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Coast Guard Auxiliary Discusses How to Be A "Good Mate:"

Fast Facts about Vessel Maintenance Pollution
(Part One of a Series)

By: Ed Sweeney, National Press Corps (Pacific Region)

Spring is here, and a sailor’s thoughts turn to boating. It is that time of the year when tens of thousands of power boaters and sail enthusiasts alike are preparing their vessel for the upcoming boating season.

Whether you store your vessel on the water or in your backyard, this series of articles will help you be a “Good Mate” and keep the marine environment “clean and green.”


In the next few weeks, vessel maintenance and repair activities will be taking place virtually all around us. These activities include surface cleaning, sanding, washing, waxing, scrapping, painting, as well as replacing hardware on the boat, lines, cleats, etc. Moreover, many people change their oil in anticipation of the season, and dispose of batteries, antifreeze, and other toxic materials.

Cleaning products used to get boats ready for the season include soaps, solvents, cleaners, waxes, teak cleaners, and fiberglass, wood, and chrome polishers. A number of these products contain ammonia, phosphates, chlorine, hydrocarbon products, and otherwise harmful ingredients that are hazardous to humans as well as the aquatic environment.


The Clean Water Act prohibits the discharge of harmful quantities of pollutants into the waters of the United States. Many states, including California, have additional regulations, often more stringent than the Clean Water Act. As in many cases, ignorance of the law is not an excuse! There are often severe criminal and civil penalties that may be imposed for violation of these federal and state laws.


Many of the items used to clean your boat from all the grime can be quite toxic and harmful to numerous types of marine life. Some examples include hull sandings; can increase the particulate matter in the water column, reducing the light penetrating the water, and this reducing the water quality. Moreover, cleaners and detergents can add nutrients to the local waters, degrading water quality, promoting algae growth, and causing an algal bloom. This reduces the oxygen in the water, which can result in a massive fish kill, which may impact the entire food chain adversely.


Here are some of the things that boaters can do to be kind to the environment:

  •  Avoid using products that contain chlorine, phosphates, ammonia, hydrocarbons, or any other product labeled hazardous to humans. If a product is hazardous to you, chances are its hazardous to the aquatic environment as well.
  • Rinse your boat with clean, fresh water after each use. This stops organism growth, extends the life of the protective paint, and reduces the need for heavy-duty cleaners. Use more “elbow grease,” not more product.
  • Use only the amount of cleaning product you need, and be sure to clean up any spills with a rag and dispose of the rag properly.
  • Conduct all sanding and scraping operation while the boat is in the boat yard. If you must sand while the boat is in the water, use a vacuum sander to ensure debris doesn’t get into the water, and use drop cloths to prevent paint chips from contaminating the aquatic environment.
  • Try using hull paints containing Teflon, silicon, or cayenne pepper rather than toxic metals, like copper and tin. If you must paint the boat’s topside while the boat is in the water, make sure you have a tarp to catch any spills.
  • Be sure to dispose of oil and batteries properly.  If your marina doesn’t have a hazardous material receptacle, encourage them to get one.  Dispose flares in a flameproof container, or transported to the local fire department for proper disposal.
  • Encourage your marina or marine dealer to stock environmentally friendly products.

Boaters are only part of the Marine Partnership necessary to ensure a healthy aquatic environment. Marians also play an important role in keeping the waters “clean and green.” Here are some of the things marina operators can do to be a Good Mate:

  • Make sure storm drains located near work areas in the bat year are coverage to prevent toxic materials from entering the waterway.
  • Provide clearly marked bins for hazardous waste and otherwise dangerous products. 
  • Stock environmentally friendly products for sale to your customers.
  • Post environmentally friendly cleaning tips at the marina, or include a flyer with cleaning product purchases.


We’re not talking reading, ‘riting, and rithmetic, nor are we talking about another three R’s that many mariners are familiar with; red – right – returning. Here we’re talking about REDUCE, REUSE, and RECYCLE. The gist of this article in how to prevent/mitigate vessel maintenance pollution is on the first R – reduce the use of toxic products whenever possible, and use fewer products, and more elbow grease!

As you can see, the introduction of man and his sea faring vessels into our lakes, rivers, bays and oceans can profoundly impact the marine environment. But with a little common sense and the knowledge gained from above, we can all have clean waterways to boat, fish, swim, and maintain a healthy aquatic environment.