Keeping Your Sailboat Shipshape & Earth Friendly

by Carolyn Hanser Corbett


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The majority of work to be done is on a day to day basis, not only during the yearly haul out at the yard

"Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness," wrote Thomas Carlyle. Well, you just don’t get more blessed than this, for when you own a boat, you truly "found your work!" In fact, the cruiser’s problem is in getting every "blessed" thing done!

For every task to be accomplished, supplies are required, and the bewildering array of marine products seems to double each year. Speaking on behalf of 100 liveaboard cruisers who completed a comprehensive lifestyle survey, many of us felt caught in a dilemma. On one hand is the need to purchase products that effectively handle the maintenance chores our boats demand. Balancing this is the strong commitment most of us hold towards protecting the environment we cherish.

We all recognize that chlorine, phosphates, ammonia, lye, formaldehyde, and petroleum distillates are toxic. It is critical to keep chemicals, paints, thinners, petroleum products, and other toxic materials out of the water. Certain products should only be used in boatyards, where empty cans and hazardous waste can be disposed of in an approved manner.

Fortunately, more and more manufacturers are developing environmentally-friendly boat maintenance products. Major catalog outlets, along with local chandleries, now market a wide variety of items specifically designed for minimal environmental impact. Prior to purchasing products, crews should evaluate the effects not only on their vessel, but on Mother Nature. Research local regulations, read labels, and weigh the options.

Check Your Lockers & Cupboards

A majority of cruisers believe the best supplies are normal household products. Crews use name brand furniture polish, wood soap, dish detergents, and glass cleaners for chores as diverse as removing oxidation chalkiness, cleaning plexiglass and the clear window of the dodger, polishing interior wood, and for general tidying up.

Mineral spirits can be substituted for kerosene in lamps, providing a clean and brighter burning light. It is also a great solvent for mechanical work. Baby oil removes tar from feet after a walk on the beach. Vaseline serves as a lubricant, providing corrosion protection at the same time.

Think Natural

Heavy duty cleaners packed with toxic chemicals are unnecessary overkill for most jobs. The ever-growing selection of natural cleaning supplies are both safe and effective. Frequently less expensive, they do a great job and often contain ingredients that are natural pest repellents.

Vinegar works well on surfaces of all sorts, even metal, as well as preventing lime build up in the head. A spray bottle filled with equal parts vinegar and water, plus one tablespoon of concentrated citrus cleanser, handles counters, woodwork, appliances, fiberglass, the cabin sole, and just about anything else. Since most insects hate the citrus cleanser, ant and roach problems are reduced or eliminated.

Baking soda is a wonderful, inexpensive all-purpose provision. We use it to steel deodorize, and as a laundry booster. A terrific resource is Baking Soda: Over 500 Fabulous, Fun and Frugal Uses You’ve Probably Never Thought Of by Vicki Lansky.

Shaklee Basic H and Basic I do not pollute, work in cold H2O, are economical, and space saving. Another popular product, Simple Green, is so versatile that it has replaced entire collections of cleaning supplies aboard many cruising boats.

Dave and I have found Life Tree HomeSoaps to be invaluable. It is superconcentrated, pH-balanced, biodegradable, and phosphate free. It works well in hot or cold, hard or soft water, and leaves no film or residue. Life Tree HomeSoap contains no artificial colors or fragrances and can be used on anything washable— floors, furniture, cars, boats, as a bath and body soap, even as a fruit and vegetable wash. It is available by calling 1-800-747-0390. The cost is $3.29 for 16 ounces, $5.31 for 32 ounces, or $18.53 for a gallon.

An excellent consumer guide to products that are non-toxic, non-polluting, reusable, recycled or recyclable, and biodegradable is Debra Lynn Dadd’s Nontoxic, Natural, & Earthwise. Particularly helpful to cruisers are her chapters on cleaning products and personal care. in addition to offering a list of commercially available supplies, Dadd details homemade alternatives created from common ingredients typically found aboard boats.

Marine Cleaners

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We all recognize that chlorine, phosphates, ammonia, lye, formaldehyde, and petroleum distillates are toxic. It is critical to keep chemicals, paints, thinners, petroleum, and other toxic materials out of the water.

What do you do when you need to spit, polish, shine, or protect? Do you want to stop fading, retard oxidation, prevent yellowing, resist salt and rust, reduce drag, remove chalking? Just keep reading labels till you find the perfect product for you project.

