Choosing The Right Cover
May 29, 2011 6:42 PM | Tagged as Covers Tops

These days, there's a cover for every condition you and your craft are likely to face.

You've just made one of the top three investments of your life to date -- and depending on your priorities, that 20 feet of gleaming new fiberglass or aluminum boat out front may just be your most expensive purchase so far, perhaps even eclipsing expenditures for shelter and tow vehicle.

If the boat came with a custom cover, great -- at least good. If it didn't, the next purchase you should consider is a proper top -- something to cover your investment in more ways than one.

Unless you've dug into it lately, you probably have no idea how many types of tops there are from which to choose these days. Like everything else, specialization has entered the boat top marketplace, and there's a cover for every condition you and your craft are likely to face. That's why the top that came with the boat may be only "good" news -- it may not be the best cover for you. But hey, at least you got one.

Any cover is better than no top at all. Without a cover of some type, a boat left out in the elements will begin to age immediately, mostly from exposure to the sun, although moisture can be just as damaging. Even aluminum suffers from the powerful UV rays from above, and when water enters the picture, followed by dust and dirt, things start breaking down fast.

And that's while the boat's sitting in the driveway. Once you hit the highway with your new craft, a whole new set of threats enter the scene.

Top Protection

In all, there are five major reasons you want to have your boat covered. They include:

Protection from UV rays. The sun is merciless in its attack on just about everything under it. Fiberglass hulls and vinyl upholstery and consoles take the worst beating. The rays damage and dull the gelcoat finish on fiberglass and breakdown the plasticizers that keep vinyl supple.

Protection from water. Water breeds mildew, mold and rot. When water is allowed to stand for any amount of time, organisms breed, including bacteria that can attack parts of the boat, especially carpet, wood and vinyl. Mold and mildew actually feed on natural fibers in carpeting, such as cotton, and while they won't eat man-made materials like nylon or polyester, they will eat through dirt and other organisms that are left between the fibers, which can be just as bad.

Protection from dirt and debris. Dirt, dust, airborne seeds, leaves, twigs and critters all damage a boat if left to their own ways. Leaves and seeds are a problem to clean out, and will decompose, causing dampness, mold and mildew. Debris can clog drains, causing the boat to retain water that causes problems noted in reason #2 above. While being trailered, covers can offer some protection to both the interior and exterior from flying rocks and gravel.

Protection from critters. Rodents like mice, rats and squirrels leave waste and can make meals or nests out of wire coatings, vinyl seats, carpeting or seat filling. Gulls, sparrows, starlings and other birds can do that and more.

Protection from vandalism. Covers represent a barrier to would-be thieves. They can't see what's in the boat, and they have to physically remove the cover to access it.

Types of Tops

There are about a half dozen materials of various weights that the majority of modern boat covers are made of these days, and each is suited for a particular set of needs and budgets. These include 100 percent cotton canvas in weights from 6 to 15 ounces; cotton/polyester blends in weights of 6 to 15 ounces; 100 percent polyester in weights of 6.5 to 11 ounces; coated polyester, in weights of 6.5 to 10 ounces; vinyl-coated acrylic in weights of 6 to 16 ounces; and 100 percent acrylic in weights of 7.5 to 10.5 ounces.

In addition, mass-marketed (and a few custom) tops are also available in 100 percent nylon, polyethylene and Tyvek. The latter is a rather new material for boat covers that has become popular as a cover for bicycles and automobiles. Perhaps know best as the "tearproof" paper-like material used in Federal Express envelopes, Tyvek is a lightweight fabric made of spun-bound olefin, with properties that allow air to pass through, while remaining water- and vapor-proof.

However, most of the covers sold for bass and walleye boats today are made from the first six fabrics in the weight ranges given.

Each type of cover material is capable of offering protection in the five areas already noted. Some are simply suited to perform better in certain circumstances.

Selecting the Proper Top

According to a spokesman for one of the leading boat cover manufacturers, the four most important features offered by a boat cover are strength, durability, water repellency and breathability.

When deciding upon what type of top should go with a particular style of boat, you need to ask yourself what type of boating are you going to do, and where. For example, if you live in Illinois, where it rains a lot, then water repellency will be most important, and a vinyl-coated cover will be best. It may not breathe as well as other materials, but it will do the best job of shedding rain, and you can vent it for breathability.

If you live in southern California or Florida, where the sun is more of a threat than rain, a top with cotton content simply won't hold up for very long to the intense UV rays. And because water repellency isn't as much of an issue in those types of locations and climates, your best choices are going to be acrylics or polyesters.

If you intend to trailer your boat at highway speeds over long distances, then durability is most important. In that case, polyester or vinyl will hold up better than canvas. And you definitely don't want an acrylic like Sunbrella for long distance trailering, because of its low resistance to abrasion.

