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Living Aboard Argonaut II FAQ: What Can I Do About the "Old Boat Smell"?

Updated on July 21, 2020
Lee B profile image

I was a retired teacher and live-aboard in Seattle. Now I'm back to teaching in a remote area of New Mexico.

Here's my old boat

Argonaut II, built in 1922
Argonaut II, built in 1922

I feel very qualified to write on the topic of smelly boats for the following reasons:

1.) I'm a liveaboard.

2.) I live aboard an 92-year-old wooden boat.

3.) I've reviewed the existing information.

4.) I've formed hypotheses and tested them.

5.) I've conquered the boat stink problem: Visitors familiar with wooden boats frequently comment that our boat DOES NOT STINK. They always sound surprised.


View under floorboard in engine room. Be grateful this is out of focus. It's scary in there!
View under floorboard in engine room. Be grateful this is out of focus. It's scary in there!

The first odor offender: The Bilge

The offending odor most often encountered on older wooden boats is emanating from the bilge. Most wooden boats have standing water in the bilge. One may also find lubricating greases, engine oil, and spilled fuel in a sludgy layer, in addition to anything else that has fallen in. The older the boat, the more possibilities. In older work boats, it was actually customary at one time to empty used oil into the bilge when doing an oil change! Standing water, stale air, old pipes, wood soaked in oil, and other equipment in the bilge all contribute to bad odors.


What Can Be Done about Bilge Odors?

One thing everyone should do is to make sure that limber holes (holes in barriers or partitions in the bilge) are clear. Limber holes enable water to run to the lowest point in the bilge where it can be pumped out. This allows easier access to the bilge for cleaning. Plugged limber holes allow water to stand and become rancid--and to build up to an unsafe level.

It is possible to have a bilge steam cleaned. This would take care of almost any odor. However, it is prohibitively expensive, time consuming, and may be damaging if done by someone without the know-how and experience. It would also be impossible to live aboard while this is being done. This is on my wish list for the future.

In lieu of steam cleaning, there are many methods and specialized products for cleaning the bilge. Low sudsing Liquid Joy is recommended by many experienced boaters. There are also many specialized and natural products on the market.

Here's a frequently used, time-tested method of bilge cleaning:

1.) Pour in cleaning product of choice, preferably an environmentally responsible one.

2.) Pour in water if needed, but not so much that it's a danger to the stability and operation of your boat.

3.) Go cruising in slightly rough water. Don't put your life in danger, but make sure you rock and roll a bit to stir up the cleaning product.

4.) Discharge bilge in an environmentally sound (and legal!) manner.

5.) Repeat as necessary.

Aft head of Argonaut II.
Aft head of Argonaut II.

Another odor offender: The Head

My research shows that the bilge is the most frequent offender for bad odors on boats. However, for the most offensive of offensive odors, look here: the marine head. Actually, it is the plumbing hoses leading to and away from the head that cause bad smells. We use the most expensive hoses we can find ($10 a foot), and it's worth every penny. I'd pay a lot more it I had to. Any plastic will eventually leach odors. The cheaper the hose, the sooner it stinks. The hoses pictured have been in place for five years without a problem.

Also any leaking in the plumbing will understandingly create bad odors just as they do in household plumbing.

Continuing on in the same system is the holding tank. We use the same logic, since holding tanks are made of plastic, as are the hoses. We use the thickest, best grade of plastic we can afford.

What Can Be Done About Head Odors?

1.) Maintain all hoses, fittings, and tanks to prevent leaking. There is a lot of information to help you: published books, internet sites, and, of course, the old salts who will give you free advice. If your pockets are deep, you can always hire someone.

2.) Use the best, most up-to-date materials you can afford. This is no area to cut corners or try to use antiquated materials.

3.) Don't get too complacent. Take a whiff now and then just to check.

The Chain Locker

Chain locker of Argonaut II
Chain locker of Argonaut II

More odoriferous offenders

The chain locker is a source of stale air, old metal, and whatever came up with the anchor chain that didn't get adequately washed off. Surprisingly, 950 feet of chain have a very strong metal odor. Make sure the anchor chain is thoroughly cleaned off before stowing it. Also try to get some ventilation in this area.

Old Equipment, Engines, and Systems

This next photo is a Petter single cylinder, diesel engine from 1943. It is a simple, beautiful, never-fail engine that pumps our air tanks for our air-start diesel and also functions as a power generator when we are at anchor without shore power. However, it puts out fumes that can linger. That, of course, is nothing compared to the actual engine, in our case a Gardner 6L3 Diesel. I wouldn't trade it for anything. But imagine an engine running inside, in the center of your home!

