Improving the Smell on Your Boat

Improving the Smell on Your Boat

IMG_3787When Joe and I were hunting for our cruising sailboat, one memory stands out.  We were viewing a 44-foot sailboat for sale, and when we went below, there was a scented candle burning.  “What smells are they trying to mask?” I whispered to Joe out of earshot.  Once we opened the floorboards, the moldy odor was the answer to that. As we later saw more boats on the market, it became clear that odor is a common problem onboard sailboats.

Many boat owners get used to the smell and/or just live with it.  I knew this wouldn’t work for me, because I have a heightened sense of smell. Any boat purchased, we would need to address the odor issue.

Since buying Mahi, and discovering a variety of odors inherent because of the age (23 years old), we have greatly improved the smell on our boat.  This is how we did it.

Replace Any Permeated Hoses– Joe needed to change out the diesel fuel fill hose as it was permeated.  He discovered this the first time we fueled up and the diesel smell was so bad he couldn’t sleep inside the boat.   Joe also changed out all the sanitation hoses as they were permeated as well.  We elected to change out both electric heads or toilets, and regularly use Raritan KO and CP in our sanitation system.   More about “Head Management” in a future post.

boatcleanClean the Interior- I started with a complete interior clean.  I use a bucket filled with Dawn soap, vinegar, and water.  Using a soft sponge, I vacuum, then wipe down every surface, starting at the ceiling, wall and working down.  I need to change the water often as it becomes dirty.  For any stubborn stains, I have a bottle of Spray Nine.  You could always try Simple Green, too.  I also keep some dry microfiber towels for drying off.

Clean under every hatch– Next, vacuum and wipe with a sponge in every cupboard, drawer or side openings in your boat.  I use the same mixture as above. After I dry the space, I line them with a rubber shelf liner.

Clean the Bilges-  This job will be gross, but it is essential to improve the smell of your boat.  I put on knee pads, since I will be bending over and kneeling down.  I start by using my shop vac to remove any loose debris.

Then, I use a sponge to start removing dirt, grease and bilge gunk.  I usually add more Dawn and vinegar solution to my water than usual.  One small bilge space may require 2 or 3 water changes, depending on the age and condition of your own boat.  Use Spray Nine for any stains.  This time, I use an old, clean rag to dry the space.

cleanbilgewoodDon’t forget to also clean the bilge or floorboard hatch and the supporting wood.  These will be extremely dirty as well.  If you have access to the dock, I will also remove the wood hatch and any removable wood supports.  Carefully transfer to the dock for cleaning.  I do this when I have a lot of items to clean at one time.  It’s more efficient and you get them cleaner as you can soap, scrub and hose them off, then set in sun to dry.

Clean or Replace Soft Goods-  Boat odors will happily embed into the fibers of fabric and upholstery.  Sometimes, if the odor is minimal, you can spray with Febreeze and air out in the fresh air.  If this trick doesn’t work, it is time to remove the fabric, and depending on the material, wash by hand and line dry.  Important!  Be sure to research your fabric and how to care for it.  You wouldn’t want to inadvertently shrink the fabric or damage it.

At the same time, if your foam is in good shape, you can also wash and dry your foam.  Linda, who refinished the upholstery on Mahi, was able to salvage the original foam and clean it.   She removed the Polyester batting cover to expose the foam, then she steamed it using a vinegar and water solution.  It aired dried in the sun.  This step may take awhile, depending on your humidity, time of year, and other considerations, so do this when your foam has time to dry out.

PolydownLinda then replaced the poly batting, too.  Batting can be purchased at JoAnn’s Fabric or at Quilt Stores.  Be sure to get 100% polyester batting- either Hobbs Poly-Down or Quilter’s Dream Poly.  Use a 3M spray adhesive to apply to your dry foam, then add back on your clean, fresh smelling fabric.


New Zeno Custom Mattress- It hinges, too!

Mattresses may be another soft good that would benefit from airing out or replacing. On board our boat, we elected to replace the master berth mattress for 3 reasons- I need a good quality bed for my back, the mattress was 23 years old, and to eliminate the fabric fiber smell.

The Result?  We have noticed that we have improved the smell by 90%.  The remaining 5% has to do with having a salt water head, and when you flush, there is a slight odor.   The other 5% is because I still need to detail the engine compartment.

The best complement came from our electrical worker the other day.  He asked how old our boat was, so we told him 23 years old.  He was surprised because out boat didn’t have the typical old boat smell. When we open the boat up and go below, it smells great.

I’ll be honest- it took a lot of hard work, but the end result was worth it!  My nose is happy!

Would love to hear from you about this topic!  Just leave me a comment below.


