Boats like to be used. Boats that are aired with regular use rarely smell. Obviously this poses a challenge for commuter cruisers! Our boats are shut up for six months straight, usually in the hot and humid tropics. Unfortunately when the boat is shut up, the accumulation of human sweat, mold and mildew and diesel fumes can make a pretty powerful stink! We do several things to help miminize the odor cloud that will escape when the companionway is first opened, no matter how diligent we are about cleaning. Despite the previous owner taking great care of our boat, when we bought it, it was already 16 years old, so smells had accumulated. Our initial year of ownership was spent fighting the smell every time we returned to the boat. Now, after owning the boat for over 10 years, it’s 26 years old, but it doesn’t generally smell after the initial re-opening when we return in the fall annually.
When you open the companionway for the first time after a six month absence (or even a couple of months), don’t expect a nice clean smell — give it a day or more to air before you start to worry about smell. Run all fans, get as much air circulating as possible. If you’re running an a/c be sure to run fans too. Before you close all the lockers, air them out more — a portable fan, such as our favorite, port fan from HotWire is perfect to get more air moving inside a closet, inside the bilge, wherever it will reach with it’s 12v cord.
The #1 rule — if the boat smells there’s a reason, a culprit waiting to be discovered and the culprit is likely better at playing hide n seek than you are at finding the source of the smell! Lots of websites, marine retailers and general retailers will be happy to sell you an amazing array of “stuff” designed to cover up the smell, but not necessarily eliminate it. Be wary of these unless you prefer your boat smell like an elderly lady reeking of too much perfume to cover body odors! Others will recommend you run an ozone generator or air purifier in the boat. These may work great, but if you don’t eliminate the source of the odor, it will reappear every time you re-open the boat after being away a bit.
Other hints for minimizing accumulating stink while you’re away:
1. While we’re gone, the dehumidfier minimizes mold and mildew, especially inside. When we return, a good solution of bleach and water washdown wherever I can see mold – generally outside in the engine compartment or cockpit lazarettes – gets rid of the bulk of it. There will always be mold lurking in places I can’t see (or reach), but I do the best I can!
2. While we’re gone, all the locker doors, cushions and even mattresses are askew to allow air to cirulate. It’s important to keep cross ventilation going if at all possible. We have an open dorade on one side of the boat and a solar fan set to suck air out on the other side.
3. It may be an old wives tale, but it makes me feel better to leave bounce sheets under every cushion, on the hangers in the hanging lockers and in the shelves and drawers for folding clothes and stuff. I have no idea if they do anything at all, but the boat seems to do well every summer, so being superstitious, I’m afraid to vary the routine!
10 Tips to Help Rid Your Boat of Odors
1. First, buy Peggie Hall’s book “Get Rid of Boat Odors” – it’s available at Amazon, Armchair Sailor and other reputable marine stores. Although it mostly deals with head odors – Peggie’s nickname is “The Head Mistress” – it also has a small section on making sure you aren’t getting bad smells via the bilge. Plus it tells you anything and everything you need to know about your head and holding tank, including exploded diagrams of several of the most popular brands of heads. For more about the book, click my review post here.
2. The head is an obvious culprit for stink. Every six months I wrap a clean cotton cloth around the sanitation hoses – any hose to or from the head. Leave it for a bit and smell it when it’s removed. If it stinks, the sanitation hoses need replaced. While still in the head, wipe down everything and keep it clean. We also use Raritan’s CP (cleans potties) both to clean the head and also down the drains to keep them smelling fresh. If you have a shower sump, be sure to check it and scrub it out. We don’t have our shower sump hooked up because we don’t take showers below, but this is an easy place for mold and mildew to accumulate so beware!
3. We always use a treatment of some sort in the holding tank – my favorite is Raritan’s KO (kills odors), but a marine head expert in Key West advised us to try Tide — he swears that a cup of Tide in the holding tank will clean it as well as keep it smelling like fresh laundry. We’re trying the Tide but the jury is still out. Another “expert” told us to try Calgon Fabric Softener. When we return to the boat if the Tide doesn’t seem to be doing it’s job, I’ll try Calgon. A big advantage in using Tide is that it’s available everywhere. If you use KO, you’ll have to bring a supply with you to the boat.
3. The bilge must be kept clean and dry. It accumulates any bit of whatever from wherever – in our case, we’re still being punished for the oil that leaked from trying alternatives to changing the oil. OK, so not all of us can totally comply with this “rule”, but if you can, you’ll go a long way toward minimizing stink. Our bilge is small, but too deep to reach, so we use a portable hand bilge pump to suck out as much as we can get.
There are various recommendations for cleaning the bilge ranging from 2 bottles of Joy to Tide to products purchased especially to clean the bilge. We’ve found that none work perfectly but we generally try one or two different solutions every year. Our current favorite is Tide, but I will say the oil stuck to some surfaces down where we can’t reach them, just swipe at them with a rag or a sponge on a stick, is not all cleaned up six years later. The good news is, it doesn’t pump out either, so our dwindling mess remains contained. The other good news is, it doesn’t stink.
4. Food lockers, the refrigerator or ice box must be kept clean. We wipe ours out with a bleach solution whenever we need to defrost the refrigerator freezer.
5. Boat cushions can hide musty smells. When we replaced the original foam settee cushions and the foam mattresses, our boat instantly smelled better. Cushion covers will retain body sweat turning your salon into what might as well be a gym locker room unless you clean the cushions. Even if they don’t look dirty, we wash ours annually and let them air dry so they don’t shrink. Despite the claim that they must be dry-cleaned, when we were out of the US in remote areas, dry cleaning simply wasn’t an option. So I threw one in the washing machine on cold/cold as a test. It worked perfectly so now I do them at the end of each cruising season. If you don’t need to replace the cushion foam, setting it outside in the bright sun uncovered with the cushion covers for an hour or so can do wonders. As a quick perk-em-up, you can also spray the cushions with covers in place with Febreze antibacterial spray and set them out in the sun. I do this after every extended tropical rain.
6. The chain/rode locker. This locker gets smelly muddy yucky every time the anchor goes up. Since it opens directly to the head with a set of louvered doors, the smell can easily make it’s way into the boat. Taking everything out, wiping the locker down with a bleach water solution and air drying it every so often will do wonders. We do ours at least annually as part of our checklist to leave the boat. If it starts to smell before the cruising season is over, we take the chain out on deck and let it dry.
7. The diesel/engine compartment can smell like diesel fumes – YUCK! We wash the compartment walls with a vinegar and water mix – usually equal parts but sometimes more vinegar than water. We keep a 3M sheet under our 26 year old trusty Nanni Kubota diesel to catch any spare drips and change the sheet regularly depending on what’s leaking – monthly if it’s just the usual salt water drip from the stuffing box.
8. We’ve had other cruisers recommend using Superclean by Castrol found at Wal-Mart. Apparently it is biodegradable, inexpensive and works to cut grease and grime but be sure to use rubber gloves. We have yet to try this, but may try it in the bilge if it appears to be safe for hoses.
9. The interior teak. I don’t know if it every smells, but usually twice a year I wipe all the interior teak — Winterlude is full of original teak staving that is beautiful, but demands attention. I wash it with a Murphy Oil and water solution according to the instructions on the bottle. Then I use just regular lemon oil to wipe it down again. The lemon oil provides a nice fresh scent. Do be careful though, while in Panama I bought some lemon oil that smelled like some strong antiseptic. Neither of us could tolerate the downstairs until it aired a few days! But the wood looked good! 🙂
Do you have any other ideas on how to keep the boat smelling clean and fresh? Leave a comment please! THX! Jan