Waterway Moustache

By Tom Neale, 8/14/2007


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Cleaning Triggerfish

The cypress knees line the water, making small caves which meld into underwater passages far back into the swamp. Logs reach out into the channel to snag your boat if it veers just a little off course. Sometimes they break off and drift, waterlogged. These you may be able to see if it’s not foggy and it they aren’t in the shadow that covers much of the channel. Sometimes they drift along, just beneath the surface—ready to crash through your hull or wipe out your running gear. You never know what hit you, but you do know the damage.

I’m thinking about the Alligator River-Pungo River Canal in the North Carolina part of the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s a dredged canal, straight and narrow, plagued by debris, deadheads and stumps. It connects the Alligator and Pungo Rivers, both beautiful and remote, with large areas of true wilderness on their banks. Even though the cut is manmade, it looks natural now, so aggressive has been the swamp in trying to retake it. Sometimes you’ll see a bear on the shore, or perhaps swimming across the water in front of you. Not a place to land and walk your dog.

There are other swamp areas in the ICW, and boats making the trip north and south each year pass through their waters. Those waters are laden with tannic acid and other natural additives from the plant life on the shores and tributaries. Some of these areas include the Waccamaw River, the Virginia Cut and the Dismal Swamp Canal, if you take that beautiful digression. There are also waters in New Jersey and other areas with additives such as this. From these waters comes the famed waterway moustache.

The seasoned waterway traveler knows that after a week or so of moving, his hull will become stained, especially up forward where the bow wave curls back, and, as if that isn’t enough, all along the water line. It extends up the hull, usually fading up near the gunnels where the water doesn’t splash. The stain, to some, looks a bit seedy, like the darkened slightly yellowed teeth of an old man who’s spent a life of smoking. Not an image you’d like for your boat. But it’s a part of the price you pay for digging the ditch. It’s also part of the price you pay for running a boat in various other areas of similar waters unless you have regular cleaning and waxing.

Boats with brand new gel coats or wax jobs or paint coats may not become discolored the first few trips down the ICW, because the slick new hull surface repels the water so well. But eventually it begins to happen.

Some cruisers allow their boats to wear the discoloration like a badge of distinction. It means the boat’s well traveled. And those who know—those who count—know that it isn’t dirty or a sign of neglect, it’s just part of traveling the ICW. I’m like this up to a point, but after awhile even my inherent laziness about boat cleaning jobs overcomes my sense of pride. I want the stuff off.

Hull Cleaning

1. There are products available that aren’t specifically intended for this use, but that may also work to some extent. They may be considerably cheaper. An example of such a product that we’ve seen used for this purpose is toilet bowl cleaner. Using products such as this may seem like a good idea because they may be cheaper, but it’s not a good idea.

2. Use a product made by a reputable company for the specific purpose and heed all instructions and warnings and laws.

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We may put up with it for a trip down south and a trip back up north, but no more. Sometimes we clean it when we reach the beautiful waters of the Keys or the Bahamas, where we know the hull will stay clean. But we realize we’ll grow our moustache again on the way back north. And we have a relatively new (by our impoverished standards) coat of Interlux Toplac paint on the hull, so it usually takes a trip down and then back for the stain to really begin showing up. But eventually, even I start to chafe at the thought of my beautiful white hull looking like an old smoker’s teeth.

Usually, by then, there are a few streaks of rust on the hull as well. Yes, all our fittings are good stainless. But when you expose good stainless to the degree of salinity you find in the ocean off South Florida and the Bahamas, eventually even that will cause a little rust to seep down in a tell-tale trickle line from some of the less pure fittings that seem to show up here and there in even the best boats.

Cleaning the hull of the “Chez Nous” isn’t a job to be taken lightly. She’s 53 feet long with a 15 foot beam. It’s a lot of work. We’ve used several products for this. My primary criteria is that I want the product to work—not me. Quick, easy and painless are my watch words, although these are admittedly out of place for boat work.

There are various products on the market that will deal with this type of stain. It isn’t ordinary dirt or oil residue left by pollutants. It’s stain caused by “additives” in the water which have been put there by plants and other naturally occurring phenomena. Whatever product you use has to remove this type of stain without damaging the finish or anything else—easier said than done. Lately we’ve been using Interlux Heavy Duty Stain Remover. It works really well in our opinion. Also, it’s said to be environmentally friendly.

Hull cleaning, note cleaned stripe

So a few days ago, with “Chez Nous” at the end of yet another trip along the Ditch, we did the deed—never a deed that we enjoy no matter how well the product works. We made this time much more enjoyable by turning it into a launch and rebirth. Our little old fiberglass sailing dinghy, which our daughters had named “Triggerfish” years ago in the Bahamas, had been upturned against a tree for years. I’m not sure of the make, but it may by a Dyer or something very similar. We used to carry it aboard “Chez Nous,” but started leaving it ashore when our daughters went off to college and we got our kayaks which are much easier to launch and retrieve from a boat. The important thing is that this little dinghy floats, it sails, it rows and it’s fun.

When we do this job, one person muscles the dinghy from area to area along the hull, holding it in place, while the other wipes the stain with a sponge—yes, a sponge. No brushing is needed. Sometimes a little bit of extra application helps on a stubborn rust stain, but only occasionally is this needed. It’s extremely important that all instructions and warnings are carefully observed, the applier wear gloves, and be able to concentrate on putting on the product so that it won’t spill or go where it shouldn’t. Unlike some products which do the same job, this is a gel so it doesn’t run all over the place and is a lot easier to manage.

A light small boat is ideal for this job because it’s easy for the boat handler to move it about to position the applier in just the right spot. A small work raft, like you find in some marinas, would be too heavy for my liking and, because it’s square and heavy, it would be difficult to position in tight areas as between tight spots between the hull and pilings. A little fiberglass dinghy is ideal because the boat handler can get the bow up into those corners.

Now the job is done until the next trip down the coast. If we’re lucky we’ll be able to go offshore most of the way and won’t have to worry about picking up a moustache. But either way, it’s not all that bad. And this year there was a hidden plus with the job. These hidden plusses happen more frequently than I like to admit when I’m grousing about boat work. We’re getting reacquainted with the “Triggerfish” again. She’s a great little boat. But there is a problem. Her hull needs some serious cleaning from leaning against that tree for so long.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale