Boat test: against all odds
- Credit: Archant
The search for a bespoke boat builder revealed a whole host of premium prices and add-ons but, undaunted, David and Stuart kept looking...
Getting exactly what you want at a price you’re prepared to pay is a challenge in many areas of life – but it’s particularly true when you’re having a boat built. For a start, anything with ‘marine’ in the title seems to command a premium; and then having things bespoke built is understandably more expensive than buying off the shelf.
The battle between specification and price was one the owners of this boat, David and Stuart, ran up against almost immediately. They’d been attracted by hybrid drive – liking the idea of being able to travel silently on electric power, and the fact that the massive battery bank required meant their boat could be gas free. But they quickly discovered that the builders they approached were quoting more than they wanted to pay. And, looking back at previous reviews of hybrid drive boats, it’s true that they’re all around the £180,000 mark.
When they approached builders at the more value end of the market, they discovered a different problem: the price of the boats is often kept down because there are few deviations available from a standard build – so the builder wasn’t willing to put in a hybrid system.
The answer to the conundrum came in the form of Tristar Boats, a company we’ve praised before for building some truly bespoke boats at very competitive prices. Tristar were happy to build a boat with a hybrid drive system, and plenty of other bespoke features – and the price (although still significant) was within their comfort zone.
Ohm from ‘ome is a 57ft boat, built on a shell by Soar Valley Steel Boats. The firm is based at Redhill Marina near the mouth of the River Soar, virtually next door to Tristar Boats, and the two companies have a good working relationship. The steelwork looks good, with smooth sides and crisp corners. In typical Soar Valley style, the bow is sharply pointed and the tumblehome is fairly pronounced. As the owners wanted clean lines, some of the flourishes you find on other boats have been dispensed with. For example there are simple curved ends to the handrails rather than scrolls. Choosing simplicity also helps keep prices down.
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The exterior has a number of special features. The owners wanted a finger grip along the handrails, so there’s more to hold on to and less chance of your hand slipping. There’s a chunky grap handle worked into the forward edge of the cabin, to make it easier to get on and off at the bow, while there are also grab handles set onto the handrails at the stern.
This is a traditional stern boat (something of a rarity these days), but the rear slide is both long and wide so that when it’s open there’s plenty of room for crew; it’s almost like being in a semi-trad. There are taff seats on the stern, and one of them has a rope hook underneath. The tiller is hinged, so you can lift it up to cross from one side of the counter to the other.
This is a gas-free boat, so the locker at the nose is available for storage. The holding tank for the loo is also at the bow, and has a self pump out system built in. The water tank is under the well deck. The well deck itself has lockers both sides to give somewhere to sit, and there’s a flip up table, making this a very usable space.
The colour scheme is a classic blue with cream coachlines and red handrails. The name panels also have a red background. The roof is cream, but quite a lot of it is covered up by four large solar panels, and a sizeable self-seeking satellite dome. There’s also a DAB radio antenna, and one for a 4G wifi router.
All the trim is chrome to give a contemporary look (and for ease of cleaning), while the windows and portholes have simple black frames, and are all double glazed and have a thermal break to help prevent condensation.
Layout and fitout
This is a reverse layout boat , which is relatively unusual with an trad stern. So the engine room is at the stern, followed by the galley. A Pullman dinette comes next, with the saloon beyond. The bathroom (which does actually have a bath) goes across the whole width of the boat, while the cabin is at the bow.
The fitout uses light English oak panels above the gunwales, with vertical oak tongue and groove below, giving some nice texture. The ceiling is also tongue and groove, but painted white except in the cabin. The flooring is a combination of luxury vinyl tiles in the galley, dinette, and bathroom, and carpet in the saloon and cabin.
Entry to the boat from the stern is easier than you might think, thanks to the long rear slide. The engine room, immediately inside the boat, has a large electrical cupboard on one side, and there’s plenty of other space for muddy boots and so on. The long hatch means you don’t have to double yourself over to get down the steps into the galley. The treads lift for storage, and there are cupboards each side; the lower half of these is taken up with the boat’s significant battery bank.
The galley proper has oak cabinets and Hanex acrylic worktops and upstands, with a stainless steel sink. The tap has a water filter.
