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A Boat By Any Other Name

Changing a boat’s name often leaves ghosts of the old letters behind.
Follow these tips to exorcise them, and avoid the wrath of King Neptune.


Some old salts say it’s bad luck to change a boat’s name, as risky as taking bananas, or redheads, or women on board. (So if Nicole Kidman mounts the gangway while chewing on a Cavendish, you might want to play it safe by staying ashore. Me? I’ll take my chances.) Why is re-naming a vessel so hazardous? Sailors say King Neptune keeps track of all vessels in his logbook, even the smallest pleasure boats, and changing the name of one annoys the hell out of him—so much extra bookkeeping. He retaliates by cursing the vessel.

People change boat names every day, so what’s the issue? Seems that you can placate the King of the Sea by carrying out an elaborate renaming ritual that involves placating the four winds, dumping wine overboard for the sea gods, rechristening the vessel by spilling more wine, etc. There might be something involving a virgin, too. But the most important thing is to erase all traces of the vessel’s former name before even mentioning the new one. That means removing not only the old name, but also the ghost letters left behind. Don’t think you can escape Neptune’s ire by concealing them with the new name; you’ll be sorry if you try. Here’s how to ensure future good fortune.


First, you have to remove the old name. Let’s start with vinyl letters adhered to gelcoat, since removing them is usually easy. Sometimes you can just lift a corner and peel them off, but you’ll make it easier by first warming the vinyl using a heat gun or even a hair dryer. Don’t use excessive heat—warm to the touch is enough. Some pros use a razor blade to start lifting the vinyl, but be careful not to catch a corner of the blade and scratch the gelcoat. You can round the corners with a file to make this less likely, or take the easy route and use a plastic scraper. They’re cheap and less likely to inflict damage.


If the vinyl has been on the boat for many years, heat might not be enough, so use liquid. There are solvents that attack the adhesive to make peeling off the letters easier. Look for one that’s made for removing vinyl, not simply an adhesive remover—more about them later. Vinyl-Off, from CrystalTek products, is said to be environmentally friendly and biodegradable according to the manufacturer, and will let you peel off the vinyl and its adhesive in one step. The company says to warm the lettering first, then wipe on Vinyl-Off with a paper towel or rag and let it “dwell” for a few minutes. The solvent penetrates the vinyl and attacks the adhesive, so old, tough vinyl might need more dwell time, or a second coat of Vinyl-Off. Then warm the vinyl again and peel it off; most of the adhesive should come off, too.

If you’ve been waxing or polishing your boat as often as you should to preserve the gelcoat, there will also be a healthy layer of wax residue on the vinyl. Before using any solvent, clean the vinyl and surrounding area with a de-waxer, so the solvent has a better chance to work. If the vinyl is old and tough, the CrystalTek folks suggest sanding it with 100-grit paper before applying Vinyl-Off. I’d try to avoid that, since it’s easy to slip off the vinyl and scratch the gelcoat. Instead, de-wax first, use plenty of solvent and let it do the work.

Save the Paint

If the vinyl’s on a painted surface, it’s even more important to soften the adhesive first, in hopes of removing the name without taking paint along with it. Marine enamel is easy to touch up—but who’s going to apply vinyl to enamel? More likely the paint is long-lived linear polyurethane, a challenge to repair for DIY painters. Go carefully, and test the solvent somewhere inconspicuous first to ensure it doesn’t attack the paint as well as the vinyl. Maybe make an offering to King Neptune before you start peeling, too.

Some pros don’t bother with any of the foregoing, but go straight to the eraser wheel and abrade the vinyl away. An eraser wheel is essentially a rubber disk that’s chucked into an electric drill; spin the drill and the wheel rubs off the vinyl, making a pile of rubbery dust in the process. Keep the wheel moving across the letters so the underlying surface doesn’t get too hot, and don’t rotate the wheel faster than the rpm listed on its label—in the case of 3M’s Stripe Off Wheel, that’s 4,000 rpm. I’ve never used an eraser wheel because I think it would be very easy to damage paint, and maybe gelcoat, too, so I’d try everything else first. But by all accounts it’s an effective weapon against stubborn vinyl if all else fails.