 Petter single-cylinder diesel
Petter single-cylinder diesel
A 1941 6-cylinder, Gardner diesel engine
A 1941 6-cylinder, Gardner diesel engine
Cooking with garlic and onions--healthy but stinky
Cooking with garlic and onions--healthy but stinky

Last, but not least, personal life-style choices can add to boat odors

Fortunately, my husband has quit smoking those smelly cigars. Don't tell me nagging doesn't work! However, I will never stop cooking with garlic and onions no matter how many times he nags me about it. So, I guess it doesn't work both ways!

In addition, if you keep pets, they can also contribute to any odor problem.

Helpful practices and products to prevent odor

Ventilate, ventilate, ventilate! Many old boats are closed up for long periods of time, becoming stale and smelly. Many boat odor problems can be solved simply by living aboard and being fresh air freaks. There are also many strategies for ventilating the bilge, chain locker, and other compartments. Every boat is different, so consult the available literature and the local experts to decide what is appropriate for your boat.

Swab the decks! And everything else. Vacuum, dust, clean up, sanitize--everything you would do to clean a house, and more. Since boats generally provide smaller, more cramped accommodations, it really helps to keep up with "boatkeeping."

Use air "fresheners" if you must! Let's face it, these products don't really freshen the air or anything else, but cover up odors with their own scent. One product I can recommend is the product shown below: PureAyre Marine Odor Eliminator. It smells sort of odd and peppery when first sprayed--then, after an hour or so, is odorless itself and totally removes any other odors. The effect lasts much longer than a regular spray.



This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Lee A Barton

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    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      12 months ago from New Mexico

      I'm originally from NM and have lived aboard in the Pacific Northwest and on land in New Mexico, alternating, for several decades. When I unpacked after moving off the boat, I could still smell that "boat smell" on my clothes. Miss it in a way! Thank you for reading and commenting! Hope some of my ideas help.

    • GetitScene profile image

      Dale Anderson 

      12 months ago from The High Seas

      This is an article that REALLY speaks to me. I am a live aboard myself and have been for a long time so i can understand and sympathize with you about issues with odors. Thanks for sharing your tips and experiences with us all. Am I right in saying that you now live on land in New Mexico? If that's correct, was it a very hard adjustment? I stay on land sometimes and find it... not my cup of tea.

    • profile image

      SUDHANSHU KUMAR 

      8 years ago

      i m join , new

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      9 years ago from New Mexico

      Hi Tricia! Is your boat closed up tight during the time you're not on it? When we're off the boat for a few days, we notice the "boat smell" more when we return. Good luck!

    • profile image

      Tricia 

      9 years ago

      Thank you Lee for the info. We have an old 42 Grand Banks that we stay on three to four days every week. I will certainly check out all of your suggestions because we are noticing that our bost smells more lately and we cant seem to find the culprit or quite get our smeller to figure out what the smell actually is.

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      9 years ago from New Mexico

      Sounds interesting, SherryDigital! Hope you write a hub about your experience.

    • SherryDigital profile image

      Sherry Duffy 

      9 years ago from Here. There. Everywhere. Currently: Portland, OR

      These are great tips! I dream of living aboard a barge one day soon! I will definitely reference back to your hubs when that day comes!

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      9 years ago from New Mexico

      Thanks for the tip, JJ Henry! I've checked out the site and this does look like an interesting product.

    • profile image

      JJ Henry 

      9 years ago

      I have had a lot of success with Marine Shocker. It works like a fumigation bomb but for odors. Therefore, the product gets deep into the upholstery killing the odor at its source. It doesn’t have any harsh chemicals and it’s easy to use. Check it out at http://www.biocidesystems.com/marineshocker.html

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      9 years ago from New Mexico

      You certainly may link to this hub, Kel! Your website looks great. Thank you for reading and commenting.

    • kelvanator profile image

      kelvanator 

      9 years ago from British Columbia

      Hi Lee. Growing up on the coast near Houston, Texas, odor and mold were ALWAYS problems; especially for the boats always moored in the marina. Your discussion of the bilge and it's maintenance is often over-looked by folks... Additionally, thanks for the mention of the PureAyre products; the non-toxic ones certainly delay hose and gasket rot. With your permission, I would like to link to your article from our main boat storage site. Please let me know if that's OK.

      Thanks,

      Kel - www.besthoustonstorage.com

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      9 years ago from New Mexico

      Thank you, alazani67!

    • profile image

      alazani67 

      9 years ago

      Interesting hub!

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      10 years ago from New Mexico

      Oh thank you so much, Fortadam! I don't know if I'd qualify as an "old salt;" I'm old enough, but not that salty! I'm actually fairly new to this life, too. However, I know several salty types who are very knowledgeable and free with advice (as is usually the case).

      Glad to help you out in any way I can, Fortadam! We will be cruising up north soon, and will be at anchor and out of wireless range for some time--but will check in at marinas from time to time. So, if you don't hear from me right away--I'll be back. You might want to check my "In the Boatyard hub, too. :-)

      Lee

      P.S Really enjoyed your blog! I've bookmarked it and will definitely check in often to read it all. Great stuff!

