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Non-Skid Deck Cleaning and Maintenance

James "Doc" Lewis

One of the most common questions we get concerns the cleaning and restoration of the non-skid decks on the boats we maintain. As with most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and daily washing with a mild soap and a little elbow grease, will go a long way towards keeping the non-skid deck looking ship shape and Bristol. By daily washing, I mean washing after each use or at least once a week, even if the boat has just been sitting.

Unlike the rest of the gelcoat surfaces on the boat, we can't just compound and use wax to protect it, as anyone who has stepped on a waxed floor with a little water on it knows. While there are some products which claim to protect a non-skid deck from stains and oxidation many of them contain chemicals, such as silicon which create their own problems and are nearly impossible to remove if you are not happy with the results.

Back in the real world; what do we do when the washing has been infrequent, the cleaners often far from mild, (bleach, detergents, abrasives, etc.) and the non-skid looks like it belongs on a boat twice (or three times) as old as the rest of the vessel? Assuming that it hasn't gotten to the point of no return and needs to be re-decked, what can be done to bring back that shine and sparkle to a dull and stained non-skid surface?

Start With A Thorough Deck Cleaning

Start off by wetting down the deck, to loosen up any dried on dirt and grime.

Wash the decks using a mild soap and deck brush, a section at a time, rinsing as we go. This point is important! Many folks, in an effort to get done quickly try to wash the whole boat at once, leaving the soap to dry. Once dried it is impossible to remove with cold water and will leave just enough of the soap to start a dull film. Soap scum build-up isn't just for shower stalls anymore.

Turn the hose on the decks ahead of where your washing to keep them wet till you get to them. You'll find that the longer the surface has to soak, the easier it will be to clean.

This procedure will remove most of what will come up easily and we can assess the situation and decide on our next course of action. The idea here is to use only what is needed to get the job done.

If the deck looks pretty good after the initial washing, one of the regular non-skid deck cleaners put out by Marykate, Starbrite, West Marine, and others will do a deep cleaning and leave a non-slippery, protective coating behind to help keep the decks looking nice, and make future washings easier.

Three Common Deck Stains

If, after the initial wash, you have a few stains which are beyond the reach of the over-the-counter solutions (test on a small area to find out) we get down to finding the least offensive chemical to eliminate the stains and then wash the whole deck again with one of the above mentioned cleaners. Most of the stains found on topsides come from one of three sources.

  1. Oil: No surprise here. We track it on from the parking lot, spill it when adding to the engine or hydraulic system, fish are full of it. There are a few other sources but you get the idea. A little paint thinner will generally dissolve the stain left by oil and evaporate enough to be washed off later with soap and water.
  2. Food: If all you ever eat onboard is French Fries then refer to item 1. If, like most of us your taste buds tend towards exotic treats while asea then the possibilities become extensive. Red wine is another "food" that is much easier to spill than it is to clean. In general, the same chemicals that you would use at home will work on the boat. What's that you say, you don't do any cleaning at home. Shame on you! Ask your wife, maid, or mother, they'll likely tell you if you offer to vacuum or something.
  3. Epoxy: I can see some of you looking at me like I just flew in from Mars. If you don't have this problem, good for you, but it is a quite common complaint in our neck of the woods. All too often boat owners will try to save a little money and make a repair to a chip, scratch, or worse without having a clue as to how the pros do it. As a pro I can say that the number 1 difference between an amateur patch job and an unnoticeable professional repair is in the preparation of the area to be worked on. And the first thing any fiberglass man does is to mask off the surrounding area and thoroughly cover the area beneath (called decks where I come from) with drop cloths.

The other part of the problem is the use of the "Magical Fix-It Stuff" that all the boating stores sell under a variety of names,(aka Epoxy) which is harder than the gelcoat itself and therefore nearly impossible to remove. The easy fix here is to remove as much of the spill as possible by sanding or grinding (be careful) and then covering with color matched gelcoat.

A Little Friendly Advice

I'd like to mention here that one of the advantages to maintaining boats every day is that I've accumulated not only a great deal of experience with the techniques involved in removing stains safely and relatively gently but along with that I've also accumulated a rather extensive assortment of chemical cleaners and stain specific removers (my dry-cleaner consults with me and vice verse). The secret is to experiment, in as non-conspicuous a location as you can, until you find the right chemical for the job and then use only as much as you need for as short a time as possible to get the job done. If you have a pretty good idea what caused the stain, consult your dry cleaner. If he won't help you, find another dry cleaner.

Let's Keep It Ship Shape

OK. We got it, the deck looks good, maybe not new, but a whole lot better than it's looked in recent memory.

So how do we keep it that way?

A few tips on non-skid maintenance:

1. Keep it clean. One of the first things I learned, in the United States Coast Guard, was that decks needed to be cleaned every day. Not some days, not whenever you got the time, not just when there was an inspection due. Every day! They knew, and now you do too, that keeping a non-skid deck clean is much more than just a matter of aesthetics. Non-skid is designed to provide sure footing onboard, no matter what the conditions. Anything which comes between your soft soled, boat shoes and the non-skid decreases that sure footing and creates a hazardous condition.

Now we both know that your boat likely doesn't get the same amount of usage as a Coast Guard SAR boat (on the other hand they don't do a lot of fishing on theirs) but the principle is sound. If the dirt, grime, soot, and oil don't have time to soak in and dry they don't become a stain and wash off with little difficulty. Become lax, even a few times, and the stains build up and eventually become nearly impossible to remedy.

2. Never ever, not once, never, nope, uh uh, DO NOT (do I have your attention yet?) wear street shoes on a non-skid deck. Now I can hear you out there saying, "Who me, I always wear Topsiders on my boat." Congratulations! Where else do you wear those Topsiders? Now I know that 9 out of 10 of you are saying things like, in the car, into the store, just from the house, well, I did stop to get gas, and breakfast, and I had to pick up that new antenna, and bait, and . . . OK, we get the picture.

I suppose a better way to say it would be to only wear boat shoes on the boat. I take off my street shoes (which are Topsiders, by the way) as I get on a boat and either put on my boat shoes (shoes which are only used on a boat) or go barefoot, when washing.

If you follow Tip 2 faithfully and see to it that all of your passengers/guests do likewise (keep a few pair of cheap white soled sneakers onboard for unknowing souls) you will be amazed at how easily you will be able to follow Tip 1. Without the stuff which is tracked in from the street your boat and deck cleaning at the end of the voyage will be a relaxing time rather than a discouraging one.

2½. This goes along with the above suggestion so I won't give it a whole number of it's own. If your boat/yacht has an engine compartment, which you can walk in, be sure to have a pair of "bilge shoes" which you put on when entering and pull off when leaving. Wear your boat shoes into the engine room one time and you'll be tracking oil and grease every other place you go aboard for a long time.

James "Doc" Lewis has been "messin about in boats" for as long as he can remember. He is owner/operator of BoatDocs1, a full-service boat detailing-yacht maintenance company serving the Emerald Coast region of Florida. To learn more about boats and keeping them looking their best visit his web site at:

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