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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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