Libby Purves April podcast: Yachts used to smell of tarred twine and paraffin. now they pong, particularly at the start of the season

“Not all boat smells are pleasant, or even, frankly, bearable”

Spring! The first warm days, primroses, zephyrs, dew burning off the warmed grass! So down to the boat, climb on board, survey the pale horizon, throw out your chest, take a deep breath. Wish you hadn’t? Oh dear. Yes. We romantics must bravely face the topic of boat smells.

There was a time – in the world of old gaffers it still exists – when you could rely on a yacht to smell primarily of tarred twine, with a not unpleasant topnote of paraffin. Indeed, when we first took possession of a new-built glassfibre Cornish Pilot Cutter many years ago, the crafty boatyard manager sneaked into her a full roll of tarry string, filling her with a powerful aroma of trustworthy tradition. Shops do this sort of thing – coffee and baking smells – and so do museums: the Jorvik Viking centre even synthesised a smell of ancient Nordic drains.

But modern boats do not have a natural evocative smell, other than the thin chemical epoxy tang of newness. There is nothing warm and tarry to mask other smells. And given the fragility of the early-season stomach, these are an ever-present source of unease, and must be tackled. Indeed our daughter, a sailing refusenik, sometimes recoils when we get back from a damp weekend with an accusing cry: ‘You smell of boat!’ In our defence, this entails no more than a pleasantly musky aroma of mouldering T-shirt with a soupçon of Dittisham mud, due to having left a few clothes in a locker and come home wearing them. Or it might be the slight algal earthiness rising from a sock that didn’t quite make it ashore from the dinghy.

Not all boat smells are evocatively pleasant, or even, frankly, bearable. Diesel is a nauseous horror, and keeping your engine clean and maintained one of the best previsions against mass crew seasickness. But there are worse things. Not for nothing was ‘Bilge!’ once the standard cry of well-bred scorn (before everyone started saying ‘Crap!’).

Even the best-designed boats tend to harbour some deep corner where water, diesel drips and domestic spills collect to breed frisky bacteria and rotten-egg aromas. Bilgex takes much of the horror out of this, as does vigorous pumping on a nice choppy sea, which moves the water around a bit and lets the pump have a suck at it. Indeed, a bit of nice fresh salt water mixed in does help: some of the pongiest boats are the ones that never leave marinas, or stick to flat water.

And talking of rotten eggs, there is the galley. Which is to say, the fridge. There was a time when nobody but plutocrats with staff had a boat fridge, and any lethal organic spillages – milk, egg, gravy – could be chased around immediately, banished overboard on a bit of kitchen-paper or sealed up in plastic bags lashed to the stern-deck. Now the deep, cavernous space beneath the galley top hosts all manner of murky seepage. And if you don’t go at it ferociously and regularly with Milton, not forgetting the fiddly bit behind the fridge, there will come a moment when lifting the lid takes away all appetite. On our boat this is my husband Paul’s vocation: he is, after all, the only one who takes milk in his tea.

I hardly dare mention the heads. One of the great stumbling-blocks when introducing non-sailing friends to weekends afloat is having to break it to them that yes indeed, we will be eating and sleeping within five feet of a functioning lavatory. And that it will be rocking about, so a thorough pumping every time and a meticulous aim by males is in everyone’s interest. So is having a skipper who, like mine, is an acolyte of the great American Peggie Hall (‘the Heads Mistress’) whose book, Get Rid Of Boat Odors, leads him to mysterious rituals involving vinegar, vent lines, incantations etc. No, don’t ask me. It seems to work, but I’ll be on deck, breathing deep. Or perhaps you’ll find me nose-down in a sackful of old sailing shoes to find the guilty ones.


Libby Purves