Clean Boating Practices—Leave a Clean Wake

By Kathryn Jelinek, Last updated: 8/27/2020 

So you own a boat. Maybe you can save the world too!

“The Solution to Pollution is Dilution.” Representative of an old mindset, this outdated adage underlines the false notion that the world’s oceans possess the ability to shrug off seemingly endless pollution caused by human activity—and dilute contaminants before they become a problem.

Boating is not traditionally an environmentally-friendly activity, but as people grow more conscientious and marinas enforce stricter rules, the market is responding with ways you can reduce your environmental impact. As a boater, you have the ability to significantly reduce your negative impact on marine ecosystems and protect our water so that we can all continue to enjoy boating, fishing, diving, paddling and more, for generations to come.

We’ve compiled a list of clean boating practices that you can easily employ without breaking the bank. From using environmentally-safe cleaners and low-VOC bottom paint, to proper chemical storage and educating yourself on invasive species, every choice can make a difference.

Cleaner Cleaning

Boat Soap

Choose an all-purpose cleaner that is eco-friendly like our West Marine brand boat soap.

One small way every boater can reduce their environmental footprint is to actively choose products that will have the least impact on the aquatic ecosystem. When selecting cleaning products, choose chemicals and formulas that will effectively clean your boat, but are not harmful when dissolved in water or released into the air. Look for products that are biodegradable, made without bleach, chlorine, or strong acids, and are non-toxic. If you have stubborn rust stains or need to deep clean your boat, use stronger chemicals sparingly. To reduce the need for harsh chemicals, clean areas subject to staining frequently before rust and other stains become a problem. 

Copper-Free and Low-VOC Antifouling Paints

Until recently, most bottom paints relied upon cuprous oxide to prevent marine growth. While cuprous oxide is highly effective against fouling organisms, it can concentrate to levels that are harmful to the marine environment. For this reason, boaters in increasing numbers are switching to copper-free bottom paints that contain alternate biocides such as ECONEA®. ECONEA is effective against barnacles and other hard marine growth, but unlike cuprous oxide, it dissipates quickly in the aquatic environment. For your boat’s prop and prop shaft, copper-free formulations such as Propspeed® are a great choice. Because PropSpeed does not contain any biocide it is actually not an antifouling paint. Instead it is a “foul-release” formulation that creates a super-slick surface to which marine organisms cannot adhere. For more about ECONEA, Propspeed and copper-free antifouling paints, read the West Advisor articles Do it Yourself: How to Bottom Paint Your Boat and Top Ten Antifouling Paint Buying Questions.

Bottom Paint

Bottom paint is available in varying amounts of copper, as a copper hybrid or without copper entirely.

Breathing clean air is also important. That’s why it is a good idea to choose a bottom paint that is low in VOCs or volatile organic compounds. Bottom paints that contain VOCs release these compounds into the air during application—which is bad news for the person who applies them because breathing VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, plus headaches, dizziness and nausea. For these reasons, selecting a water-based bottom paint or a solvent-based paint that is low in VOCs is a wise choice.

Many boaters who keep their boats in high-fouling waters are partial to bottom paints that are heavily loaded with copper, but an increasing number of boaters are turning toward copper-free paints. Whatever antifouling paint you choose, when sanding your boat’s hull or applying bottom paint, ensure your personal safety by donning protective gear such as nitrile or rubber gloves, Tyvek® coveralls, a head sock, shoe covers and an organic vapor mask or respirator.

Safer Sanding

At the time of this writing, not all marinas in the U.S. require a dust collection system—essentially, a vacuum built into a sander—to remove dust during sanding before bottom painting—but it is always a good practice. The dust that comes off the bottom of your boat during sanding can be bad for the environment. For your safety, and to properly apply and remove bottom paint, you should always refer to the product's use guidelines. To protect yourself while you sand, use appropriate safety gear, ventilation and a dust collection system that will remove the majority of the sanded paint particulates. This also allows the bottom paint dust to be disposed of in a safe manner. Electric sanders with a dust collection system can be purchased or are often available for rent at boatyards near marinas that enforce their use.

Proper Storage of Paints, Cleaners and Chemicals

Sanding the bottom of a boat

Having the proper equipment is necessary to safely sand the bottom of your boat.

How do you store paint between seasons? Cleaners? Anything that could evaporate into the air or spill out into the water should be contained in a safe, dry storage space where bottles are unlikely to be overturned and lids are securely attached. We recommend dock boxes for safe and reliable storage of any cleaner or chemical you need near your boat. These include cleaners, paint and bottom paint, varnish, head chemicals—anything you’d rather not have leaking or see dumped into the water. Dock boxes come in multiple sizes and are meant to be installed on the dock at the corner of your assigned slip. When storing spray cleaners, be sure that the top is on tight and the nozzle is in the closed position. Make sure that the lids of paint and varnish cans are closed tightly so that they won’t leak, even if tipped over. Resins, solvents, antifreeze and other chemicals with a twist-off lid should be checked for leakage before storage. Anything toxic should be tightly closed up or properly disposed of in accordance with guidelines of your local marina or municipality. 

Marine Sanitation

Being able to “meet the call of nature” onboard is a great convenience, since the alternative would be a time-consuming trip back to the dock. For this reason, most boats with an enclosed cabin space have some kind of toilet. This can be in a self-contained device, such as a portable toilet, or a toilet that is plumbed to a marine sanitation device (MSD). There are three types of MSDs: Type I, Type II and Type III. For a definition of each type of MSD and for an overview of the laws that govern the use of your marine toilet, including the discharge of human waste, check what the United States EPA website has to say under Vessel Sewage Frequently Asked Questions. We suggest that new boat owners thoroughly familiarize themselves with the maintenance and operation of their boat’s sanitary facilities. We also suggest that you become familiar with national, state and local laws that govern the use MSDs in your local area. For more information, you can email the EPA administrator in your local area. For the email address of the administrator in your local area, follow the link to the EPA website provided above.

What You Need to Know About Invasive Species

Zebra Mussels on a propeller

Some invasive species can attach themselves to your boat and survive for a period of time out of water.

Invasive species have been a hot topic among marine scientists for a long time. When organisms are introduced into a new location where their normal predators are missing, they can overpopulate and snuff out one or more species in the fight for resources. This may cause a chain reaction within the ecosystem that leads to other plant and animal species completely dying out—and if those species include your favorite catch, you’re out of luck. Invasive species can spread from one body of water to another when they hitch a ride on your boat. Preventing their spread can be difficult because they are hard to spot. Luckily, there are some simple actions you can take to help.

The most important thing to remember about invasive marine species is that they generally need water to survive. Letting your boat and its trailer dry completely before you travel and launch your boat into a different body of water can help. Water on your boat that can harbor invasive species includes water in your boat’s bilge, livewell, baitwell and ballast tanks. Scrape any organisms off the hull before launching your boat. Keeping your boat free of invasive species will help ensure that your favorite fishing spots keep producing fish, that beaches remain open and that lakes and other bodies of water aren’t closed off to boaters for habitat protection. Don’t forget that in many places, you could be slapped with a hefty fine if law enforcement finds invasive species on your boat. For more information, read what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services has to say at their Resources for Invasive Species.