26 thoughts on “Improving the Smell on Your Boat”

  • Am curious about whether you have ever used Tea Tree oil with the vinegar and water solution. Just bought a 1990 boat that was basically stored the four years in the water and very dry, but really needs a good cleaning everywhere. So, while I can, want to get it as clean and treated as possible. Great article!!

    • Hi Vicki, thanks for stopping by! Congrats, too, on your new boat.

      Confession time- I’m one of the few who don’t care for the smell of Tea Tree Oil. Many boaters swear by it. Once I was on a boat with so much Tea Tree Oil, it made my eyes burn.

      Thus said, try it and see how you like adding Tea Tree to the mixture. Or, even better idea so you don’t waste your oil- clean with the less expensive ingredients first. Once the space is clean, spray with vinegar & tea tree mixture onto a fresh clean sponge for final wipe down. This would maximize the effect of the tea tree oil. Happy New Year! Carla

      • Hey Carla. Your recommendation sounds like a plan. Give the whole boat a cleaning with the Dawn, vinegar and water, dry, then perhaps a light wipe with a really light tea tree mixture, particularly in out of sight spots. I’ve read that tea tree oil really needs to be thoroughly rinsed off, particularly it there are animals aboard. Have two kitties that we will be trying some liveaboard and sailing with. Keep posting!

  • Oh yes, I do know that smell!! With having an open, day-sailor, it smells of the rubber of the inflatable bow bag, but that quickly passes after removing the cover and letting in the breezes. You have put so much work into SV Mahi and you are so close to casting off!!! Smart to take care of the odors…I couldn’t get used to that smell!! Happy New Year!

    • With my bloodhound nose, I knew the smells would disturb my harmony. 🙂 I get teased quite a bit about how clean I want things. Once done, then everyone notices the difference. 🙂 Happy 2016 to you!!

  • Thank you so much for these tips, the smell in my boat has been driving me nuts because I have a strong sense of smell. The hubby doesn’t help me in the quest to eliminate smells because he has no sense of smell at all. I’ve used soap and water top to bottom, it would seem I need to add vinegar to the mix.

    In our aft cabin there are wood drawers under the bed with the holding tank behind them. It’s like the smell is embedded in the wood. Any advice for these drawers? I’m almost ready to take the measurements and build new ones… I wonder if sanding them down a little could help the situation.

    • Ayla, appreciate your comment. My DH also has no sense of smell, so I had to endure a bit of teasing. Yes, add in the vinegar to your solution. A few thoughts about your smelly wood situation. A fellow WWS member used Kilz ( to seal her wood. Kilz will help block the odor, too.

      Another great idea is from my friend, Harriet (, she suggested placing fabric softener sheets in dry nooks and crannies all over her boat. Good luck! Let me know how it goes. 🙂

  • We are just about to start the process of trying to get to the bottom of our boat’s not so pleasant smells! It’s a twenty year old boat and although Doug bought it new, it’s spent a little too long sitting around unattended in various parts of the world so we’re trying to make up that for now. Thanks for all the tips. We’re really wanting environmentally friendly solutions too – haven’t used Dawn before, need to look into that. Fingers crossed! I’ll keep you posted!!

  • i got rid of my boat smells by painting all the wood and veneer inside. i sanded, primed, and painted everything white and voila–no smells. it’s nice and light now instead of all that nasty brown color and the interior looks twice as big. love, love, love it. i also make sure the bilges are clean.

  • Used coffee grounds are good for absorbing odors, not just masking them.
    I usually put the grounds in a bowl, which I leave in the head until my next pot of coffee, at which time I replace the old with the new. It really makes a difference!!!

    • Yes, I have found vinegar everywhere we cruise. We keep a couple of gallons on board. Also pour it down drains and heads, as well.

  • Thanks, for the great post. We just bought our first boat and we are so excited, but also know we need to clean and keep it clean. No problem with doing that. Love your cleaning hints and WILL be using. Thanks again!

  • Carla, Great information on odours! We have that funky boat smell did new upholstery a few years ago but did steam the foam at that time. I guess I might take off the upholstery and gently wash it and steam it and replace the top batting. We try and keep our bilge clean but never thought of the diesel hose and we know our forward head hoses need to be done. I read on WWS site about pouring coffee grinds down the head to help with that. I did it last weekend and will continue to try this for our tank smell. I do put our grinds down the sink to keep our lines clean and fresh. Once we open the boat it does freshen up but I know the smell is still there. I have the dryer sheets in cupboards for our clothes but we use it weekends only now and then one month for summer vacation. Hoping to solve this issue. Thanks for the tips
    S/V Secondwind
    Georgian Bay Ontario Canada

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