Fresh atmosphere onboard is essential

Mar 3, 2015 by Alene Keenan

An important aspect of getting a yacht ready for a boat show is creating an inviting atmosphere for prospective guests or future owners who come to see the vessel. One of the things people focus on when they step inside is whether they feel comfortable. The first impression visitors get — and the one that is the most difficult to control — is the odor that greets them when they walk onboard.

Boats are often full of funky odors. The air in staterooms can get stale. Graywater and blackwater holding tank systems can affect the smell of a yacht. There are cooking odors, chemical odors, and just general “life onboard” odors.

Most of the time, though, the main culprit is mold and mildew. It is hardly surprising that it is so prevalent on yachts when you consider the circumstances: wet, warm, dark. How could mold go wrong?

Mold grows in various environments, from refrigerators to air handlers. It flourishes in tropical climates, because the conditions are almost always perfect. In more temperate climates, mold spores go dormant when conditions are unfavorable. When it gets too dry or cold, mold cannot proliferate.

Mold spores thrive on organic materials and especially love paper, wood, and other organic matter. A chemical byproduct of mold that grows on items that are stored is called geosmin and may be the source of that prevalent “musty” smell on yachts.

So what’s a stew to do? The only way to remove a smell is to remove the source. Moisture level is the component that must be controlled, and that is difficult on a boat. Running a dehumidifier is the best way to ensure that the humidity registers between 40 and 55 percent. There are also small, renewable silica gel units that absorb moisture from the air especially well in guest and crew cabins and bathrooms.

Once the interior is dry, all surfaces should be washed and dried to remove mold and mildew spores. There are different ways to clean the interior surfaces. Some are better for air quality than others. Vinegar is a natural microbial cleaner but it should only be used in the proper dilution with water and in well-ventilated areas. Vinegar releases acetic acid into the air and lingering fumes can irritate the lining of the nose, throat and lungs. Over time it can corrode interior surfaces.

All natural pH neutral soaps will not damage surfaces when used in the proper dilution. Adding a few drops of essential oils such as melaleuca or lavender to a soap-and-water solution intensifies the purification process.

Once surfaces are clean and dry, we need to think about ways to improve and maintain indoor air quality. Indoor air can contain more toxins and chemicals than outdoor air. Many fabrics, carpets and other materials emit harmful chemicals into the air.

In today’s chemical laden world, it is practically impossible to completely avoid harmful toxins. For the remaining chemicals in indoor air, there are some natural options. Four of my favorite techniques for reducing exposure to indoor chemicals are by using bamboo charcoal, plants, salt lamps, and beeswax candles.

Bamboo charcoal works wonders for removing odors and toxins. As it absorbs unpleasant odors, it also dehumidifies the air. It is great for use in closets and in cabinets under bathroom sinks.

The porous structure of high density bamboo charcoal helps remove bacteria, harmful pollutants and allergens from the air and absorbs moisture, preventing mold and mildew by trapping the impurities inside each pore.

They have been scientifically proven to reduce the  amount of formaldehyde, ammonia, benzene, and chloroform gases emitted from everyday items such as paint, carpeting, furniture, air fresheners, chemical cleaners, rubber and plastics. They are toxin free and safe to use around pets and children.

Bamboo charcoal rejuvenates when the bags are placed in sunlight once a month. You can reuse the bags for two years, after which the charcoal can be poured into the soil around plants to fertilize and help retain moisture.

Plants do a really great job of filtering indoor air and I am surprised that they are not used onboard more often. They absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Through studies conducted by NASA with assistance by  Dr. B.C. Wolverton (you can find his book, “How To Grow Fresh Air,” on, scientists have identified many house plants that remove pollutants that are common in cleaning products and personal care products. They also remove gases put into the air through lacquers, varnishes and petroleum products. Research has narrowed down which plants are the best at filtering indoor air. Unfortunately, many do not fit the interior décor design but many of these varieties do well in low light and would add value in crew areas. Here are a few examples: aloe vera, peace lily, snake plant, corn plant, Boston fern, bromeliads and bamboo.

Another useful air purifier is a Himalayan natural crystal salt lamp, which may be lit with candles or electricity. They emit negative ions that remove toxins by bonding with the positively charged ions of air pollutants and can be lit for as long as you like to maintain this purifying effect. They are useful in crew and guest cabins, even at night, because the natural orange glow doesn’t disrupt sleep hormones. A drop of pure essential oil can be added to the salt lamp to be released as it is warmed.

Last but not least, beeswax candles can be burned to clean the air. Paraffin candles are petroleum derived and release chemicals such as benzene, toluene, soot and other chemicals into the air. They are usually artificially scented. These types of candles do more harm than good for indoor air quality and should be avoided.

Pure beeswax candles burn with almost no smoke or scent and clean the air by releasing negative ions into the air. Beeswax candles are especially helpful for those with asthma or allergies and they are effective at removing common allergens like dust and dander from the air. Beeswax candles burn more slowly than paraffin candles and last much longer.

A clean, fresh atmosphere onboard is inviting at any time and is especially important to add that extra touch at boat show time. Many of the odors that are typically found onboard are difficult to control, but with these tips you are guaranteed to feel confident that you are doing your best to maintain a pure, healthy environment with good air quality.

Alene Keenan has been a megayacht stew for more than 20 years. She teaches at MPT in Ft. Lauderdale and offers interior crew training through her company, Yacht Stew Solutions ( Download her book, The Yacht Service Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht, on her site or Comments on this column are welcome at


About Alene Keenan

Alene Keenan is a veteran chief stew, interior training instructor/consultant, and author of The Yacht Guru’s Bible: The Service Manual for Every Yacht.

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