How to Clean a Boat and Boat Cleaning Mistakes to Avoid

How to Clean a Boat

Boat cleaning is an essential part of regular boat maintenance. It needs to be done to remove grime, fish blood, and prevent mildew stains. In the article, we will outline the best cleaning tips for boat owners to keep a clean boat.

Cleaning a boat does not need to be a complicated task with dozens of different products. You can do it simply using household materials, or mix in a few dedicated boat cleaners to speed up the job.

Boat Cleaning Supplies

Before you get started, you will need a few supplies on hand. If you are a new boat owner, check out the must-have list. There's a good chance you have most of this stuff on hand already and it is enough to get you started.

If you really want to geek out on your boat detailing, our nice-to-have list covers some awesome boat-specific products you can use for great results on stubborn stains.

Must-Have Boat Cleaning Supplies

  1. Hose for Rinsing: You will want a flexible hose for rinsing and access to plenty of clean water. I really like an expandable and retractable garden hose for this because it is easy to maneuver around the boat.
  2. General Purpose Boat Soap: Pick up a dedicated boat soap or boat cleaner. Boat soaps are designed to not strip your wax and are also 100% biodegradable.
  3. White Vinegar: White vinegar is a miracle for cleaning boats. It does not contain any harsh chemicals and can safely be used on almost any surface of your boat. Check out our recipe below for a DIY All-Purpose Boat Cleaner you can make at home.
  4. Mild Dish Soap: Mild dishwashing liquid can be used to cleaning soft surfaces like carpet, upholstery, and vinyl boat seats.
  5. Soft Sponge: Soft sponges can be used for cleaning all over your boat including the hull. A regular sponge, microfiber sponge, or reggae sponge will all work for this.
  6. Bristle Brush: A hand-held bristle brush is perfect for scrubbing away dirt and grime quickly. An inexpensive dish brush is suitable for this.
  7. Microfiber Cloths: Have plenty of microfiber cloths on hand. These are ideal for wiping down surfaces and dusting electronics and consoles.
  8. Chamois or Boat Shammy: As you clean, drying the surface behind you helps to polish and protect the boat and vinyl surfaces. Look for a chamois with high-absorbancy.

Nice-to-Have Boat Cleaning Products

  1. Deck Brush: If you don't want to clean the boat deck by hand, pick up a soft bristle deck brush. These are inexpensive and save a lot of time when cleaning your boat deck.
  2. Vinyl Cleaner: If your boat has vinyl seating (particularly white seating), you may want a dedicated vinyl cleaner for this job. Vinyl Cleaners are powerful but designed to not degrade the vinyl.
  3. Vinyl Protectant: Vinyl protectants will protect your vinyl from UV rays, which can degrade and fade the vinyl over time.
  4. Pressure Washer: If you are using your boat on saltwater, many boat owners use a pressure washer to remove grime, algae and reduce the effects of seawater. Pressure washers are great for cleaning your trailer too.
  5. Stain Remover: If you have some persistent stains on your boat hull, upholstery, or anywhere else that are not coming off with regular cleaning, you may need a stain remover for that specific purpose. There are dedicated stain removers for most areas of your boat including rust.
  6. Mildew Remover: If the source of your stains is mildew, look for a Mildew Stain Remover. These removers are typically used on boat seats and do wonders are restoring a clean, white surface.
Dawn Dish Liquid and Vinegar make the perfect DIY Boat Cleaner

DIY Boat Cleaner Recipe

Ingredients
  1. White Vinegar
  2. Dawn Dishwashing Liquid
  3. Water
Mixing in a Bucket or Spray Bottle
  1. Start with a few squirts of Dawn Dishwahing Liquid. Use about 1 tablespoon for a spray bottle and about a quarter cup for a bucket.
  2. Fill the remainder of the bottle of bucket with a 50/50 mix of water and vinegar.
Mixing with the Hose-End Mixing Bottle
  1. Add a few squirts of Dawn Dishwashing Liquid into the bottom of a hose-end mixing bottle.
  2. Fill the rest of the bottle with regular White Vinegar or Cleaning Vinegar (whatever you have on hand).
  3. Adjust the dial on the mixing bottle to a low dilution setting so that you get lots of detergent and vinegar while spraying.
  4. Attach to your hose, and clean away!
  5. Always make sure to rinse with clean water when you are done.

