How to Clean Vinyl Boat Seats

Clean That Vinyl

Take precautions before seats stain.

A friend purchased a used center console that was in really good condition. Other than some tune-up work on the engines, it was in great shape, including the seats. On his first day out with family, he learned a valuable lesson: Don’t let anyone on board with a brand-new bathing suit that hasn’t been washed. At the end of the day, there was a blue stain on one of the vinyl seats, and it had no intention of being washed out. 

Mold and mildew are the primary enemies of vinyl seats, but stains from clothing, life jackets, floating cushions, sunscreen, and makeup can also be a nuisance. There are many home remedies and vinyl cleaning products that help remove stains starting with the most basic, soap and water, but when the going gets tough, be cautious with chemicals and abrasive cleaners.

It’s always best to check with the manufacturer of the fabric for recommended cleaning instructions, but that isn’t always an option, especially with pre-owned boats. Marine vinyl is porous and will stain if items are left on the seats long enough, including sunscreen, food, spilled drinks, cardboard, life jackets, even leaves. Don’t forget to take wet clothes and towels in when back at the dock; the moisture can turn your seats into a mold and mildew experiment. 

The safest treatment is warm water with dish soap. Dawn dish soap is a favorite because it is designed to erase grease without harming what it touches. Try to make it a habit to wipe down the seats, bolsters, and coaming on a regular basis; prevention is key.

“For Sunbrella marine fabrics, clean with mild soaps, detergents, or diluted bleach mixtures,” says Bill McDaniel, marine market manager at Glen Raven, manufacturer of Sunbrella fabrics.

Sunbrella suggests the following for general or light cleaning:

⊲ Brush off any loose dirt.

⊲ Prepare a cleaning solution of a quarter-cup mild soap, such as Woolite or Dawn dishwashing liquid, per gallon of lukewarm water.

⊲ Use a sponge or a soft bristle brush to clean.

⊲ Allow cleaning solution to soak into fabric.

⊲ Rinse thoroughly to remove all soap residue.

⊲ Allow fabric to air dry.

 

For spot cleaning:

⊲ Apply a light mist of mild soap and water using a spray bottle.

⊲ Work the solution into the stain by lightly scrubbing the area with a sponge or very soft bristle brush.

⊲ Rinse thoroughly to remove all soap residue.

⊲ Blot excess moisture with a clean, soft towel or sponge.

⊲ Air dry. 

⊲ Repeat steps 3 and 4 until all soap residue is removed.

“For heavier cleaning needs, we recommend products such as 303 Multi-Surface Cleaner, Dawn, or Resolve,” says McDaniel. Sunbrella does not recommend products with mild abrasives in the formula, like Soft Scrub, because they may distort the vinyl’s topcoat, such as the one used on Sunbrella’s Horizon Marine Vinyl, which features an innovative technology that prevents microbial pinking, a stain created by the organisms in a specific strain of bacteria prevalent in the marine environment. “When using a bleach solution, protect the area around your Sunbrella fabric as the bleach may discolor non-Sunbrella fabrics. As a general rule, it’s good to not over-apply cleaner on any marine fabric. For Sunbrella specifically, we recommend using only a soft bristle brush as necessary versus tools with harsh, abrasive bristles.”

To clean stubborn stains and mildew, Sunbrella suggests:

⊲ Prepare a solution of 1 cup of bleach and a quarter-cup mild soap per gallon of water.

⊲ Spray on entire area and allow to soak into the fabric for 15 minutes.

⊲ Remove stain with a sponge, clean towel, or very soft bristle brush.

⊲ Rinse thoroughly to remove all soap residue.

⊲ Allow fabric to air dry.

When stains really get tough, it may come down to the choice of removing the stain with some surface damage to the vinyl or pulling out the credit card for new seats or upholstery.

Will Owen, co-founder of JetBoatPilot, a Panama City, Florida-based supplier of jet boat accessories, had rubber roofing compound fall through a skylight opening in the warehouse onto the seat cushions of a boat. Although the general consensus is to stay away from Mr. Clean MagicEraser, this was an extreme situation.

Armed with Purple Power cleaner/degreaser (50-50 mix with water), a MagicEraser, paper towels, a toothbrush (for patterned stitching), rubber gloves, and a bucket of water, he was able to remove the stains, although he notes that using the MagicEraser will change the grain in the upholstery, so this is only for an emergency scenario, such as with my friend’s boat. 

In all cases, be sure to follow the cleaning process with a vinyl protectant to help condition the material, protect it from UV rays, and extend the life of the vinyl. Products from Meguiar’s, 303, Boat Juice, Star brite, and 3M work well. 

Remember to keep your seats covered or clean them regularly to keep them fresh for your days on the water—and watch out for those new bathing suits. 

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