How to Clean a Boat (Cleaning Checklist)
Written by Carolyn Jackson
Whether it’s your first boat or your fifth, it’s something to be proud of. Although boats are an amazing source of joy for you and your family, they require some work. One of the most important habits to build as a boat owner is cleaning and maintenance.
Properly cleaning your boat will increase its lifespan and sustain its condition so you can enjoy the boat for years to come. In this article, we’ll answer your questions on how to clean a boat with some helpful tips, tricks, and how-tos for making sure your boat is clean inside and out.
- Clean your boat after every use and deep clean before storing for winter and when de-winterizing for summer
- Cleaning your boat regularly prevents erosion and wear and tear, elongating your boat’s life
- Outboard and Inboard engine cleaning methods are surprisingly easy
Table of Contents
Overview of Cleaning a Boat
Cleaning your boat after every use and at the end of each season is an essential part of boat ownership. Just like a car or any other item of value, you want to keep it clean, fresh, and in good condition. Properly cleaning any boat includes a few items to check off the list:
- Interior cleaning
- Exterior cleaning
- Engine cleaning
- Tank cleaning
You do not need to clean all of the above items every time you boat. For example, engine and tank cleaning is good to check once a month or once every 100 hours of engine use, whichever comes first. The same goes for the tanks — routinely check it about once a month or every 100 engine hours and clean these two parts of the boat before winterizing and storing your boat for the season.
We recommend cleaning the interior and exterior after every use, at least minimally. Then, before winterizing your boat for the off-season, give the interior and exterior a deep clean so it’s ready to go in the summer.
How to Clean Different Types of Boats
Not all boats are the same, so cleaning a boat is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The biggest difference from a cleaning perspective is the boat’s materials. For example, there are a few different materials you might encounter when cleaning the interior of your boat, including:
- Marine Carpet
- Non-slip Fiberglass
Each of these materials needs special attention and care. We will go into more detail on the interior cleaning methods below.
Just like the interior, there are a few different materials you might encounter for the exterior of the boat, including:
- Hull and gel-coat surfaces
- Hull bottoms
- Canvas and Clear Canvas (Isinglass)
These exterior surfaces have some nuances that are good to know for long-term care and maintenance when cleaning these materials. We will go into more detail on these exterior surfaces below.
How Often Should You Clean Your Boat
As often as you like! But actually, as often as your boat would like might be a better way to phrase it. This question is somewhat difficult to answer because it depends on a few different factors, including:
- How often your use your boat
- Where and how you store your boat
- What type of water your boat is in
- External factors like weather/water temperature
- How you use your boat
To hit on a few of those mentioned above, you might benefit from more routine maintenance and cleaning if you use your boat every day. However, using your boat daily awards you the luxury to “clean as you go” and clean small bits and pieces often instead of cleaning everyone once in a while.
Pro Tip: Boats that sit unused accrue more dust, dirt, and debris than frequently used boats. So get out there and explore the water!
Also, an important consideration for boat cleaning is where and how you store your boat. If your boat sits in the water at a marina or dock all summer, you will encounter some maintenance and cleaning needs dry storage boats will not experience. Additionally, if you store your boat and use it in a saltwater environment, cleaning the bottom of your boat every month or two is essential to prevent barnacles and other harmful marine life from building up.
How to Clean the Interior of Your Boat
The interior is anywhere a passenger might openly interact with the boat while it is in use. This includes the seats, carpet, steering wheel and captain’s seat, storage containers, biminis, glass, doors, trash cans, built-in fridges, etc. You and your guests will have a more enjoyable experience in a clean interior boat.
When you clean the interior of your boat, here is a checklist of things to do:
Use the above checklist at least every week that you use your boat, if not more frequently. Frequent and consistent cleaning of the interior of your boat will prevent the build-up of dirt and scum, keeping your boat looking new for years to come.
There are a few tips and tricks for cleaning those materials worth mentioning for the surfaces that you are most likely to find inside a boat.
Marine carpet is designed to be ultra durable. It can handle lots of water and dirt, but that does not mean you don’t have to clean it. To clean the carpet in a boat, start by vacuuming up any loose debris with a regular vacuum cleaner. Then, using soap and water, you can scrub the carpet to remove built-up dirt and grime. You could also use a power washer or hose attachment on the carpet to get it looking like new again. When storing your boat for long periods, always make sure the carpet is fully dry. You may need to use a wet vac to get all the water out.
Non-slip fiberglass found on the inside of the boat can’t be treated with wax the way you treat the same material on the exterior of your boat. Clean the area with a soft bristle brush, soap, and water, or even some bleach if necessary. To remain non-slip, treat the area with a non-skid product like Star Brite Non-Skid Wax.
Vinyl is a super common material on all types of boats. Vinyl is what you probably think of for most boats with soft seating. This is the material used for waterproof chairs and benches on cruising boats designed for fun and comfort. To clean vinyl, use soap and water with a rag as often as possible to prevent the buildup of dirt or scum. You can also use a cleaning solution designed specifically for marine vinyl like this one here.
How to Clean the Exterior of Your Boat
Keeping the exterior of your boat clean is equally as important as the interior. The exterior comes into contact with lots of dirty and damaging conditions like murky water, saltwater, algae, barnacles, waves, sunlight, rain and wind, and a plethora of others. Although you can’t do much to control the water or the weather, you can control how you maintain and clean your boat’s exterior.