No matter how you remove the vinyl, after it’s off use a microfiber cloth dampened with rubbing alcohol to soften any remaining adhesive, then scrape it off with a plastic scraper. If alcohol doesn’t do the job, use an adhesive remover such as GooGone, Rapid Tac’s Rapid Remover or Hardline Product’s Sticker-Off. (Vinyl-Off, mentioned above, will also remove adhesive.) These products spray on and scrape off. Some pros use acetone, but I’d go for an adhesive remover instead. Acetone is a little more aggressive than need be, I think. If you use acetone, wear skin and eye protection and a respirator. Work in an enclosed area and wash and rinse the surface when you’re finished.

What About Painted Names?

Not every boat name is pasted-on vinyl; some folks go the traditional route and have the name painted on with enamel. Removing paint from gelcoat is straightforward—do it chemically using solvent or paint remover, or mechanically with rubbing compound. It’s often easier than peeling off vinyl. Most paint manufacturers sell a remover formulated for gelcoat. TotalBoat’s TotalStrip paint remover can strip off multiple layers of paint in as little as 15 minutes: brush it on, let it sit, scrape off the paint then wash the surface with soap and water. Sold by the gallon (about $80), it will cover 50 to 75 square feet, according to the manufacturer, so it’s probably more than you’ll need.

A more economical choice is probably living under your kitchen sink right now: Some boatyard pros use Easy-Off oven cleaner to soften the paint, which is then easy to scrape or even rinse off with strong water pressure. White gelcoat might take on a slightly yellow tint, but a wash with white vinegar will remove it. Test it on an inconspicuous area first. Oven cleaner is pretty nasty stuff, so wear gloves and goggles.

You can also wipe the painted name with acetone and scrape it off. Rinse the surface thoroughly to remove all traces of solvent. Or hit it with rubbing compound on a buffing wheel, maybe the best method if the name’s been on the boat for a while: It’ll remove the ghost letters at the same time. If you choose another method, chances are you’ll have to buff them off anyway, so you’re saving yourself a step.

With heat and the edge of an old credit card (don’t melt your work Amex!), removing vinyl letters is easy. Their ghosts, however, can be stubborn.

With heat and the edge of an old credit card (don’t melt your work Amex!), removing vinyl letters is easy. Their ghosts, however, can be stubborn.

If all else fails you can wet-sand the paint off with very fine paper—800 or 1,000 grit to start, then 2,000 grit and finish with compound to restore the shiny surface. This is fine if you have a lot of spare time. With luck, oven cleaner will do the job.

If the name is painted on Awlgrip, varnish or marine enamel, you’re sniffing a different kettle of fish. Damage the surface and you’re probably looking at repainting, so maybe just keep the old name. Some boatyard managers I asked say they use Easy-Off to remove lettering on linear polyurethane. Test it first. On enamel or varnish, you’ll have to re-coat. If the name’s on a varnished transom, chances are there’s a coat or two of varnish over the letters, so bust out the sandpaper. Most lettering artists have the yard remove the old name and refinish the surface before painting on the new name. That might be a good choice for you, too


The old name may be gone, but a ghost name remains; spectral letters reminding you, and King Neptune, of the boat’s original moniker. The gelcoat or paint under the old name has had less UV exposure and less weathering than the rest of the boat, and is less faded, so it stands out. To bust these ghosts, bring back as much of the original shine around them as possible using rubbing compound, polish and wax, or maybe a polymer. (On paint, use whatever products the manufacturer recommends.) You’ll have to do the whole transom, or side of the boat, and the other side, too, so they match. Was the old name really all that bad?

In extreme cases, exorcising the ghost name will require wet-sanding as mentioned earlier. Minimize sanding, especially on an older boat that’s been compounded many times—the gelcoat’s already been worn thin. Once the gelcoat’s shot, you’ve got bigger problems; I’d leave a trace of ghost letters rather than wet-sand the crap out of middle-aged gelcoat. The new name will cover some of it, and a season of weathering usually takes care of the rest.

Even if you compound them into invisibility, as time passes and the wax/polymer shine dulls, sometimes the ghost letters magically re-emerge, fainter than they once were but still readable when the light’s right. Seeing the old letters will remind you that it’s time to polish and wax to banish the ghost once again, before you feel the wrath of King Neptune and don’t let him catch you eating a banana on board.

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2022 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.