How to Clean a Boat: A Step-By-Step Guide to Thorough Boat Cleaning

Part of being a good boat owner is proper boat maintenance. This includes regular, thorough cleanings. It isn’t just a matter of your boat looking dirty either. Fresh water and salt water each have unique contaminants and grime that can cause damage over time without the correct maintenance.

With the proper care, however, you can preserve the condition of your boat and increase its longevity. This step-by-step guide cleaning tips for boaters to properly clean and detail to keep your boat like new longer.  

Best Boat Cleaning Supplies

It’s imperative that you have the right boat detailing supplies. Different boat types, materials, and conditions have different needs. Always double-check that your cleansers and boat cleaning supplies are meant for the surfaces to which you’re applying them to avoid damage. The last thing you want to do is use bleach in the wrong spot and end up ruining the upholstery.

With that said, here’s a list of things you’ll need in order to DIY the cleaning of any boat including but not limited to:

  • Two Large Buckets
  • Basic Water Hose
  • Large Cleaning Sponge and/or Wash Mitt
  • Two Long-handled Brushes
  • Drying Towels
  • Microfiber Cloth
  • Boat Soap and Marine Carpet Cleaner
  • Vacuum and Shop Vac

Let’s break each of them down and get into the specifics.

Two Large Buckets

Some large buckets (at least two) to fill with soapy water for cleansing your boat and clean water to rinse your sponges and brushes.

Basic Water Hose

You’ll want to get a regular garden hose to wash down your boat. Pressurized nozzles or pressure washers can damage surfaces.

Large Cleaning Sponge and/or Wash Mitt

A nice, big, soft sponge or wash mitt that you wear over your hand is perfect for soaping up all the delicate areas of your boat.

Two Long-handled brushes

Long handles scrub brushes allow you to clean larger areas more quickly and get to those hard-to-reach places. You’ll need a soft scrub brush for any glass and trim and a slightly stiffer medium bristle brush for the hull area. 

Drying Towels

Have some clean, dry towels, microfiber cloths, or chamois to dry your boat.

Boat Soap and Marine Carpet Cleaner

It’s very important not to use common household soaps, detergents, or cleaning products on your boat. Boats require special boat soap. The best option is to go with quality, paint-safe, environmentally-friendly boat soap.

Marine carpets also have specialized needs that dedicated marine carpet cleaner is best for. Regular stain removers and carpet cleansers aren’t made for these needs.

Vacuum and Shop Vac

You’ll need a vacuum for the carpets. Crums and food leftovers can build up and stain your carpet if not taken care of consistently.

How to Clean a Boat Interior

Each section of the boat interior has different needs and requires specialized cleaning. The following sections break down how to detail a boat and how to clean different areas and materials.

Marine Carpet

Marine carpets are more stain-resistant than regular carpets but they face harsher conditions as well. To clean marine carpets, you’ll need to follow a few simple steps.

  1. Vacuum the Carpet: Vacuum up all the dirt and debris first.
  2. Prepare Your Boat for Carpet Cleaning: Remove anything that shouldn’t get wet, empty floor lockers, and pull the bilge plug.
  3. Clean in Sections: Wet a medium section, apply the soap with a sponge or long brush, gently scrub to remove stains, and rinse the section thoroughly.
  4. Give the Whole Carpet a Final Rinse: There may be some left-over soap in the carpet which, if allowed to dry, could attract dirt in the future, so rinse very well.
  5. Use Shop Vac: Go over the carpet with a shop vac to dry it completely.  
  6. Put Everything Back: Return any items you removed and replace the bilge plug.

Non-Slip Fiberglass

When cleaning the non-slip fiberglass on your deck, it’s important to use the recommended cleaning process outlined by the manufacturer and the best boat deck cleaner for your boat. Each non-slip coating is different and has different care needs. In general, though, there are some basic steps you can follow.  

  1. Wet: Wet your deck thoroughly with the hose.
  2. Scrub: Scrub the deck with the appropriate boat soap or cleanser and medium or soft bristle brush, depending on the recommendation for your surface.
  3. Stain Removal: If stains persist and it’s allowed by the surface’s manufacturer, you can move on to a non-slip deck cleanser or fiberglass cleaner for the most stubborn stains.
  4. Rinse: Wash the cleanser(s) off with the hose.


