Topnotch Topsides

Plan an exterior maintenance program to keep the shine on your fiberglass full.

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As yachts get larger, some aspects of maintenance often get easier, such as maneuvering around the engineroom. But there's no denying that the expanse of fiberglass hull grows as a multiple of the LOA, and it's all too easy to let the topsides fall by the wayside. After all, you can't see it when you're aboard!

Nonsense. A yacht must be kept up and looking good, simply because a shining, waxed hull will let damaging, encrusted salt be rinsed away. A clean boat will show cracking, blistering, or other flaws more readily, allowing the owner to stay on top of problems and intiate repairs before they become structural or catastrophic. Chalky, faded, or stained exteriors indicate larger problems to those who will place a value on your boat-brokers, surveyors, and, ultimately, buyers. And even if you're not selling now, you'll be glad you set up a scheduled maintenance plan for the topsides of your boat. The problems associated with staying on top of your topsides can be held off with the right regimen of preventive maintenance.

Whether your boat's exterior is finished with gelcoat or painted with a quality two-part polyurethane system, such as Awlgrip, Alexseal, or Interlux Perfection, keeping the surface clean is your first line of defense. During my big-boat skippering days, we had a daily and weekly schedule of cleaning and inspecting all surface areas from the waterline up, no matter what port we were in.

One of the tricks is not to let a salty boat get dry. If you have the advantage of a crew's help, make sure they understand your expectations. A good start may be showing them this article, including "When to Wash and Wax".

Get WetAlways use a hard-water filter when hosing off the exterior to get rid of any surface residue-Spot Free and Stain-Less are two popular brands seen on the docks. Hard water has a high mineral content, including calcium and magnesium and sometimes even bicarbonates and sulfates. None of it is good for the finish, and neither is that salt.

"It is important to make sure you get the salt crystals off as quickly as possible," says Jim Seidel, North American assistant marketing manager for Interlux Paint. "Not doing so will intensify the sun's UV rays on the surface and, with prolonged neglect, can cause premature fading."

The best way to get rid of salt is a thorough rinse with a spray nozzle. And don't rush, either: the more fresh water flowing over the surface, the better. Follow that with a rubdown with a soft chamois to prevent water spots.

"We put about 1,000 hours on a year, so we always rinse the boat well with fresh water first to get off all the salt to avoid scratching it during the chamois wipe down," says Capt. Dave Fields of the Hatteras 60GT Hatterascal. And while he washes down his boat with fresh water daily, he only has her soaped down once a week.

Soap OperaThe freshwater rinse keeps salt encrustation from gaining a foothold, but it's only the first stage. Of course there's going to be some scrubbing involved, and some soap.

But how do you choose your soap? The guys who make the paint know what works. "Use a liquid soap, designed for painted surfaces, and clean water rinse, once a week," says Tripp Nelson, sales and marketing manager for Alexseal. Some detergents, such as dishwashing products, can actually strip off any UV-absorbing protective wax or polymer sealer that has already been applied to protect the hull. "3M, Meguiar's, and Star Brite, among others, have product lines that are safe for painted surfaces," Nelson says.

And while we're discussing a thorough boat cleaning, keep this in mind: Don't let any metal polish drip and dry on the painted topsides. This can happen if polish is used on stainless rails and, with morning dew or rain runoff, it can get on the paint. Many polishes contain acid-it's why they work-and etching and dulling of the painted surface can result. Washing any freshly polished metal fittings thoroughly with soap and water, and rinsing the fittings-and anything "downstream" of them-will help head off this problem. And while it may seem obvious, we'll say it anyway: Don't use the same bucket of soapy water on the topsides!

With diligent daily rinsing, some skippers think a weekly soap-and-water cleaning is excessive. "On gelcoat, and with a daily rinsing off with fresh water and drying with a good chamois, I've found that using liquid soap every two weeks keeps things in check," says Captain Ryan Higgins, one of Viking's factory demo skippers. But he keeps an eye on heavy stain areas, such as the transom and bow, and suggests using 3M's Finesse-It II, after which the wax or polymer sealer can be applied.

Wax Poetic Higgins sees to it that a wax or polymer sealer is applied every two months-on Awlgripped boats he uses hand-rubbed Awlcare sealer. He also recommends working in small areas to make sure everything is covered and then wiped down.

When it comes to using a buffing machine, Higgins and I share the same attitude: It's a job best left to the professionals.

"Unless you really know what you're doing, and to avoid possibly burning the surface or leaving unsightly swirl marks by leaning too heavily on the pad, it's best to hire a detailing company once a year to buff things out," Higgins says. This is especially true around the transom area where smoke and soot can settle into a compromised surface.

As far as those kinds of stains are concerned, as well as black streaks down the hull or even the beginnings of a brown moustache at the bow, it's always best to remove them as quickly as possible.

"The longer the staining agent stays on the gelcoat surface, the harder it becomes to successfully remove the discoloration," said Star Brite's Jeff Tieger. Any stains should be dealt with prior to washing the whole boat.

Before using marine wax or polymer sealer, check with the manufacturer that made your paint or gelcoat for their recommendations. I've heard about yellowing caused by long-term waxing with Teflon products.

Set up a maintenance program and stick to it. Your yacht will thank you with a gleaming hull and repay you by keeping its value.

When to Wash and Wax This guide will help set a cleaning schedule based on how often you use your yacht. Daily: At the end of the boating day, rinse down your boat with fresh water from top to bottom to remove salt, dust, and dirt. Dry with a chamois.Weekly: Scrub with a recommended soap, and chamois dry. Inspect the hull for deep gouging or damage-note trouble spots in maintenance log.Monthly: Spot-clean stains and hand-buff small surface scratches.Bimonthly to Annually: Wax and buff out professionally.