As this boat has a massive battery bank, all the equipment is electric. There’s a Neff fan oven and a matching microwave set at eye level in a full-height unit, and a Stoves four-ring induction hob. There’s a 240 volt fridge, and a Hoover washer/dryer. That plentiful supply of power means there can also be an electric kettle and a smart coffee machine.
The blinds on the windows are nicely boxed in. There’s also a central ceiling feature, make of oak, with LEDs which flood the ceiling with light.
Dinette and saloon
One of the main requirements for the interior of this boat was that there should be as much storage as possible. The Pullman dinette is raised, so there’s storage in the base as well as under the benches (although one of them also houses the calorifier). It also converts into a guest bed.
As the dinette is a prime working spot, there are sockets underneath, complete with USB ports. A novel addition is an HDMI port, that’s wired to the tv in the saloon. David has digitised his entire DVD collection, and the setup means that all the films stored on his computer can be played on the television.
The saloon has fixed L-shaped seating, with storage drawers underneath; they have push knobs, so they’re flush when not needed. Opposite, there’s a tv unit under the gunwale, with a 32inch tv and some shelves. Alongside is a corner Bubble solid fuel stove with a tiled surround and a double insulated flue. In the opposite corner is a built-in bookcase with shelves and cupboards.
One unusual feature is a bug zapper – the sort of thing you see in a butcher’s shop. Insects are attracted to the blue light and are promptly killed. On its own, it’s not the most attractive thing, but in a stroke of genius Tristar have boxed it in and even inlaid a lightning bolt logo into the wood.
There are plenty of clever and attractive features in this bathroom, not least the waterways map which fills the wall behind the bath. The owners got special permission from Nicholson’s to use their map, which they’ve had printed onto laminate. Their printer went to great lengths to remove the information boxes about the Nicholson guidebooks, which are useful when you’re planning a route, but you don’t need when you’re in the shower.
The bath is set across the boat, and has a rain shower head set into the ceiling. There are two shower curtain rails: the inner one has the shower curtain on it, while the other is used as a towel rail, meaning the towel is kept dry but is easily within reach.
The basin is set into an acrylic worktop, on a unit with cupboards underneath. There’s one high level cupboard with mirrored doors.
The loo is a Matro Marine macerating unit, set across the corner of the room, and with an easy-clean laminate surround. There’s a section of acrylic worktop on the unit which lifts off to give access to the plumbing.
The towel rail is fitted with an electrical element, so it can be used even when the central heating isn’t on.
The cross bed is 5ft wide – and of course has lots of storage in the base. There are bedside cabinets, more cupboards at high level over the head of the bed, and a couple of reading lights. There are also two big wardrobes fitted with rails and shelves.
Ohm from ‘ome, as the name might suggest, is powered by a hybrid system, meaning there’s a diesel engine and an electric motor. It’s the enhanced package from Hybrid Marine, which we’ve seen on a few boats recently, including the winning boat from the Crick show which we looked at a couple of months ago (CB August 2018). The base engine is the familiar Beta 43, while the electric motor gives 10kw of propulsion which is more than enough for most canal conditions; then when the Beta is running, the motor converts itself into a 5kw generator to charge the batteries.
The motor runs off a 48 volt system, so the batteries consist of twenty-four 2 volt cells, amounting to 800Ah at 48 volts. That’s a huge amount of battery storage. The same battery bank at 12 volts would be 3200Ah; for comparison, a typical boat might have four 110Ah batteries. That’s why the boat can be gas free -- there’s more than enough capacity to run domestic electric appliances. The batteries also have a venting and self-watering system.
There’s a separate 12 volt battery bank for things such as the lighting and pumps, and there are further 12 volt batteries for the engine starter and the bow thruster. There’s a Victron 5kw inverter-charger for the main batteries and to provide a 240 volt supply, with a 240v-12v four stage battery charger to charge the 12 volt batteries.
There are four 285 watt solar panels on the roof to help with charging, with a Victron 150/35 MPPT controller. That’s a big solar array, and the owners find it’s enough to mean they don’t have to plug into the shoreline when in the marina. A Victron battery monitor shows exactly what’s going in, what’s going out, and the resultant state of charge.
