The Effects of Salt and Fresh Water and How to Prevent Them

Never mind all the true but sometimes overworked sayings about what “cleanliness may be next to”, there are a number of very practical reasons for keeping your boat as clean as reasonably possible. First, an accumulation of dirt, slime, rust, corrosion, and the like can cover a multitude of serious problems that could sooner or later manifest themselves in a most unpleasant manner at an extremely inopportune time. These same gritty gremlins can also contribute considerably to the rapid deterioration of the vessel’s overall appearance, soon leading to cosmetic problems that are disproportionably expensive to fix. And that, friend, can hit you right where it hurts — in the pocketbook — because no matter how sound your pride and joy may actually be, if it looks like hell it won’t sell well when the time comes.

Over the years I’ve fished with a number of individuals who ranged from the worst boat keepers afloat to a few who were almost fanatical about maintaining everything in a spotless condition. Probably the best I’ve ever seen at keeping his entire rig in pristine condition is Florida Keys guide Capt. Flip Pallot, a flats fishing specialist whose fish-finding ability matches the appearance of his boat. Most of the better professional skippers are pretty good at maintaining their craft — that goes with being a pro — but Flip is exceptional.

On the other end of the scale was a boat I “attempted” to fish from in the Gulf of Mexico along the Florida Panhandle some years ago. It was filthy to the point of being a real nose-holder. Nothing worked. The main engine quit 400 yards from the dock on our way out, and the spare couldn’t even be started. The gent that owned it was a very nice individual, but even his tackle was in the same sad shape. While being towed back to our starting point by a passing angler, I found that neither the VHF radiotelephone nor the Loran C worked. And to think that we were supposed to go 20 miles offshore in that rig.

Once dirt and grime are allowed to accumulate, getting rid of the mess becomes progressively harder at a rapidly increasing rate. On the other hand, if you’re willing to exert the slight discipline needed to attack the problem on a daily basis, it takes very little time at all. There are several quick and easy ways to do this, as I’ll cover shortly.

Whether you fish in fresh or saltwater, soap and water are an absolute must when it comes to really cleaning things up properly. Saltwater is particularly tough on everything, because on top of the “dirt factor”, there’s accelerated rust and corrosion. And salt particles (actually microscopic crystals in the shape of cubes) are extremely tenacious, resisting removal to the extent that even a heavy rainstorm won’t get them all. Only soapy water can do that properly.

Part of the penalty those of us who fish the briny sea must pay is that salt accumulates in places where it’s not visible, such as in and around connectors for electronics, wiring, metallic moving parts, and so on. Once there, it goes about its self-appointed task of attempting to destroy everything it touches; never resting for a single minute. No matter how dry the boat may appear to be — even under covered storage — any salt that remains will easily assimilate enough moisture from the air to keep doing its thing.

If you keep your boat on a trailer, salt water dripping down from the hull will pocket in all of its crevices, and only lots of soapy water will completely remove the nasty stuff. Even if the trailer is galvanized, left to its own devices saltwater can still do a lot of damage in short order.

Freshwater has its share of problems, too. Natural chemicals (i.e. vegetative stains, such as tannic acid, and dissolved lime compounds), as well as man-made pollutants, can discolor any finish — even fiberglass — very quickly. Many of these chemicals attack metals as well. In some cases, it may take more than soapy water to get rid of the ugly results.

Really stubborn stains and/or accretions of calcium precipitates are often very hard to remove from boat hulls, particularly along the waterline or inside compartments where stagnant water may have collected for many weeks. The longer any part of the boat is in constant contact with the water, the worse the problem becomes. Rust stains fall into the same category, whether from equipment and fittings that have succumbed to oxidation or well water that just has a lot of rust in it.

When trying a chemical cleaner of any sort for the first time, be sure to follow directions carefully and very carefully test it on some small part of the boat where the results won’t be visible if they’re not what you want. Such as on the keel, if you’re cleaning the outside hull.

Once you get the right equipment, and refine the procedure a little to suit your particular needs and situation, a thorough boat wash down at the end of the fishing day takes only a few minutes. That means the task should never be put off until later, even if you arrive back at the dock or ramp in the wee hours of the morning.

by Bob Stearns

Bob, the editor-at-large for Saltwater Sportsman Magazine and a senior editor for Center Console Angler, has published over 1,600 feature articles and columns in many popular national magazines, such as Boating, Rudder, Motorboat, Field & Stream, Salt Water Fly Fishing and many others. He has also authored several books and appeared on numerous fishing TV programs. As a consultant, he has worked with boat and boating materials manufacturers, and fishing tackle manufacturers on product development and design.

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