Tackling Tough Stains

Taking care of your vessel, regardless of its overall length or price tag, is essential in maintaining the value as well as the aesthetically pleasing attributes of your most prized possession. While professional boat detailers, no doubt, have their secret cleaning recipes and insider tricks, they will all agree on one fact when it comes to keeping your boat looking new; the more meticulous maintenance and cleaning practices you perform, the longer your vessel will shine with its original luster and appeal.


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Photo: Steve Dougherty

Purchasing a boat, new or pre-owned, is a hefty investment for the general population so it’s no surprise that once keys are in hand, proper maintenance is most owners’ top priority. However, it seems like no matter how much you scrub, rinse and repeat—there’s always a few stubborn stains and scuff marks that simply won’t go away. It may not be the ferocity at which you swirl your scrub brush or hand towel, but rather the products you choose to combat the unsightly imperfections.

Sure, removing typical dirt, grime, and fish slime is a relatively easy task with regular cleaning products designed for marine applications, but at some time you, too, will find a few streaks or stains that just don’t want to come out. Lucky for boaters there are an endless array of specialized solutions from bilge detergents to T-top cleaners.

For the perfectionist looking to keep their vessel in tip-top shape black streaks are unsightly, but it is likely rust stains that cause the most anguish. While snaps, screws, cleats, hatch lids, bow rails and most other metal components on saltwater boats are manufactured of stainless steel, the wide range of alloys used in creating stainless steel determine its corrosion fighting abilities. Even iron particles in the highest quality steel will eventually rust with localized discoloration appearing. The most noticeable rust stains occur around screw holes and hinges, but any location that can trap water may create a recipe for disaster.

While corrosion comes in many forms and spreads rapidly when left untreated, protecting your vessel and its equipment from the damaging effects is another editorial altogether (check out Combat Corrosion in the November/December 2008 issue).

Corrosion and rust are bad enough, but they also leave deposits and stains on gelcoat, canvas tops, vinyl and much more. Thankfully there are cleaning solutions available that effectively and efficiently remove rust stains from various surfaces, utilizing several treatment methods. Home remedies include dish detergent, toilet bowl cleaner, diluted bleach, and numerous forms of acid. However, these products can be very abrasive, so be careful. Most gelcoat-safe rust stain removers formulated specifically for marine applications are simply sprayed over the area to be treated and left to sit. No scrubbing needed. Simply wipe with a clean terrycloth or microfiber towel and you’re good to go. There are also concentrated gels on the market designed specifically to combat stubborn rust stains that have been left unattended. With any product, it’s important you read the label carefully to make sure the ingredients aren’t abrasive and damaging to protective coatings or finishes. You must also remember that removing rust stains is a two-step process. Once you’ve eliminated the unsightly stain, it’s time to treat the source so this isn’t a common occurrence. You need to utilize a marine grade metal polish and apply it to areas that deserve consideration including bow rails, T-top piping, cleats and any other metal surfaces.

Second on the list of tough stains are black streaks. These dreaded streaks occur as a result of time and neglect and are compounded by run-off from dirt, mildew, grime, bird droppings, fallen leaves and other contaminants that accumulate on your boat. There are numerous companies that offer products to remove black streaks and they all work pretty much the same. Again, simply spray the product over the streak and let it work its magic. Wipe clean and voila! These products typically work as advertised for relatively “fresh” stains. Stubborn black streaks on the other hand may require a more concentrated solution and some additional elbow grease. After cleaning, a quality coat of wax will help to minimize recurrence.

Anytime you’re stuck with a stubborn stain, it’s important to apply pressure, but be gentle. You’ll have to resist scrubbing extremely hard to remove tough stains. Even with the mildest concentration of boat soap you will be wearing away a very thin layer of gelcoat. Rather than increased force, it may make sense to step up to a more potent product.

Maintaining your boat is very rewarding and it’s crucial to remember that the most important ingredient isn’t the strongest or most recommended chemical cleaner. It’s diligence. Thoroughly clean your boat after every use—removing stains as they occur—and it will be substantially easier to keep squeaky clean over the long run.

Basic Cleaning Kit

  • Non-Abrasive Biodegradable Boat Soap
  • Stiff Bristle Brush For Decks & Non-Skid
  • Soft Bristle Brush For Gelcoat
  • Bucket
  • Chamois
  • Metal Polish
  • Black Streak Remover
  • Rust Stain Remover
  • Microfiber Mitt
  • Terrycloth Towels
  • Telescoping Brush Handle