris says the first thing to try is hydrogen peroxide, but she emphasizes to test the fabric first, someplace that won’t show. Then, once you’re sure the peroxide and fabric will play well together, slide a cloth behind the bloodstain, if possible; apply the peroxide and wait until it stops bubbling; then blot it with a dry cloth. Again, emphasizes Xistris, make sure the peroxide won’t damage the fabric before trying this. It’s a good idea before tackling any fabric stain to find out what kind of fabric it is; that’s where a professional cleaner’s knowledge comes in handy.
And one last thing. Xistris is dedicated to protecting the environment, especially the fragile waters of Long Island Sound. She buys most of her cleaning supplies in bulk and then fills an assortment of recycled plastic bottles to distribute the products to her nine employees. This isn’t just business economy: Wherever possible, she has replaced most of the traditional cleaners and polishes—often toxic in the long term, she says—and focused upon ecologically friendly, but equally effective, substitutes. This not only protects her workers who use the products almost every day during the boating season, but also helps the environment.
This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.