Cleaning the exterior of your boat is fairly simple. The best way to explain it is to get everything wet, then get everything dry. Here are the basic steps for cleaning your boat’s exterior:
1. Rinse everything
Pull your boat out of the water and give the entire exterior, including underneath, a full rinse. This is to get any debris or grime off the surface to prepare the boat for deeper cleaning. You can use a regular hose, a hose attachment, or even a power washer if you want to.
2. Lather it with a boat-specific cleaner
Using a specialized boat cleaner, perform a thorough cleaning of the entire exterior using a rag and cleaning solution. This step is to remove any more stubborn dirt or debris, so it does not cause any lasting damage to the boat or hull. Using the cleaner also prepares the boat for the protectant layer you will add later.
Pro Tip: To avoid streaks, use the cleaning solution on a small area at a time and quickly wash it off once you scrub the area fully. E.g., do not let any cleaning solution dry on the exterior of the boat.
3. Buff the exterior
Although not essential, this step is recommended. Bring back your boat’s “straight-from-the-dealership” shine by buffing the exterior surfaces using a rotary buffer, like this one. Buffing will help remove oxidation and prepare the surface of the boat for waxing.
4. Wax the exterior
Waxing the exterior of your boat will add a brilliant shine and prevent future scratches, dents, dirt, and grime. We recommend using a boat-specific wax such as the Star Brite Marine Polish Boat Wax.
Cleaning your boat’s exterior will help prevent damage and prolong your boat’s condition, meaning more hours spent enjoying the water and less spent on costly repairs and maintenance headaches.
How to Clean Your Boat’s Engine
There are two common types of boat engines: inboard and outboard. Inboard is when you cannot physically see the engine on the boat as hidden inside the boat’s hull. An outboard engine is visible on the exterior of the boat and is much more easily accessible. There are pros and cons to both types of engines, and you can read more about that in our Inboard vs. Outboard Engines article. Both types of engines need regular maintenance, probably at least once or twice a year. But you can clean both engines much more frequently to keep them looking brand new and working in top condition.
How to Clean an Outboard Engine
Cleaning an outboard engine is fairly simple. As with most things, start by washing it down with soapy water and then buffing out any scratches, followed by a coat of paint if needed and then a sealant/wax topcoat.
To go the extra mile, take off the engine cover to expose the actual motor. Start with a quick hose down of the exposed motor to remove loose debris, salt, etc. Using an engine cleaner like this one, spray it directly on the exposed motor and then take a detail brush or paintbrush and work it into the engine to get it in all the nooks and crannies. Once you are satisfied with the cleanliness of the engine, spray off the degreaser with a hose.
Pro Tip: Clean the engine in small chunks, so the degreaser does not sit on the engine and dry.
After you degrease and clean the motor, wait for it to dry completely. Come in with an engine protectant, like this Yamaha Yamashield, and spray it on small sections of the motor and rub it in with a clean rag until you coat the entire motor. And then you’re done! Just replace the engine cover, and your engine will be looking undeniably beautiful.
How to Clean an Inboard Engine
To start, open up the access point for the engine room on your boat and turn off the batteries. Do a quick inspection of the engine(s) to see if there is grease, debris, mold, standing water, or anything else within the entire engine room.
You’ll need a few tools to clean the inboard engine:
Step one is to rinse off the entire engine room with water and then, using the Degreaser in a 50/50 dilution with water, spray it over everything in the engine room and take the detail brush to loosen all the grime, dirt, grease. Then, use the microfiber towels to wipe off the dirt and grime and rinse again. Repeat these steps as necessary to get out all the dirt. When you are satisfied with the cleanliness of the engine, use the shop-vac to remove sitting water.
Pro Tip: Do not get the wires in the engine room wet if you can help it. Avoid spraying them directly with water.
Next, you need to dry and protect the engine. Let the motor air-dry in the sun, or you can use a blower to get the water out. Go over everything with a dry rag to ensure the engines are as dry as possible. Now, put your 303 Protectant on a rag and rub it on all the plastic and rubber pieces, as well as wire coating and the gel coat at the bottom within the engine room.
And that’s it!
How to Clean a Boats Carburetor Without Removing It
A carburetor is an important part of your boat’s engine. It is important to keep this piece of the engine in good condition. There are a few signs your boat’s carburetor needs cleaning:
- Slow engine start
- Poor acceleration
- Low RPM
- Black smoke from the exhaust
- Popping sounds from too much air in the fuel
- No fuel under the drain screw when you remove it from the bottom of your carburetor
You can clean your boat’s carburetor without removing it. You’ll need to have a full tank of fuel and then funnel in a carburetor cleaner into the full tank. Turn on the engine and cruise around at a very slow speed so the cleaner can circulate through the engine. You’ll know when the cleaner starts to work because your RMPs will drastically rise. When this happens, turn the idle knob down to keep your RPMs low.
Keeping your boat clean is one of the best ways to prolong your boat and engine’s life and ensure you get the most out of your boating experience every time. It can seem time-consuming and a little challenging, but once you figure out a routine and get the basics down, it will be second nature. Our best advice is to find a consistent regimen for cleaning your boat; clean some things after every cruise, others once a month, and others once every six months or quarter.
Have more questions about boating? Check out Boating 101: Your Top Boating Questions Answered for more helpful information.
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