    • Fortadam profile image

      Michael Adams 

      10 years ago from USA

      What a wonderful article! I'm preparing to live on a boat - and will start the restoration process soon. I'm going to refer back to your wisdom (and maybe even send you an email or two with questions) when I come across these issues.

      Its nice to know an "old salt" :)

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      10 years ago from New Mexico

      Great memories! Thank you for reading and commenting, Clark.

    • clark farley profile image

      clark farley 

      10 years ago

      it's always interesting how 'relative' bad smells can be...back in the day I spent about 4 years as a commercial fisherman, most of that on a 65' (wooden) eastern rig...such a range of smells...but very powerful, when I go and look at the boats now and get a whiff of diesel fuel (good smell) or lobster bait salted in barrels on the dock (no so good) it totally takes me back 30 years or so...still remember the smell of the foc'sle (it had an oil stove) not the kind of smell I would consider good in the living room of my house, but I remember it did not smell bad at the end of a long day on deck...(now that I think of it, the bad smell I would notice after being aways from the boat for days (between trips)...funny

      Great Hub

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      10 years ago from New Mexico

      Arrrrrgh! Backed up bilge bad! I feel your pain. Yes, there are just two of us. Thank you for stopping by and commenting, Cindy2011!

    • Cindy2011 profile image

      Cindy2011 

      10 years ago from Canada's West Coast

      I hear your struggle between the lines.

      Only thing worse is a backed-up bilge on a sailboat. Sorry to claim it's an experience, but it's a story not worth telling. But you've summed up your smell control nicely.

      Is there just the two of you living on the boat?

      Here's to your continued success at the helm of smell control.

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      10 years ago from New Mexico

      Oh so real! Thanks for stopping by, howcurecancer.

    • howcurecancer profile image

      Elena@LessIsHealthy 

      10 years ago

      Wow, great tips from a real experience.

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      10 years ago from New Mexico

      Oh, I totally agree, dallas93444! The smells of the wood, the varnish, even the engine exhaust if combined with the sea air are great! However, what I don't like are those really funky smells from the stuff that's been sitting around for 80 some years. Smells like an old basement.

    • dallas93444 profile image

      Dallas W Thompson 

      10 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

      Smell bad? The "smell" to one who loves boat can be "good!" The chorus of the various smells blended and warmed to operating temperature with the wind in your hair: is heaven on earth to some...

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      10 years ago from New Mexico

      Thanks for stopping by mega1! Maybe you can keep your fantasy about a houseboat. Most are not as old as Argonaut II which is 88 years old. Newer boats don't require as much maintenance and aren't as smelly!

    • mega1 profile image

      mega1 

      10 years ago

      With your practical mind, you make boat living sound practical - I have been writing about some of the Fantasy Homes I would like to live in and I did one on houseboats - but on further research I find how much maintenance and cleaning and repainting and all it would take, so probably no, I won't. But they look beautiful! Good for you, it's a very green life you lead - good hub too!

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      Glad you stopped by, Peggy!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      11 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Such an interesting topic for those of us unfamiliar but interested in that lifestyle. Thanks for sharing!

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      Thank you for stopping by and your kind comments, SilverGenes! I'm fairly new to the liveaboard life, so I'm always learning something new about stuff I never knew existed before. It's never dull!

    • profile image

      SilverGenes 

      11 years ago

      Who'd have thought an article on smelly areas could be this much fun to read! And I learned about some things I didn't even know existed - must also admit to being a bit (ok, a lot) envious :)

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      So glad to see you here, James! Yeah, I'm taking a break from sanding and varnishing right now, but 20 minutes is all I get. It's been so rainy here lately, we're WAY behind on yearly maintenance.

      I've read that fresh water plumbing can reduce head smells. And you're so right--especially here in the ship canal--it's the stuff in the water that can be really nasty! Soooo envy your dry bilge! If you saw ours you'd probably have nightmares!

    • James McV Sailor profile image

      James J Mills 

      11 years ago from Northern California

      Lee, great Hub... living on board any boat certainly does give you a different perspective on life..... especially on an old woody.... too much work for me. All that wood is a LOT of work. On my boat LOCATION (fiberglass... yes, dry bilge!)I got rid of the head smells by switching to "fresh water" plumbing... no more dead sealife in the lines. Keep writing. JM

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      It's always something, habee! I mean, as far as "problems" go, I guess this is the one to have. Thanks for stopping by!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 

      11 years ago from Georgia

      I think I'd like to have this problem someday!

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      I THOUGHT I was a landlubber! You never know what will happen. By the way, bikes for transportation, once you get somewhere on the boat is THE way to go! Thanks for stopping by, Micky Dee.