Routine cleaning of vinyl boat seats — every other week is best, plus whenever there’s a spill — is key to preventing stains, mold, and mildew. The process is very simple.

  1. Wipe Down: Wipe them down with warm soapy water using either marine vinyl cleaner or mild dish soap.
  2. Dry Completely: Wipe up any moisture right away until they’re completely dry.
  3. Protect: Apply a marine vinyl protectant as directed by the product label. This can be done every few cleanings.

Save up to $1,200/year on boat storage

Boat Cushions

Non-vinyl interior boat cushions get dirty from people sitting, sweating, and spilling on them. They also get musty from dirt and moisture over time. Cleaning them is simple:

  1. Remove Covers: Take the fabric covers off and machine wash them with cold water and gentle detergent like Woolite.
  2. Dry: Let them air dry. Don’t use the dryer.
  3. Treat Foam: Spray the foam with a 50/50 water and white vinegar solution and sit them in an open area with good airflow to dry.
  4. Rinse Foam: After a few days, once they don’t smell like the solution anymore, soak them with water and ring them out a few times to flush out any dirt.
  5. Dry Completely: Once again, dry them in a well-vented place until no moisture remains.

How to Clean a Boat Exterior

Each area on the exterior of the boat also has specific maintenance needs and cleansers. Here’s a basic rundown of how to clean each. Depending on the type of boat you have, some steps may not apply.


Cleaning your engine will keep it working longer. Here are the general steps for how to clean a boat engine.

  1. Remove Debris: Whenever you leave the water, clear off any debris.
  2. Wash Engine (Outboard): Wash and shine the outboard engine and exterior portion of sterndrive with boat soap.
  3. Clean Powerhead: Saltwater boats especially should be rinsed after every use. Remove the flywheel cover and only on metal surfaces, rinse with water, use degreaser if needed, and apply corrosion guard once dry.


Make sure to check with your boat’s manufacturer to find the best boat deck cleaner for your boat. Teak decks are lovely but must be carefully maintained by:

  1. Rinse: Rinse off surface dirt with the hose and remove excess water with a squeegee.
  2. Regular Washes: Wash the deck with soapy water and a sponge in circles, not with the grain, ideally after every use. Use a pan scourer and soft bristle brush when needed.
  3. Rinse: Get all the soap off thoroughly with the hose.
  4. Deep Cleaning: When deep cleaning is needed apply an acid cleaning solution followed by an alkaline solution as directed with care.

Hull & Hull Bottoms

The steps for how to clean a boat hull and hull bottoms can depend on your boat type. However generally they can be cleaned by:

  1. Wash: Use a wash ‘n wax boat cleaner each time you use it.
  2. Protect: In the spring after you de-winterize your boat, apply two coats of paste wax.
  3. Shine: Use liquid carnauba wax monthly to maintain the shine and protection.

Canvas and Clear Canvas

Large boat canvas should be cleaned each month using mild soap and a soft brush. For smaller canvas, a round in the washing machine with mild soap and baking soda works well.

Clear canvas can be washed with a soft sponge and mild soap after each use. Dry it with a chamois or squeegee to avoid spots.

How Often Should You Clean a Boat?

Ideally, you should do a basic cleaning of your boat after each use and before you winterize your boat. However, when that isn’t feasible, each section has its own minimum timeframe.

  • Vinyl: Twice a month
  • Foam Cushions: Annually
  • Engine: After every use
  • Canvas: Monthly
  • Clear Canvas: After each use

Other than that, a wax job should generally last two to four months before needing another application and detailing can be done as needed.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some common questions people often have and the basic answers to each.

What Is the Best Way to Clean the Outside of a Boat?

A boat’s exterior has several different components, each with its own needs. See the above section on how to clean a boat exterior to get the specifics.

What Should You Wash Your Boat With?

Always check with your manufacturer and read instructions and warnings on all products before using it on your boat. Generally, the best option is environmentally-friendly boat soap.

Can You Use Dawn Soap to Wash a Boat?

On some areas like vinyl seats, it may be okay to use dish soap like dawn. However, typically, it’s best to use a product made specifically for the material you’re cleaning.

How Do You Clean a Dirty Fiberglass Boat?

Non-slip fiberglass surfaces can often be cleaned with boat soap, non-slip deck cleanser, or fiberglass cleaner. However, always double-check that the cleanser you use is appropriate for the kind of surface you have.

Related Posts