Oooh, That Smell

Eagle Too isn’t being used much while we’ve been focusing on our house, but she cannot be ignored. We try to make the half-hour drive to the marina at least once a week to check her dock lines, inspect her bilges, and verify that the air conditioning is still doing its job.

So it’s noon on Sunday, it’s Africa hot, there’s not a breath of wind, the humidity is a miserable 99%, but I’m reveling in the moment, because out of the entire 168 hours that make up the week, I’m going to spend the next 30 minutes on our boat! Thirty minutes that will have to get me through at least another week.

As I head up the dock, my eyes are aloft, inspecting the rigging for anything amiss. Reaching the stern, I pat her affectionately and say “Hello, Eagle Too!” before climbing aboard. We’re still in the process of getting to know one another, and I feel I owe her this courtesy. Stepping onto the swim platform and climbing into the cockpit, I scan her decks to make sure the outboard is still firmly locked to the rail, the dinghy is still securely lashed in place, and no part of the shore power cable has slid into the water.

Dialing the combo on the companionway lock, I pop it free and push open the slider. And Oh. My. God.

Every boat has its own unique aroma. Back in my submarine driving days, “boat smell” was that distinctive blend of ozone, lube oil, amine, diesel fuel, sweat, and cooking grease that permeated every person, place, and thing onboard. After returning from the ship, I and everything I wore exuded it.

On sailboats, it seems that boat smell still builds on a classic foundation of diesel fuel and machinery odors, accented with notes of permeated sewage lines and decaying bilge water, with highlights of mold and mildew. In short, a stinky funk. With the boat shut up and baking in the hot Florida sun, there just isn’t enough air exchange to keep her smelling April fresh, even with the air conditioning running.

This isn’t a quick 30 minute visit after all. I need to do something about this. Time to break out the bible of battling boat smell:


If you’re struggling with trying to root out the source of some nasty funk, this book is a great guide. We’ve already deduced that we have three main problems on our new boat. Number one is that all the sanitation lines are original. Which means they’re 17 years old. Which means they’ve got to go. But that’s not a job for an afternoon, or probably even a weekend. That’s a job for the off season, when a front is blowing through and we’re pinned to the dock cursing the cold weather. Besides, this doesn’t smell quite like that. It’s something else. Not diesel either — you can’t miss that smell, which will quickly coat every surface onboard with an odoriferous oily film if you have even the slightest weep of fuel from a fitting somewhere. No, this has to be coming from one of our other two odor generators.

First is the shower sump. Unlike a house, there’s no sewer system on a boat for gray water to drain away. When we take a shower, the dirty, soapy water goes here:


Some of it just sits there, while the rest drains to this:


Once this enclosed box gets full, the float switch trips on the small pump to push the water overboard.

Now this may work great if you take a shower every day. You’d be pushing plenty of new dirty water through the system, replacing the old dirty water before it can get funky. But we’re not currently using the boat much, and so that old shower water is just sitting there for weeks on end. Water that’s full of soap and body oils, an extremely fertile medium for growing nasty stuff.

So my long-term plan is to replace this whole thing with one of the new Intelligent Control shower waste pumps from Whale.


If you’re interested, you can read about them here:

Whale Marine Grey/Shower Waste System

Basically, when the electronic sensor in the drain sees water, it turns on the pump until the water is gone. There’s no storage box that holds a quart of water to ferment between showers, and the pump is a diaphragm type, so it won’t choke on hair that happens to go down the drain. If you’ve ever seen how long and thick Rhonda’s hair is, you’ll realize what a good feature that is!

But again, that’s for another time. For now, let’s just clean everything with a little bleach and dry it.

Our other olfactory offender is our incredibly deep bilge. I can’t even reach the bottom when lying on the deck, and I have a six-foot wingspan!


I’m pretty sure that water shouldn’t be black. I think I’ve found our problem. With no mop on board, the only option for now is to drag the fresh water hose from the pier down into the cabin and give the bilge a good thorough flush. It’s not a solution, but it will have to do for now. When we finally have time to work on the boat again, I’ll have to figure out some way to reach down there and give everything a good scrub.

You may be thinking “Why is there water down there? Is your boat leaking?” Why yes. Yes it is. The seal around the propeller shaft leaks about a drop or two of seawater a minute when the boat is sitting. It’s designed to do that. It might not sound like much, but a drop or two a minute for 43,200 minutes (a month’s time) really starts to add up. Most of the water, though, is actually condensation that drains from the air conditioner. I’ve got a plan for that someday as well:mermaid_condensator

It’s called a condensator. You install it in the seawater cooling line for the air conditioning evaporator, and it uses the venturi effect to suck the condensate out of the drain pan and send it overboard. More info here if you’re interested:

Mermaid Condensator

So you boat owners out there may find some of this useful. The rest of you probably just learned way more than you wanted to know about gray water. But I think it’s important that you realize that there’s a lot more to Life On The Hook™ than warm summer breezes and sunset Pina Coladas. A big part of living the sweet life afloat is dealing with things that dirt dwellers rarely have to consider. Like what to do with the old shower water when you’re done using it!

Till next time…

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