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Ask Sail: Battling Diesel Fumes

Thanks to a number of maintenance errors made by its previous owner, my sailboat smells of diesel fuel. I have cleaned the bilge and corrected the maintenance issues, but the smell still lingers. What do you recommend to get rid of it?
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Luke Freeman of San Mateo, California asks:

Thanks to a number of maintenance errors made by its previous owner, my sailboat smells of diesel fuel. I have cleaned the bilge and corrected the maintenance issues, but the smell still lingers. What do you recommend to get rid of it?

Don Casey replies:

Fuel odors can be difficult to get rid of. If the boat has been closed, the odor may have permeated the boat’s upholstery and other “soft” surfaces. The first trick to try is sun, air and dishwashing detergent. Launder all removable covers, linens and clothes. Put all cushions, mattresses, lifejackets, sails, etc., on deck on a sunny and windy day.

Wipe down the bilge surfaces, the engine compartment, the engine, hoses, fuel lines, cable housings and surfaces of adjacent lockers with dish soap and a sponge. Spray all fabrics, even those you’ve laundered or aired, with the deodorizer Febreze, which is sold in most supermarkets.

Rent or buy a small ozone generator and run it for a couple of hours aboard the closed, unoccupied boat. Ozone is hard on rubber and some plastics, so don’t overdo it. It also may act as a respiratory irritant, so after turning off the generator, air out the boat for a couple of hours before going aboard. The advantage of ozone is that it travels to all parts of the boat and may just solve your problem

If your bilge is deep, there may still be fuel in it. To remove it try using Oil Gone Easy Marine S-200. This contains microorganisms that feed on the fuel, leaving a clean bilge and clear water. Lastly, after taking all necessary measures, let someone else tell you if they smell diesel on your boat. It is easy to get the odor in your head, so that you smell it even after it is gone.

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