The bow thruster is a 6kw model by Lewmar. The boat is also fitted with an Axiom propeller, which is claimed to have superior stopping and reversing qualities. And there’s a Fuel Guard fuel polishing system built in to protect against diesel bug. The central heating comes from a Webasto diesel boiler.
On the water
There’s something rather special about travelling along silently on electric power. It feels very different from having a diesel engine throbbing away under the engine boards. You can hear what towpath walkers are saying to you, you can hear birdsong, and you can hear your prop wash.
Another difference is that you can go extremely slowly, if you want or need to. Unlike a diesel engine, the electric motor can be engaged to give you just a little power, meaning you really can creep very slowly past moored boats, for example. A display shows you what percentage of the available power you’re using, and how much electrical charge is being taken. What’s also evident, though, is that moored boaters have little idea how fast you’re going when they can’t hear an engine.
Handling is good, and the Axiom prop does seem to make stopping easier. The Morse control was a little low down for my liking though.
David has a steering step for inside the rear hatch, as the floor is too low. The large rear hatch means there’s plenty of room for crew to join the helmsman.
This is an exceptionally well equipped boat – and we’re not just talking about the hybrid drive system and its huge battery bank. There’s the solar panels, the satellite dome, the Fuel Guard system, the top quality galley appliances. There’s also a lot of built-in furniture.
And yet we know that the owners were determined to stick to their budget. Tristar Boat’s say that if you wanted a boat like this today, it would cost around £150,000 — although they point out that prices of materials and components were considerably lower when Ohm from ‘ome was priced and ordered. It means the owners paid less than that – and a lot less than the £180,000 they could easily have spent; it looks like real value for money.
The secret is the use of smaller firms. Soar Valley Steel Boats and Tristar Boats probably aren’t the names which spring to mind when you’re asked to name a shell builder and a boat fitter, but they clearly both have a lot going for them.
And while it’s true that a hybrid system is more expensive to buy and install, there are savings on diesel (David reckons his consumption is less than half what it would have been) and you don’t need gas. But perhaps most importantly of all, this boat proves it’s possible to have hybrid drive without breaking the bank.
David and Stuart are both now retired, and plan to spend six to eight months on board their new boat, exploring the waterways. Stuart used to work in retail, while David worked for the Royal Household at Sandringham; you can ask him exactly what he did, but he won’t tell you! However, he says he’s travelled extensively round the world, but seen very little of the UK — hence the boat.
David and Stuart’s boating history consists of hiring for many holidays. They began researching for their own boat several years ago, and have been to the Crick Show five years in a row to narrow down their shortlist of builders.
And in spite of David’s highly professional reluctance to spill any Royal beans, he does let slip that at least one member of the family is very jealous of the ability to disappear on the canals for a few months.
Tristar Boats is a family business, based at Redhill near where the River Soar meets the Trent. It’s owned by Jeremy and Michelle Greenwood; Jeremy has a background in woodwork — everything from violin repair to building sets for tv and film, and he’s been building boat’s for 20 years. Michelle is an artist and metal sculptor, and brings a creative flair to the design of the boats — while also getting her hands dirty during the build process.
Tristar builds a mix of boat styles, including narrowboats, Dutch barges, and widebeam. Hybrid boats seem to have taken off in a big way for them. Following Ohm from ‘ome, they’re now also building a hybrid Dutch barge, and an eco narrowboat which will have a hybrid system, in which the owners are hoping to sell shares.
Tristar Boats Ltd, Redhill Marina, Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire NG11 0EB
07759 246551. 07976 097042. Tristarboatsltd@gmail.com
Beam: 6ft 10in
Shell: Soar Valley Steel Boats
Engine: Hybrid Marine
Inverter: Victron 5kw
Bow Thruster: Lewmar 6kw
Galley worktops: Hanex. £price varies depending on design
Stove: Bubble corner.£1000
Bug Zapper: Flymatic www.amazon.co.uk £36.95
Fuel Guard: FGD1120 www.fuel-guard.co.uk £255.00
Total Price: c£150,000
Dimensions for plan – from stern:
Engine Room: 5ft
Bathroom: 6ft 6in