Cleaning the Boat Exterior

How to Clean the Boat Hull

It is recommended to clean your boat hull several times per year to preserve the integrity of the vessel. The hull cleaning method will depend on whether the hull will be out of the water or in the water during cleaning.

Cleaning your boat hull out of the water (on trailer)

If your boat is on a trailer, cleaning the hull is a fairly simple process. Give the boat a thorough rinse with fresh water from a hose, then wash with a boat cleaner specialized for your hull material (aluminum or fiberglass).

Star brite Concentrated Boat Wash
$6.99*
*Price at publication date

Star brite Concentrated Boat Wash

  • Sea Safe & Phosphate Free
  • Concentrated Formula
  • Will Not Remove Wax
  • Non Streaking
  • No Soapy Residue
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The boat cleaner will need to be mixed with water as directed. You can do this either in a bucket or with a hose-end mixer bottle. I prefer the mixer bottle because it is much faster. There is a little math involved with this method to get the dial to the right mixing ratio, but once you do it once, you are good to go.

Once the boat is soapy, take a soft sponge and clean the hull surface in a circular motion until it is clean. Finally, give the whole boat another rinse with clean water, making sure there is no trace of soap residue.

Finish off by drying the surface with a chamois to avoid water spots.

Cleaning your boat hull in the water

If your boat will be in the water for cleaning, there are a few options. Because this can be a difficult process, many boat owners hire this job out to professional boat hull cleaners, who will use scuba gear to get under the boat.

If you will be tackling this job DIY, this will either be done by jumping into an inflatable and working your way around the boat to clean the waterline, or by using a curved hull cleaning brush.

Davis 4400 Scrubbis Underwater Hull Cleaning Kit
$59.99*
*Price at publication date

Davis 4400 Scrubbis Underwater Hull Cleaning Kit

  • Quick and easy
  • Buoyant tools help scrub
  • No toxic chemicals and 100% recyclable
  • Universal Fit
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I prefer the curved hull cleaning brush. These are used from inside the boat and working your way around the perimeter of the boat. This is a lot more manageable, especially if your boat is at a marina where space is limited.

How to Clean a Boat Deck

How to Clean a Non-Skid Boat Deck

Non-skid boat decks get dirty very easily. Fortunately, they are also easy to clean. The easiest way to do this is to wet the deck, then use something like Starbrite Non-Skid Deck Cleaner and Protectant as directed with a deck brush. Make sure to leave it on for the recommended 3 minutes, then rinse it off.

Star brite Non-Skid Deck Cleaner & Protectant
$17.88*
*Price at publication date

Star brite Non-Skid Deck Cleaner & Protectant

  • Lifts dirt from non-skid deck surfaces
  • Leaves a non-slippery, protective polymer coating
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How to Clean a Teak Boat Deck

If you have a teak deck, you will need a teak cleaner and teak brightener (which are like shampoo and conditioner for your teak). Before you start, thoroughly wet the deck with clean water.

TotalBoat Teak Cleaner and Brightener for Boats
$29.99*
*Price at publication date

TotalBoat Teak Cleaner and Brightener for Boats

  • Marine-grade teak cleaner
  • Restores teak's natural golden glow
  • Cleans deeply to remove oil, fuel stains, sealers, fish blood, and grime from teakwood decking
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First, apply the teak cleaner to the deck with a scouring pad mounted to a scrubbing pole. Gently scrub the teak perpendicular to the grain. This is important to not damage the teak.

Once the deck is scrubbed. Give it a good rinse with your hose until the water runs clear. Second, apply the teak brightener in the same method. Leave it on for about 5 minutes to condition, then rinse away.

Thi quick process will bring your teak back to its beautiful natural appearance.

