On all of the big boats that I have built (they were all for my own use), people who visited the boats or sailed with us often commented about how fresh they were down below compared with their own boats or others on which they had sailed. I had observed this as well. There was never any diesel smell, never any dank, damp odour and never any need for air fresheners on my own boats. In contrast, many of the other boats were oppressive as soon as I went below, with some rather bad smells.
Most of these boats had been owner-built or owner-completed and they all had large areas of plywood that were unpainted, left as raw timber, under berths, in the bilges etc. My own boats had no exposed timber, not inside lockers, under cabin soles, inside the lazarette, under berths, not anywhere.
So, how does this make such a difference? A boat lives in a wet environment and most are closed up the majority of the time. When the sun is shining, the inside of a boat is much warmer than outside and that warm air soaks up moisture from any water that is in the bilge or elsewhere. Humidity builds up and creates an ideal atmosphere for mould to grow. Mould spores are in the air all around us and waiting to proliferate.
When the air cools in the evening the moisture is wrung out of the air again. It settles as condensation on hull, deck and joinery surfaces throughout the boat. It doesn't care whether they are exposed surfaces that you see whenever you are on the boat or hidden ones that you seldom see. The humidity is everywhere in the boat when it is hot, so condensation settles everywhere when it cools.
The unpainted wood surfaces absorb some of this moisture and hold onto it. It becomes that ideal environment for the mould spores to settle and grow. Once it starts, if left unchecked, the mould will spread throughout the boat and can also be the start of rot problems.
Mould inside the boat can be difficult to kill off. It needs to be killed everywhere and the surfaces must be thoroughly dried then sealed with epoxy or paint so that the cycle doesn't start again. It would have been so much easier to have just painted everywhere when the boat was being built. Sure, painting everything will have added a few weeks to the build time but it will have been worth the extra effort to save the hassles of the future.
The same principle applies to preventing diesel smells. Every big boat has a diesel or oil spill or two in its life.That liquid will soak into any raw timber that it contacts. Once into the surface it is impossible to remove and it will result in diesel or oil smells inside the boat for the rest of its life. If those surfaces had been painted then the problem would never have arisen.
So, what coatings should you use? All surfaces of the hull and deck skins, as well as all associated timber framing (stringers, backbone, beams, sheer clamps etc) must be protected by three coats of epoxy. This should include the perimeter of bulkheads against hull and deck but you may prefer to coat all bulkhead surfaces as well. The epoxy needs to be protected from the attack of UV (even below decks) so I recommend painting over the epoxy with a prime coat, followed by undercoat and finishing coat of paint.
Elsewhere, coat with primer, undercoat and finish coat. That means every timber surface, whether you will see it again or not. If it is a sealed compartment, e.g. inside a swim platform, don't leave it unpainted either. These sealed compartments must be coated inside with three coats of epoxy but you don't need to paint them.
Aside from mould, smell and rot prevention, there are other reasons to paint everywhere.
- Painted surfaces are very easy to clean. You can throw a bucket of water in the bilge or a locker, swill it around and then pump it out, no harm done. Or you can wipe it down with a damp cloth or sponge rinsed in a bucket, very easy.
- Light-coloured paint reflects light, unlike raw timber that absorbs it. The painted compartments are bright and make it easier to find things that have gone astray. A fully painted lazarette is not a dungeon that swallows up tools and other things that will not be seen again until you build up the courage to dive into that dark place in search of lost treasures. That also applies to cabins in the ends of the boat, which are much more bright and habitable if painted in light colours. Clear-finished okoume plywood becomes quite dark, has uninteresting grain patterns and is not as attractive as you might imagine, not by a long way.
So, don't bother to argue with yourself over which surfaces to paint and which to leave raw, just get down to it and paint them all. You can thank yourself later when you reap the benefits.
Allied to this is the need for good ventilation. Strategically positioned ventilators will help to keep the air fresh inside your boat, removing excess moisture and making it a much more pleasant environment for people instead of mould.
Dudley Dix Yacht Design