Boat vinyl: it’s a godsend and a curse. Tough, adaptable and used for everything from seat covers to bolsters, flaps and coverings, it solves a lot of would-problems for boaters in terms of providing a long-lasting, smooth and even stretchable material that functions best where a soft touch is desired. On the other hand, it can quickly grow dirty, grimy and uninviting if you don’t take care of it from day one.
Like most boaters, I have a love-hate relationship with the vinyl on my vessel. I love how it stretches across openings to snap tightly in place where a door would be a poor choice, such as the storage area beneath the helm of my center console. I appreciate that it’s both comfortable and rugged as a skin for my seats and tolerates being wet on more trips than not. I used to absolutely hate cleaning it after every trip until I realized that doing so is simply part of the boater’s routine. It's like doing kitchen dishes at home – you must clean them tonight if you want to eat off the them tomorrow. Once I came to that conclusion, and realized the more you clean them the less effort it takes to keep them clean, I managed to get past the chore factor. Now, in fact, I take pride in making them shine.
Essentially, mold and mildew are the culprits that skunk-up vinyl on boats. These prosper in moisture-laden situations, especially where sunlight is limited. For these reasons, the care of vinyl should begin with keeping them dry. If you are lucky enough to have removable seat cushions, give them a good cleaning after each trip, dry thoroughly, and store them away in your garage or boat locker. If your seats, cushions or other vinyl can’t be easily removed, clean them up using a rag, scrub brush and mold and mildew remover after each trip - and make sure they are fully dry before pulling on your boat cover. Pay particular attention to drying out areas where the vinyl folds or is tucked away. Mold and mildew thrive on the oil and dirt that accumulates in the creases and spreads from there, so best to make sure you get it the source. To ensure your vinyl is as dry as possible, don’t cover your vessel while it’s still wet. Leave a little time for the wind and sun to help evaporate the remaining moisture before adding the cover and locking in any remaining moisture.
A quick internet search will reveal a wide assortment of cleaners designed to kill mold and mildew; some are even specific to boating. If possible, choose an organic elixir, or at least one labeled as non-toxic to marine and aquatic life. Use cleaners and protectants sparsely and only in areas where run-off can be controlled. More elbow grease and less soap are better for the environment and ensures that you personally inspect every fold, crack and crevice. A quick wipe-down is okay on a trip to trip basis, but at least once a month you’ll want to dig in and do a thorough job.
As an alternative to commercial cleaners, some boaters mix their own mold and mildew removers. Often, this is a combination to some degree of white vinegar, liquid dish soap (usually Dawn), warm water and club soda. Most will work to a reasonable degree if you are consistent in your endeavors to keep your boat vinyl sparkling clean. Once mold and mildew get an upper hand, however, you’ll likely need the strength of a store-bought variety.
Undoubtedly, the single most effective home cleaning remedy for dirty vinyl is a half-cup of bleach added to a five-gallon pail of water. Be leery of this option, however, resorting to it only when desperate measures are required for the bleach will clean things up but it also stresses the fabric and stitching to appreciably shorten the lifespan of vinyl. The more you use it, the more caustic it seems, so be forewarned. Also, whether using bleach or another cleanser, apply and wait five or ten minutes before removing. That little extra time will really make positive difference in terms of cleaning out the grease and grime, which can dramatically reduce the degree to which mold and mildew will rebound over the next couple of weeks.
When storing your boat for the winter, or any significant period, be sure to leave fold-down seats and cushions in the raised position to reveal any fold creases. Also, make certain there is some air flow under the cover as a stagnant, damp environment can forester a mold and mildew bloom.
All of this may sound like a lot to do but you’ll come to realize it isn’t really, if you make it part of your regular boating routine. At the very least, give your vinyl a quick spray and wipe down every time you get back to the dock, and catch up with a more serious cleaning as you deem necessary. That way, when you step aboard for a day on the water with family, you won’t have to search for clean towels to serve as a barrier between your seats and your loved ones.
Tom Schlichter is a full-time outdoors writer, editor and marketeer living on Long Island, NY. Follow him on Facebook at @outdoortomcorp or visit his website at www.outdoortom.com.