If you're trailering your boat only four or five weekends a season, and on short trips, then canvas will probably do the job and save you some money.

Another factor that can be considered when selecting a boat cover is ease of handling, especially if you are boating alone. A canvas cover for an 20-foot open bow boat will weigh about 18 pounds; the same top made from Tyvek will weigh about 2 pounds. A top made of Sea Mark, which is a high-priced, vinyl-coated acrylic, will weigh nearly 30 pounds for a 20-foot boat.

Cover Costs

Cost is an important factor in some cases, especially if you've just blown your wad on a new boat. Here are general price ranges you can expect to pay to cover an 20-foot open bow boat with the various fabrics, which are listed in popularity among boat owners:

1) Acrylic ("Sunbrella"): $350-$600

2) Cotton ("Canvas"): $125-$275

3) Polyester ("Top Gun"): $300-$475

4) Vinyl-coated Polyester ("Aqualon"): $300-$425

5) Vinyl-coated Acrylic ("Sea Mark"): $375-$550

6) Polyethylene (plastic tarp): $10-$75

7) Nylon (mass-produced under several names): $25-$95

8) Tyvek ("Tyvek"): $100-$150

For the money, the best all-around boat cover material for the average boat owner is 100 percent polyester. A lightweight poly of, say, 6.5 ounces is going to be twice as strong as 10-ounce canvas, as strong as a 9.5- to 10-ounce acrylic, and has the best abrasion resistance of them all. And cost-wise, it's not outrageous. A polyester cover would be $300 or less for a 20-foot boat.

Cover Color and Quality

If cover color is important, and you need a good selection with which to match your boat, you'll probably have to turn to an acrylic top, which are offered in 40-some hues. At the other end of the color spectrum is cotton canvas, which comes in green, gray or tan. You can find some colored canvas out there, usually red or blue, but the UV rays of the sun break down the pigment and quickly fade the top. In between the two is polyester, which comes in about 15 colors. More important than cover color is cover quality. It can be confusing to shop a market where you can find two 10-ounce canvas covers for the same length of boat, and one is priced at less than $100 while the other costs $250. There's a good reason for that.

When shopping for a cover, look for things like raw edges, which have not been hemmed and stitched and may fray, and simple "lap" seams, where adjoining edges are simply laid on top of each other and stitched. Not only are lap seams weak, if they are layed out incorrectly, they can actually draw water into the seam rather than helping to deflect it off the cover.

Quality boat tops feature rotproof, 100 percent polyester thread and seams that are reinforced with webbing to distribute tension at tie-down points. They have four-ply overlocked seams that are in the shape of an "S" when looked at from the end, like those found on your jeans. When the fabric panels are properly laid out, water runs with the grain of these folded seams, which shed water like roofing shingles. Some of the better boat tops have an adjustable draw rope sewn into the perimeter of the cover to draw it tight around the boat's hull, and all feature plenty of tie-down points.

Cover Care

Once you've got that boat under wraps, what's the best way to care for the new cover? Again, it depends on the fabric. For cotton canvas tops especially, UV rays are the biggest threat, but you want to re-treat most tops periodically with a good UV protectant spray such as those made by manufacturer “303” fabric protectant.

Dirt can attract mildew and break down the fibers of any cover material, especially the cotton materials, so washing is important. Use only a mild detergent such as dish soap, and a light-bristled brush. Even then, you'll remove some of the water-repellency treatment off the surface, which will have to be replaced. Acrylic tops are especially prone to wash wear, but all tops will need to be re-treated with a waterproofing agent after a period of time.

There are several products on the market with combine both UV and waterproofing qualities, specially made for such treatments. 303 High Tech Fabric Guard is one of the more popular among boaters, as is Waterproofing & Fabric Cleaner and 3M's Scotchgard Protector for Outdoor Fabric. Several others are available as well. Check with your local boat dealer or custom canvas shop for their recommendations, especially if they sold you your cover.

It's also important to keep snow or rainwater from accumulating or pooling on the boat's cover. Use support bows or poles and dust off any snow or drain any standing water as soon as possible. Water left to sit will stain the cover and organisms which can damage the material will begin to form almost immediately, especially in warm conditions.

While trailering a covered boat, make sure you secure the top properly. This means anchoring the cover to both the boat and the trailer. Tie-down points should occur at least every two to three feet along the entire length of the boat and cover, alternating between straps attached to the boat that pass completely under the hull, and tie-downs to the trailer. Without securing the cover to the trailer, the top can shift, which could cause the material to tear and can damage the boat if portions of the cover are allowed to rub or flap against the boat at highway speeds.

Several accessories to guard against cover wear are available as well, including rub strips to put around windshield edges and stern covers, and after-market tie-down systems, but that's a whole other story. Besides, a good boat cover that fits right and is secured properly needs nothing more than a little routine maintenance and some common sense to beep your baby safe and secure under wraps.

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