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Zen and the Art of Boat Washing

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A meditation on why it’s very important to wash down your boat yourself, at least occasionally.

A friend of mine was cleaning his 50-foot cruiser recently and noticed that the caulk around a deck hatch was starting to deteriorate to the point that water would soon start leaking down into the boat’s cabin. The ability to spot this problem early and remedy it was a stroke of good fortune for him. Water seeping anywhere that it’s not supposed to go is never a good thing. In actuality, resealing the caulk kept water from dripping onto my buddy and his wife like some bad fraternity prank when they were trying to sleep. But if the opening under the caulk had gone unnoticed for a span of time and water had worked its way into the deck coring, then we’re talking a true nightmare.

This situation is a perfect example of why cleaning your boat yourself is an important part of boat ownership. Everyone talks about how to clean a boat with the right brushes, soaps, and other products—and that’s fine. But here I’m going to get a little meditative and talk about why you should clean your boat yourself, at least occasionally, even if you have the wherewithal to periodically put a professional boat-cleaning crew to work on the job.

Some aspects of the subject are pretty much no-brainers. Why do you clean stainless steel hardware? Certainly, you want the components to last longer in a harsh saltwater environment. But also, cleaning rails or cleats will provide insight into their overall health including the condition of the fasteners that hold them in place. When you wipe down a rail yourself you’ll know if it wobbles or feels loose. If it does, that tells you the backing nuts need to be tightened under the stanchion bases or that the bedding compound there needs to be redone. Will a professional boat cleaner take time from his busy schedule to tip you off about such important issues? Maybe, maybe not.

Now let’s say you enter your engine compartment to hose down the bilge on a weekend morning and see small oil droplets on the oil-absorbent pads under one of your engines. Yes, this is bad news, but it is also news that will help you head off trouble before the engine breaks down when you’re 10 miles out. The same can be said when you try to flush the MSD in the head or run water to clean the sink or shower. Simple cleaning tasks will keep you apprised of the health of your boat’s systems. If you turn on the water to clean the sink and the odor makes you gag, it’s time to either dump and refill or treat the water you have. Taking this a step further, cleaning the filters for your boat’s air conditioner will tell you if the system is getting weak or if the simple removal of dust is all that’s necessary.

If you have teak decks on your boat, an occasional cleaning by yours truly will give you indicators of the health of the wood and the sealant used to hold it in place. After you’ve cleaned the wood planks, when most of the decking is dry, if wet spots remain here and there, you know that water is getting underneath the wood in these locations. Drying the area and resealing it or dealing with the problem in some other timely way will likely prevent coring issues from developing in the future.

Cleaning your boat’s vinyl upholstery yourself will keep you ahead of one of the most evil enemies your boat will ever have—mold and mildew. There’s nothing worse than pulling the canvas back after a week of rain and seeing those ugly black spots. Cleaning your cushions now and again will also tell you if they’ve become waterlogged for some reason and need to be dried out. Some cushions have drains in the bottom. If the cushion is heavy and wet, this is a reminder to check those drains to make sure they’re working. Moreover, if a cushion has a zipper, cleaning it will allow you to check the health of the zipper to make sure it’s not split or that it’s still securely sewn in place.

Clean the carpets in your boat for the same reasons. If a section of carpet is found to be wet, it’s a good idea to remove it (if possible) and get it out on the docks or somewhere to be cleaned and dried thoroughly. Or if your carpet’s secured inside your boat, open the windows, clean the carpet, and let it dry in the fresh air that blows through. And remember that snap-down carpets are especially prone to mildew and mold. If you don’t remove them occasionally and look at the underside, ghastliness may take root. Periodic removal will also let you see if the same nasty junk is growing on your cockpit or cabin sole too. I’ve seen people who let their carpets go for an entire season gasp at the result. I steam clean the carpets in my boat once a season. And then make sure they dry thoroughly.

And one final thing. Pay attention to your topside canvas because it’s your boat’s best defense against the elements. Cleaning your canvas and then protecting it with a water-resistant treatment gives you the opportunity to inspect the thread for UV damage and the snaps and/or grommets to make sure they’re not deteriorating. You don’t want your canvas flapping in the wind during the next run of bad weather when it should be protecting your instrumentation.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.