How to permanently eliminate boat smell:

Ah, the distinctive smell of…boat. A mixture of diesel, cooking fumes, mould and stale air, sometimes with a hint of wet dog – instantly recognisable to anyone who has looked at second hand boats. That odour is not only a turn-off for buyers, but contributes significantly to seasickness.

There’s no excuse for this smell, although some old salts seem to think it is both inevitable and, well, salty. The main causes are poor ventilation, oily bilges, deck leaks and dirt. Back in the day, it was accepted that boats leaked, ventilation was mainly to keep the timbers sound, and cleaning was not necessarily a priority. Thankfully we have moved on from this. Modern boats should not leak – from the hull or anywhere else.

Finding the source of each smell only requires common sense. Check the engine and fuel system for oil and fuel weeps; behind the stove and other inaccessible spots in the galley for food spills; toilet bowls, their surrounds and waste hoses; mattresses, bedding or clothing that may be damp and hasn’t been aired or washed for ages; anchor chain drainage, and mould.

After eliminating odours, dirt and leaks try these ideas to prevent a recurrence:

  • Remove unused bedding and clothes or stow them in airtight bags or lockers. You can create airtight lockers by sealing the access lids and fitting large inspection ports, or putting a seal under the lid and latching it securely.
  • Use damp-absorbing ‘pillows’ (available from chandlers) to reduce humidity in sealed spaces and place oil absorbing mats beneath the motor. If shore power is available, consider a de-humidifier.
  • Does the chain locker drain into the bilge? That water will probably also bring dead seaweed and mud aboard, so be sure to wash the chain thoroughly as it comes aboard.
  • Empty the holding tank before leaving the boat for more than a few days. Using a cleaner/deodoriser like Super bowl will keep that area smelling fresh and clean. To find persistent smells, wrap a rag soaked with hot water around the pipes and let it sit for a few hours. If it takes on the smell, the pipes need to be replaced due to the build up inside. Freshwater flushing, at least when you will be leaving the boat, will reduce or eliminate the problem.
  • Make a habit of lifting the shower grating and cleaning the pan and sump.
  • Keep wet dogs and salty people on deck, or at least towel down before entering the cabin. Ideally rinse them off with a freshwater shower, or even a kettle full of water. Salt inside leads almost instantly to damp, which attracts dirt, and then mould…
  • You may not notice the aroma of pussy’s litter box, but your visitors will. Keep it on deck somewhere, away from the cabin. Find a place neither upwind of the deck hatches nor near the cockpit.
  • Consider improving ventilation to ‘dead’ areas, and fitting vents that can be left partly open. On some boats the access to the chain locker can be opened to encourage air flow. Maybe a vent in the companionway slides? (one that won’t admit rodents or swallows)
  • If you must fry food in the galley, clean all surfaces including the deck-head immediately afterwards.

Petrea McCarthy