    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 

      11 years ago

      Great hub! I'm a landlubber myself so I find this very interesting. Thank you!

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      Thanks for stopping by, saikeerthi!

    • saikeerthi profile image

      saikeerthi 

      11 years ago

      this is not comment you be my friend

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      Thanks for stopping by, GmaGoldie! I checked out some of your water purification sites. Sounds interesting!

    • GmaGoldie profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 

      11 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Fantastic Hub! First I must say I am completely jealous - when I graduated from college - living on a boat was my dream - sadly it remain a dream.

      I learned allot. One of the items that our water purification handles exceptionally well is odors. As Marketing Director I will be targeting the boating industry shortly and needed to learn about boat odors and how our non-chemical disinfectant can help aboard a boat.

      Off to dream about boats.

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      Thanks for stopping by, loua. I must confess, I'm surprised that this hub has gotten any traffic. I guess people can't believe I writing about smelly boats!

    • loua profile image

      loua 

      11 years ago from Elsewhere, visiting Earth ~ the segregated community planet

      Good stuff, well documented, quite informative... Thanks...

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      I'm so glad you stopped by, Painted Seahorse! Hope you check out my other hubs on living aboard. I sure have enjoyed your hubs.

    • Painted Seahorse profile image

      Brittany Rowland 

      11 years ago from Woodstock, GA

      Fascinating! I've never had the pleasure of being on a house boat, but you raised some interesting points and made it all fun to read. I also enjoyed the pictures!

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      Thank you, Eric Calderwood. It's true: the older the boat, the more possibilities for bad smells! And since my boat is 88 years old...well, enough said. Does your friend's boat have an outboard or no engine at all? Anyway, I sure envy him cruising in the warmer latitudes. It's still cold up here in Puget Sound!

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      Thank you for stopping by Michael Shane. I've been off line for a couple of weeks but do intend to write more FAQ type hubs.

    • Eric Calderwood profile image

      Eric Calderwood 

      11 years ago from USA

      Great Hub, Lee. I have a friend who lived aboard a sailboat in the Virgin Islands for many years and in all his talks he never mentioned smells. I guess wooden boats with engines are a greater challenge in this area.

    • Michael Shane profile image

      Michael Shane 

      11 years ago from Gadsden, Alabama

      Hmmm! Nothing like the smell of an old boat! Interesting topic & hub Lee! Great advice & tips!

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      Thank you so much, Audrevea! Living aboard is a unique lifestyle, and I'm glad I was able to convey some of that. I have plans to write several FAQ hubs because people really do ask all kinds of questions! I sure appreciate you dropping by!

    • profile image

      Audrevea 

      11 years ago

      Oh Lee, this is such a unique and sensory hub. I love the smells (like the metal) and the scene you've painted. Closest I get to a boat are the Sydney Ferries that take you across the Harbour. I did the 'thumbs up' thing :)

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      Hi karlscabin! You are the one to be writing about living aboard. I'm still new at this. Enjoy the mountains! I do still miss some things about living on land.

    • karlscabin profile image

      karlscabin 

      11 years ago from A High Desert Valley w/ river (4500ft)

      Hello, here is a funny for ya. I owned and lived on an ericson 29 sailboat on the columbia river for 10 years! I have done the Oregon Offshore Race twice. I'm too old and beat up to play out on the water by myself anymore, so I ran off to the mountains. Enjoy life aboard. Life is an adventure, don't miss it.

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      I've been following De Greek around as he does his research on boats and found lots of fascinating stuff, mostly on sailboats, but there are many common factors. Sailboaters might deny this, however! Thank you, IzzyM for reminding me that I wanted to post some of these hubs on my FAQ series(still in the works).

      The type of boat I live on, a very old wooden boat with its own history, makes the boat itself interesting. I'll be writing much more on the history of this and other classic yachts(soon, I hope), but it is the people who cruise and live aboard that truly make this a wonderful way of life.

    • IzzyM profile image

      IzzyM 

      11 years ago from UK

      This hub is like a breath of fresh air! I've never read anything about living on boats and find it fascinating! Thanks for sharing :)

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      Thanks for stopping by, hypnodude! Unfortunately, responsibly disposing of grease and crud from the bilge is sometimes easier said than done.

    • hypnodude profile image

      Andrew 

      11 years ago from Italy

      Very interesting hub and well written. Personally I don't have a boat but these information maybe can be useful in the future. And I've appreciated your advice to dispose of bilge avoiding polluting the environment. Rated up. :)

    • Lee B profile imageAUTHOR

      Lee A Barton 

      11 years ago from New Mexico

      Yes, smelly old boats is a subject I do know well! Thanks for stopping by!

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      11 years ago from UK

      Fascinating stuff, from an obvious expert and I have read it twice. Many thanks :-)

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