How to Clean the Outboard Motor

Maintaining a clean exterior on your outboard motor can really improve the overall appearance of your entire boat. With a few simple cleaning tips, you can keep yours looking like new year after year.

To clean your outboard, wet it down, then gently wipe it using a non-abrasive microfiber mitt in circular motions. You can use your regular boat soap for this, and rinse when you are done. Finish off with a spray-on wax to increase shine and add a little bit of protection.

To deeply protect your outboard, give it a coating with a thick paste wax around every 3 months. This has great protective properties and goes a long way in maintaining both the appearance and resale value of your outboard motor.

Meguiar's Wax Flagship Marine Paste
$21.99*
*Price at publication date

Meguiar's Wax Flagship Marine Paste

  • Long-lasting polymer protection
  • Incredible deep gloss to fiberglass and gel coat surfaces
  • UV protection
  • Enriches color and shine
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How to Clean Stainless Steel Boat Hardware

Your boat likely has some stainless steel parts and hardware like latches, gunnels, rails, handles, cleats, and ladders. Regular cleaning of these parts does not require anything special.

You can clean them with regular boat soap and water, white vinegar, or stainless steel cleaner. Whatever you use, finish off by dry polishing them with a microfiber cloth to remove any water spots.

If you have stainless steel hardware that is beginning to rust, you will want to remove the hardware from the boat, clean the area with a rust cleaner suitable for the surface, clean the hardware, then re-apply it using a sealant like the 3M 4200 Marine Adhesive Sealant. This will stop those unsightly rust rings in their tracks.

Cleaning the Boat Interior

Cleaning Boat Carpet and Upholstery

​Cleaning your boat carpet and upholstery makes a huge difference in the overall cleanliness of the boat. This is something you are going to want to do a few times per boating season, or as often as needed depending on how dirty it is getting.

Start off by vacuuming the carpet. I like using a wet vac for this in case there is any standing water around the boat. Just give the whole boat interior a good once over.

After the carpet is completely free of debris, soak it right down with a garden hose and clean water.

To clean the carpet fibers, you will want to use a mild detergent. You can use something as simple as diluted Dawn Dishwashing Liquid (dilute this liquid down quite a bit so it rinses easier later) or this or a dedicated boat carpet cleaning solution like Boat Juice Interior Cleaner.

Boat Juice Interior Cleaner
$19.99*
*Price at publication date

Boat Juice Interior Cleaner

  • UV protection
  • Safe for upholstery
  • Great smelling
  • Quickly penetrates to remove stains
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Using a medium to soft bristle brush, scrub the detergent into the carpet fibers. Give it a nice scrub, focussing more on high traffic areas. Once you are complete with the scrubbing, hose it back down again to rinse the carpet really well until there is absolutely no suds.

How to Clean Vinyl Boat Seats

Cleaning your vinyl boats seats regularly is the best way to prevent mildew stains from building up in the first place.  Mildew stains can prematurely age your boat and make it look very dirty.

Regular cleaning can be done with mild dish soap and water. Simply wipe down the seats to wash away dirt, sweat, and debris. Use a soft microfiber cloth to avoid scratching or damaging the vinyl.

Once you are done cleaning the seats, dry them completely using an ultra absorbant towel or chamois. This step is very important because leaving a wet surface after cleaning can actually cause mildew once it gets warm and humid.

It is good to get into the habit of wiping the boat seats after every boat ride. After all, a good offense is the best defense when it comes to boat maintenance.

What I do is keep a spray bottle on board with water and a little bit of Dawn Dishwashing Liquid and quickly spray and wipe down after each outing. This takes a couple of minutes but is well worth the time investment because getting rid of mildew stains if they occur can be challenging.

If you do end up with mildew stains on your seats, you will need a mildew remover to tackle this cleaning problem. DO NOT try and use bleach for this. Bleach will degrade the vinyl. Look for a mildew remover that is formulated for boat or marine use like Star brite Mold Stain & Mildew Stain Remover.

