Keeping The Boat Clean

Keeping The Boat Clean

We’ve been asked recently: what do you do to keep your cruising sailboat clean? What routines do you have for liveaboard boat cleaning?

We have two basic principles:

  1. Keep the approach simple and effective, because there are lot of other things we’d prefer to spend our time doing than cleaning the boat.

  2. Prioritise environmentally friendly cleaning products, for reasons that shouldn’t need explaining.

Cleaning Tools

We have far fewer cleaning tools on the boat than we did in our house – and almost all run on elbow grease instead of electricity.

Vacuum: a rechargeable, handheld model like this works for us; other friends swear by their more powerful, compact Dyson model.

Whisk broom and dustpan: often easier to grab than the vacuum!

Buckets. There’s always a 5-gallon bucket or two on board, and often a smaller (two or three gallon) as well. Nesting bowls from the galley can get called into service, too.

Scrub brushes: a brush around the size of your hand works for most below-deck needs; a couple of wider brushes are stowed for deck scrubbing. A small brush, like a toothbrush or nail brush, is useful for getting into small or awkward spots.

Sponges: for generally cleaning, two all stars: extra-thirsty sponges, like these big carwash sponges, for soaking after sluicing. Swedish dishcloths (thin sponges, actually, made from cotton and cellulose) are great for everyday wiping up - and, biodegradable.

Cotton rags to wipe, polish, or dry. Old t-shirts are great, so is terrycloth. Avoiding microfiber, that’s putting microplastic in the water column.

Notice the dearth of long handles? We’re just not that big a boat, which translates to doing fine with the smaller stuff and working with the available storage aboard. Great multi-tool: this telescoping handle with interchangable attachments to be a mop, brush, or boat hook.

Hopefully this will still be all we need for pet hair, too, pet on board, assuming the life of a boat cat works for our Panchita.

Cleaning Products

Making environmentally friendly choices is harder than it should be, because there is no regulation of terms like biodegradable, non-toxic, or natural… brands can use them wrongly without consequence, and the industry is full of greenwashing. That’s just one reason we like to lean on cleaning products which are based on simple ingredients we can more readily supply, as opposed to brands.

You might like choosing brands that prioritise environmental friendliness vs the DIY cleaner approach for keeping a cruising boat clean. That’s cool! While we have easy access to products for the privileged, I’m doing a lot of that too. Another complication with choosing specific brands is they may not be available once you sail away. You might be in a place where environmentally friendly products are available, but this was not the case in most places we’ve sailed. Instead, what is readily available is from multinational brands thinking about profit, not planet.

Basic Cleaning Kit

Here’s a quick list of ingredients that stocks an effective cleaning kit on board. Most are widely available. Another very meaningful advantage of this slimmed-down cleaning approach, beyond being liberated from brands and radically reducing packaging? Freeing up precious storage space from the range of products you thought you needed!

Vinegar. Great for cleaning, disinfecting, deodorising, deterring mold or mildew… the wonder ingredient for all-purpose cleaning

Baking soda. Shake it on straight for scrubbing. Like vinegar, it is shockingly multipurpose on board, and like vinegar (which we keep in gallons on board), it gets purchased in bulk.

Borax. Similar to baking soda, but more alkaline, making it a harsher option. I tend to default to using baking soda instead (they are nearly interchangeable in mixes below: use less borax!), but some folks swear by borax for strength.

Biodegradable liquid soap. Many options and bulk packaging; Dr Bronners (castile or Sal Suds) is widely recognised (but falls into that “hard to find once you leave” category. Can’t find any? Swap phosphorus-free liquid dish soap, or, use borax and water. Note: don’t mix castile soap in a vinegar (or other acidic) solution, they counteract each other (makes sense when you think about it: acid vs. alkaline) and don’t work!

Lime or lemon juice. Top choice for polishing up stainless on deck: readily available just about everywhere, often very cheaply. Backup: citric acid.

Optionally, use essential oils to add a specific result whether it’s fragrance or antibacterial. If you’re new to using essential oils, make sure it’s one that plays well with your cleaning goals.

A note on Bleach. We don’t use it for any general cleaning. Toxicity aside, vinegar is a better deterrent and cleaner for mold or mildew anyway! If you do have bleach, never mix it with vinegar as that creates a dangerous gas.

Mixes And Methods

Keeping it simple, again: these simple, all-purpose approaches work above and below deck.

  1. Spray bottle of all-purpose cleaner for simple cleanup: put 3 tablespoons Dr Bronners into a 16 oz bottle, add a tablespoon of baking soda, then fill with water.

  2. Spray bottle of diluted vinegar for basic wiping and mildew deterrent. Use 3:1 (or try 2:1) ratio; optional addition of essential oils. Basic wipedown, or to remove soap film.

  3. A squeeze bottle of scrubbing liquid ready to go for the deck or the counters. Mix 1-2/3 cups baking soda with ½ c Dr Bronners in a bowl, and dilute with ½ c water (or more if needed to pour readily). Great deck scrubber. 

  4. Abrasive powder in a shaker (re-purpose a grated cheese canister) is simply baking soda and optional essential oil: shake on, then scrub / wipe up bigger messes. Spray on top with that vinegar solution and wipe away.

One of the things that’s flummoxed me is finding a GOOD spray bottle that holds up over time. They seem to have a couple of year lifespan max. If you have winners, please comment.

Cleaning Products To Avoid

While some are especially an issue where we have runoff into the marine environment, consider that good practices begin on land. Why not start better practices right now?

Dawn detergent. Marketing efforts to the contrary, Dawn is toxic to marine life. Actually, it’s just a really toxic product in general. Read the details behind their failing grade here.

Disposable wipes. Those wipes-in-a can, whether it’s to disinfect or to wipe your butt, might be convenient. But each one is a piece of single-use plastic. Think they’re OK because it’s all greened up on a plastic tub from Seventh Generation? Nope. Unilever, parent of 7th gen, is definitely more interested in profit than planet – still a poor choice, when there are plenty of alternatives to creating more plastic waste.

Magic Eraser. These sponges are supposed to help get your topsides shiny and bright – but they also shed microplastic in the form of melamine… and directly into the water!  

Ammonia. Even a tiny bit is toxic to fish. And now you know. Don’t have any on board and you won’t be tempted.

If you’ll BYOB (bring your own brand), remember to look beyond packaging. Here are two “clean” sounding brands repping a toxic product for general cleaning:

  • Simple Green. It is not simple OR green. It’s a toxic cocktail. Avoid!

  • Mrs Meyers. I know, looks so wholesome on the label! Well, it’s not wholesome, consistent flunking ratings from the environmental working group.

Routines To Get Clean

Is the boat (or a particular cabin) getting dirty? Tackle it when time allows. Do we have access to abundant fresh water? CLEANING ON! Sometimes that’s exactly what a pending squall means: time to get the scrub brushes out and use a welcome dump of fresh water!

Original Article – Sailing Totem.