Several major manufacturers produce products that are as earth-friendly as is technologically possible. Environmentally appropriate cleaners are available for use on fiberglass, metal, rubber, plastic, and painted surfaces.

Certain metal polish, wax, rubbing compound, and fiberglass cleaners feature nonabrasive, acid-free formulas, which protect against rust, tarnish, and corrosion. Compounds are available to remove dirt, oil, grease, stains, and marine growth, with minimal scouring.


The Battle of the Bilge

It is illegal and environmentally unsound to discharge oil overboard, but you don’t want a petroleum collection in your bilge either. The answer? Now available on the market are oil absorbers similar to those utilized in cleaning up major oil spills on navigable waters. These absorbers come in the form of pads, pillows, socks, and sheets that soak oil and gas, while repelling water. Most oil suckers can be wrung out and reused, and will not disintegrate after repeated usage.

A growing number of bilge cleaners utilize natural biological reactions that cause organic substances to decompose. Many contain biodegradable citrus-based solvents, rather than the harsh chemicals found in average alkaline-based bilge cleaners.

Check your catalogs or a nearby chandlery for biodegradable bilge cleaners that dissolve oil, grease, gasoline, diesel fuel, and sludge. No scrubbing necessary; the natural movement of the boat does the work for you. Just pour the cleaning agent in your bilge, run the boat to slosh it around, then pump it out.

Antifouling Paints

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Boaters have an opportunity to experience the blessedness of work at bottom painting time. Few people attempt to save money, preferring instead to rely on well-known, quality brands. Bifrost, the author's Morgan 41, is power washed in anticipation of a new coat of bottom paint.

Cruisers have an opportunity to experience the blessedness of work at bottom painting time. Few people attempt to save money, preferring instead to rely on well-known, quality brands from reputable manufacturers. Investing in a multi-season paint, while more expensive initially, is often a financially wise decision. In the long run, you save on both time and haulout expenses.

Consult labels to investigate optimal painting conditions, necessary surface preparation, health precautions, paint/solvent/primer compatibility, and method of application. Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) produced when solvents evaporate are regulated by federal and state agencies. Certain paints may not be available in some areas due to their detrimental effect on the ozone layer. Also, while waterbased antifouling paints are EPA approved and contain fewer VOC’s, they nevertheless do contain toxins which require careful cleanup and disposal routines.

The major producers of antifouling paint each offer environmentally friendly options that meet strict VOC compliance regulations.


Ah, mildew, that oh-so-delightful coating or discoloration caused by fungi on fabrics, paper, leather, everything, when exposed to moisture. Since trouble occurs primarily when ventilation is inadequate, the obvious solution is to ensure sufficient air circulation. Cruisers who have installed solar powered ventilation equipped with rechargeable batteries are delighted with their performance.

Those without solar vents must turn to other methods of reducing mildew growth. Ensure dorades are all open. Lift the floorboards. Open all closets and cupboards. If you’re on the hard, remove the knot-log impeller to act as a drain. Remove all cushions to a dry storage area. Consider a de-humidifier.

One option is to buy six to eight mildew inhibiting bags at the local convenience store and scatter them around the interior of your boat when you close up for the season. The bags are nearly pure formaldehyde, so air your floating home thoroughly before spending any time down below in the spring. Nontoxic, formaldehyde-free mildew control bags are a more expensive but safer alternative. Touted as harmless to humans, pets, and the environment, they control mildew by absorbing excess moisture, cleansing air particles, and emitting fungi growth inhibitors.

If none of these measures handle the problem, thumb through your boating catalogs. You’ll find a multitude of mildew control sprays and mildew stain removers available that are designed for use on fabrics, vinyl, and hard surfaces. Check to determine which contain no bleach and can be safely used on colored fabric.

Taking Care of Teak

There are some wonderful teak options available on the market today. While skeptical skippers insist that elbow grease is the only effective solution to teak trauma, others have discovered products they swear by.

Certain teak finishes, however, damage paint, varnish, fiberglass, aluminum and chrome or cause chemical burns to skin and eyes. As precautionary measures, wear rubber gloves, avoid the fumes, and hose down your work area when the chore is completed.

Count Your Blessings

Blessed are we who have boats to maintain, for we are the lucky ones. We hold the responsibility for keeping the world around us healthy and safe for all the young cruisers who will someday follow in our wakes.

Carolyn Corbett is a frequent contributor who has also appeared in Cruising World, Latitudes & Attitudes, Nor'westing, MN Sportsman, Coastal Cruising, Sailing Magazine and a variety of smaller publications.

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