How to keep your boat looking ship-shape

Even for experienced sailors, DIY boat maintenance can be daunting. For first-time buyers, the temptation to hand everything over to the professionals is even greater – despite the fact that many maintenance jobs are much simpler than you’d think.

It is common knowledge that a bad day on the water is better than a good day in the office, so when your boat is in need of some TLC, the faster it is done the better. While some jobs can be time-consuming, there are a few ways to bring the shine back to your sailing without too much stress.

Preventing and removing stains

It goes without saying that the better you are at preventing stains from happening, the less time you will have to spend removing them. Staining on fibreglass boats can be caused by anything from the chlorophyll in passing seaweed to coffee that has been spilt on deck, while staining on wooden boats may also be a result of mould. A simple sanding and re-varnishing will usually deal with stains on wood, though in some instances you may need to use oxalic acid to really lift darker marks.

On fibreglass boats, maintaining overlying gelcoat is crucial when it comes to keeping your vessel looking sparkling clean. Cleaning off obvious stains after every sailing can be awkward while a boat is still in the water, but it is well worth it to stop them settling in.

Avoid heavy duty cleaners where you can, as there are strict rules around polluting waterways with chemicals and the tough stuff can do more harm than good. Buffing stains with a wet cloth or sponge and water should be enough, but gentle, eco-friendly boat soaps are available and can be used cautiously on more stubborn stains.

Once the stain is gone, it is time to rewax the gelcoat. To a new or inexperienced boat owner this might sound like a strenuous task, but when there are only small areas in need of a touch up it is as easy as following the instructions that come with your product. On gelcoat that is in good shape a traditional carnauba wax should be enough to bring back the shine, but a polymer sealant or hybrid is worthwhile if you think you need something heavier duty.

Lastly, be sure to wash your fibreglass down after sailing in saltwater. Even if nothing looks dirty, when saltwater dries it leaves crystals behind that can magnify UV and speed up the breakdown of your wax.

Interior cleaning and vinyl protectant

Full reupholstering is definitely a job for those who are properly trained, but maintaining your upholstery and other interior detailing need not be an added expense. The upholstery in your boat is designed to withstand lingering moisture and direct sunlight, but without a helping hand it can still wear out sooner than expected.

While obvious tasks like vacuuming and polishing are unlikely to get missed, keep your interiors looking good by using vinyl protectants and hydrogen peroxide washes on your new purchase too.

Mixing one part hydrogen peroxide to one part water gives you an instant cleaning spray ideal for scrubbing seats and seams, invaluable in protecting against mould or mildew as well as removing any you find. Whatever you do, avoid the temptation to use standard household cleaning products that may not be suited to the purpose. Bleach and ammonia will damage fabrics and vinyl, and are best left well away.

As with proper cleaning, vinyl protectant will slow and prevent damage from damp and excessive sunshine. Check for rips, cracks and tears when you are applying it, as these can let salt and water in and lead to more serious mould and rot.

If you are storing your boat for the winter, remove any fabric or leather covers and store them elsewhere, as these are particularly prone to mildew.

Removing barnacles and covering

Each time your boat comes out of the water completely, be sure to give it a thorough hosing down – and keep an eye out for barnacles while you are at it.

Cleaning and covering may be crucial when winterizing a vessel, but it is also important to remember these tasks throughout the year to extend the life of your purchase. Barnacles can do serious damage, and cleaning them off is nobody’s favourite task. To get these stubborn hitchhikers off you will need to use a paint scraper, or in some cases a pressure washer.

As you can imagine, scraping barnacles off is not great for your boat’s exterior. Dull the edges of any scraper before you start to minimise the risk of scratches, and use steel mesh to remove the finer parts left behind once most of the barnacles have been knocked off. You will also need to wash the affected area down with a lime wash once you are done, and re-apply antifouling paint and any protective waxes you have removed. Antifouling paint can prevent barnacles from attaching themselves to your hull in future, something anyone will be glad of after their first session of barnacle removal.

Once your boat is clean and barnacle-free, keep it covered if you can. Wooden boats are particularly susceptible to damp rot and other weather damage, but fibreglass will also suffer when left exposed to the elements. As a general rule, wood suffers the most in cold weather, and fibreglass suffers in the sun. Whatever your boat of choice, a protective cover is a simple way to stop damage from occurring and takes no time at all to put on yourself.

Leave it to the experts

Just as there are tasks that are avoided even though they are easy to do, there are tasks that people attempt to do themselves that can end up doing serious damage. Fibreglass repairs often seem like a small job, but you will need to invest in some serious kit to do them properly, from professional-standard buffers to die grinders and rotary tools. Rather than patch dents and scratches in fibreglass yourself and risk a bigger problem later, this is a task where it is best to get help.

Likewise, cleaning sails can seem straightforward job, but do it wrong and you are looking at an expensive mistake. Sail materials do not like being creased or left out in the wind, so scrunching them up in a bathtub or hosing and hanging out to dry in the air are no-gos.

Badly cleaned sails are also liable to losing their protective coating, leaving you wide open to mould that rots the fabric and lands you in need of a whole new set of sails. If a job bigger than simple rinsing needs doing, professional cleaning and surface coat reapplication are a worthwhile investment and leave you plenty of time for all the jobs that you can safely do yourself.