Star brite Mildew Stain Remover
$13.99*
*Price at publication date

Star brite Mildew Stain Remover

  • Quickly removes stains caused by mold & mildew on contact without heavy scrubbing
  • Easy to use
  • Concentrated formula for boats
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How to Clean the Livewells

When cleaning a livewell, do not use any chemicals that would harm the fish or harm a person eating that fish. Your livewell is holding a live fish and needs to be treated accordingly when cleaning.

A safe household item you can use to clean your livewell is baking soda. You can wet the baking soda slightly to form a gently abrasive paste that does an excellent job at cleaning the livewell.

You can also use a livewell cleaner like Babe's Well Wash that has some added beneficial properties like conditioners and probiotics to create an odor-free environment for fish and keep harmful bacteria from populating your livewell system.

Babe's Well Wash
$25.54*
*Price at publication date

Babe's Well Wash

  • Cleans and conditions with pro-biotics
  • Safe and effective cleaning agents
  • Creates an odor-free environment for fish
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After cleaning, fill the livewell about halfway up with water then drain about half the water and plug again. This will move your cleaning agents into the draining system. Allow it to sit there for about 10 minutes, then completely drain.

How to Clean the Boat Bilge

The easiest way to clean a boat bilge is with a boat bilge cleaner like Star brite Heavy Duty Bilge Cleaner. Bilge cleaners are biodegradable and very simple to use. All you have to do is pour it in, run the boat, and then pump it out.

Star brite Bilge Cleaner
$15.66*
*Price at publication date

Star brite Bilge Cleaner

  • Biodegradable
  • Easy to use; just pour in, run boat, pump out
  • Dissolves and eliminates oil, grease, fuel, scum and sludge
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The cleaner instructions will provide measurements of how much to use per water volume.

Bilge cleaners are degreasers that dissolve scum, eliminate oil, grease, fuel, and sludge. They will not harm fiberglass, rubber hoses, wiring, metal or plastic.

Boat Cleaning Mistakes to Avoid

  1. Do Not Clean a Boat with Bleach: When you have some stubborn stains on your fiberglass or vinyl seats, it can be tempting to reach for the bleach. Although this may quickly solve the problem in the short term, the harsh chemicals will cause long-term issues like damaging the gelcoat on fiberglass boats, degrading the material in vinyl seats, cause paint to fade, and change the color of the vinyl.
  2. Do Not Air Dry Vinyl Boat Seats: Always make sure to dry vinyl seats after cleaning. Leaving any moisture on the surface can cause mildew, which will result in mildew stains.
  3. Do Not Wash Cushion Covers in Hot Water or Put in the Dyer: You may have some removable cushion covers that can be put in the washing machine to clean them easily. Do not wash these in hot water or put them in the dryer. This can cause the covers to shrink and you will not be able to get the cushion back inside.
  4. Do Not Damage the Boat Hull with a Pressure Washer: Although some pressure can really assist in cleaning your boat, too much will damage the vessel. When pressure washing your boat, proceed with some caution. Do not use an industrial or heavy-duty pressure washer. These have too much power. Stick with light or medium-duty pressure washers.
  5. Do Not Clean Boat Carpet with a Pressure Washer: Cleaning your boat carpet and upholstery with a pressure washer will weaken the carpet fibers and weaken the glue holding the carpet down. This will cause your carpet to wear out at an expedited rate.
  6. Do Not Use Chemicals to Clean Your Livewell: Chemicals should never be used to clean a livewell. Use baking soda or a livewell cleaner to ensure the health of the fish and people who eat the fish.

Bottom Line

The best way to keep your boat clean is with regular cleaning and maintenance. Make a few simple steps like wiping down your boat seats and motor a part of your routine on every boat trip and set a recurring schedule in your task manager or calendar for other tasks.

Getting the kids involved with boat cleaning and maintenance is also a great way to get a few extra hands and teach them about pride of boat ownership.

Keeping your boat clean is also an investment in your own enjoyment on the vessel and is preserving its value over time.

Deb Sauvé Avatar
About Deb Sauvé

Deb is a Canadian outdoor enthusiast, journalist, and photographer. Raised in rural Northern Ontario, Deb is no stranger to extreme environments, remote fishing spots, and great lakes boating.

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