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Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Identify and Eliminate the Source of Boat Odor: A Fun Guide for Boating Enthusiasts

Banish boat odors for good with these expert tips, from tackling mold and mildew to checking the bilge and upholstery, ensuring your vessel smells as fresh as the open sea.

So you’ve finally got the time off work to enjoy a long day of sailing. The wind is happily blowing through your hair, and the scent of fresh air fills your lungs as you survey the waters ahead. Then suddenly, you take a sharp turn and experience foul smells that belong in the back of a carny’s caravan for the local fairgrounds.

Every boat enthusiast knows that unwanted boat odors can put a massive damper on your day. The array of musty smells from standing water or forgotten food items can lead to foul odors lingering in your vessel for months.

Before hiring an expert team to eliminate odors from your smelly boat, try a few of these tricks and completely eliminate the unpleasant smells you never want to experience again.

Tip 1: It's Mold Time!

Mold and mildew are sneaky little creatures that love to camp out on your boat. With so many liquids sloshing around your vessel, mildew is a common cause of boat smells. You want to look for standing water sitting around the usual and unusual places like fabric seats, dark corners of your hull, and under the cushion covers. You may be surprised how many strange places mold and mildew can hover.

Tip 2: The Bilge Drill

Boat smells from the bilge? Oh, that’s no surprise! If you've never inspected your bilge, brace yourself. Stagnant water and grease can be a deadly combo. To eliminate these bad odors, you will need a solid degreaser and some hard effort. Get down into the nitty gritty and give that bilge a thorough cleaning. You can also use a homemade combination of vinegar and warm water in a pinch if you need to deal with everything from the shower sump to the hull bilge.

Tip 3: Head's Up!

The head (or the toilet, for the landlubbers) can be a hotspot for boat odor. From faulty valves to a problematic holding tank, these issues can turn your lovely boat into a stinky mess. You will want to regularly inspect the moisture from collecting in sanitation hoses and be on the lookout for leaks or other surfaces that have additional buildup.

The toilet and shower are frequent suspects when it comes to gross smells on your vessel. Worst comes to worst; add some bleach solution and air fresheners to avoid these issues.

Tip 4: Leaks: The Silent Culprits

 Water is a boat's best friend and, sometimes, its worst enemy. Leaks can lead to moisture, which can then lead to... you guessed it, mold and mildew. You will want to schedule frequent checks of the hull, engine compartment, stuffing box, and, yes, even the anchor locker. Remember, a small leak today is a tidal wave of troubles tomorrow that can be both costly to repair and smelly to deal with when you should be relaxing on a fishing trip instead.

Tip 5: Freshen Up the Fabrics

Those comfortable seats might be hoarding bad odors. The cabin's upholstery can trap bad smells, especially if they've gotten wet or damp. It's time to air dry everything, use some fabric softener and show that upholstery some love.

Pro Tip: A fun and creative way to air-dry your boat is to add a linen line. When you’re docked, you can rest your fabrics, clothes, and water sport gear (wetsuits, flippers, etc.) on the line to dry as well. You’ll find many international voyagers use this trick. 

Tip 6: Hoses and More

From intake and exhaust hoses to the little ones you never knew existed, these can degrade over time. Inspect them! A worn-out hose can be a prime source of those lingering odors and potential harm to your vessel. Go and watch where rain gathered around the house. You’ll likely find all kinds of stagnant water in backyard hoses – your boat is no different.

Practical Solutions to Combat Boat Odors

Air It Out: Nothing beats fresh air for kicking out foul smells. Ensure good air circulation on the boat. Whether it’s through air conditioning or simply keeping air moving, ensure you’ve got a breezy atmosphere going by adding ventilation around your boat in the critical areas of smelly build-up.

The Cleaning Regiment: If you’re not already on a frequent cleaning schedule, start now. This is no time for shortcuts. Consider environmentally friendly disinfectant sprays, and remember to check those food lockers for leftovers from the last Memorial Day weekend boating party.

The Green Cleaning Crew: Use environmentally friendly disinfectant cleaners. It's not only good for the environment but also super effective against those boat smells. You get peace of mind you aren’t harming the waterways you love, and the world gets a little extra consideration.

No Free Rides: Never leave food or fish scraps on your boat. You might be giving unpleasant smells a free ride. Always clean up and keep your boat smelling fresh. Start by telling your passengers what is and what is not allowed on your vessel (politely, of course).


How do you get rid of the smell of a boat?

The key is regular and thorough cleaning, especially in mold-prone areas. Use fresh water, environmentally friendly disinfectants, and ensure proper ventilation. Checking fabric areas and surfaces regularly also helps prevent mold and odors from building up in your faulty valves or other surfaces.

What is that boat smell?

That 'distinct' boat smell can be a mix of mold, mildew, stale water, and sometimes, the previous day's catch. Regular cleaning can help eliminate this. It helps if you identify the smell first. This may take some experience, but knowing what a week-old trout smells like compared to a wetsuit that never got dry matters.

How do you get rid of the smell in a boat cabin?

Start with air fresheners and a good airing out. Check for mold, give the upholstery a deep clean, and consider a chlorine dioxide gas treatment if the problem persists. You will want to contact pros if none of these suggestions work out well.

How do you get the smell out of a boat bilge?

Regular cleaning, especially with vinegar or bleach solution, can work wonders to eliminate boat odors. Ensure it's dry to prevent mold, and never use a chemical that will damage the working parts or sealants of your bilges.


Boating should be all about the open sea, freedom, and fresh breezes, not about battling foul odors. Hopefully, these tips and answers to your questions will get you well on the way to a fresh-smelling waterway voyage. Get rid of those unwanted boat odors for good and embrace the beauty of Mother Nature on the water.

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