Chemistry Class on Your Boat

Written by Bob Arrington

Liquids on board to keep you running smoothly

A walk down the aisles of any marine store will present a boater with more chemicals for cleaning, protecting and lubricating than one could ever imagine. Many of these products work well, and many are as worthless as snake oil with their exaggerated claims.

It is also probably not a coincidence that cleaning and maintenance supplies are the marine stores’ most profitable products, and that most conscientious boaters spend as much time cleaning and maintaining their vessels as they do actually running them. Because of this, I try to find the most effective and efficient products, to help me shift that maintaining/running ratio back in favor of more running.

One of the reasons I love boating so much is boaters’ willingness to offer help and share great ideas. The recommendations below all came from the wisdom other boaters have shared with me.

GLYCERIN

Glycerin is a sweet, thick, colorless liquid used in many cleaning, cosmetic, pharmaceutical and industrial products. It is also one of the most versatile supplies I stock on my boat. I use a vegetable-based glycerin available at any drug store.

It makes a great lubricant — I first used it to help me install impellers in water pumps, which is notoriously difficult to do because the blades are such a tight fit in the pump body and have to be simultaneously collapsed and rotated while being inserted. Glycerin made all the parts a little slipperier and much easier to install. Plus it doesn’t harm the rubber or silicon impeller, and it’s water soluble, so it gets washed out of the pump once it’s running.

Glycerin in its pure form is called glycerol, meaning it is a type of alcohol. As such, it is also a very good solvent, because many things dissolve more easily into it than they do into either water or even rubbing alcohol. Consequently, glycerin is also a great cleaning agent. I’ve used it to remove more than one stain from a vinyl seat cushion or from an article of clothing after a day in the engine room. It is also great for cleaning oily or greasy tools and doesn’t leave any residue. Lastly, as a fringe benefit, glycerin is one of the best skin moisturizers available. These are just a few of the many uses for this inexpensive, versatile product.

CERIUM OXIDE

Small, portable water softeners are a common sight along the piers of many marinas, with boaters using them to try to eliminate the hard-water stains and spotting that can remain after washing. Cleaning products will not remove mineral or salt-water stains on glass and can even make matters worse by etching the residue into the glass.

A fellow boater who happened to own a professional window washing company shared with me his solution for removing these stains from glass: cerium oxide. Cerium oxide is a fine powder that has been used for centuries in the glass industry. When mixed with a little water to make a paste, it will polish hard-water, mineral and salt stains from glass surfaces. It is not harmful to skin, nor is the run-off harmful to other surfaces or the water.

Cerium oxide is readily available in small quantities online, and a little bit goes a long way. It is best to hand apply it or use a felt or wool buffing pad on a slow-speed drill. Polishing or buffing with high-speed drills can build up excessive heat, which could damage or break the glass.

RUST STAIN REMOVER

Any boat frequently transiting the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) is easily identifiable by the rust-colored stain on its bow. Known as the ICW mustache, it is caused by the tannin-colored water commonly found in the ICW. It is difficult to clean off because it impregnates the pores of the fiberglass gel-coat. Painted hulls fare a little better because the paint seals the gel-coat. During a recent stay at the River Dunes Marina in the beautiful but tannin-rich colored water of North Carolina, I watched a boater spray something on the stains on his bow, and after about ten seconds hose the stains right off. I had to go ask what he was using. It was the Goof Off brand rust-stain remover for bathrooms. I was amazed at how easily it removed the stains — better than anything I’ve tried from the marine store!

With a little help from your friends, I hope this summer finds you spending more time using your boat than cleaning it.