Boat Test: Columbus - the winner of Crick 2015
- Credit: Archant
Boating Leisure Services won at Crick last year and now this traditional but contemporary, clever tug has done it again
If you think the photo of the Boating Leisure Services staff holding a silver platter and a bottle of champagne to celebrate their boat’s win at the Crick Show looked familiar last month, it’s because it was. Last year their boat Shackleton won the public vote for the favourite boat; this year, Columbus repeated the success. Winning once is an achievement, winning twice in two years is remarkable (and that’s without taking into account that the team’s first boat, shown two years ago, achieved second place).
There are some similarities between Columbus and Shackleton, particularly inside. BLS’s boat-fitter, James Attwood, has developed a distinct (and winning) style, so there’s similar woodwork, a stylish galley and a smart shower room. But in other ways there are radical differences - not least that this boat is a tug, with an interesting and appealing layout. Indeed, while the outside looks very traditional, this is a very modern way of fitting out a tug and contrasts well with last month’s test of the Steve Hudson tug, Brigand. This boat is proof that you can have a traditional looking boat, without having to have a vintage engine or a back cabin.
Columbus is based on a Tyler Wilson tug, and it really is a thing of beauty. It doesn’t really matter which angle you look at it from, either. From the front, you get the benefit of seeing the Josher style bow; from the side you can see the rise in the gunwales and roofline towards the stern; and from the back you can see how the rise continues through the counter.
But there’s more to enjoy when you look at the details. There are rings on the forward bulkhead, scrolls in the handrails, a boatman’s beam across the roof and a riveted panel in the roof to make you think an engine has been lowered through. The tug deck and counter have a plank effect, there are anser pins on the gunwales and recessed panels at the stern carrying the boat’s name and number. Three pigeon boxes on the roof emphasise the traditional look -- but, in fact, they all have double glazed lights.
The portholes are also double glazed and are single openers so there’s no bar across the middle of the glass. The brass headlight and horn came from Tony Redshaw in Braunston, as did the mushroom vents, which are flat rather than domed. The colour scheme looks classic but contemporary with black borders, a white coach line and blue panels. The name panels are red, while the gunwales, decks and roof are raddle red. The paintwork was by Mike Looby at Heyford Fields, with sign-writing by Darren Williams.
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The gas locker is in the nose and the water tank is under the tug deck, surrounding a bedroom down there and it holds an impressive 670 litres. There are shoreline connection points at the bow and stern but, of course, one downside of using the under-tug-deck space for a room is that there’s minimal outside storage space. You might have to think about where you’re going to keep your hosepipe, for example.
LAYOUT AND FIT-OUT
Many people say they like the shape of tugs, but struggle with the loss of cabin space because of the long deck. But Columbus uses that space for an extra bedroom. The rest of the boat follows a standard layout, with the saloon at the bow followed by a breakfast bar and the galley. A walk-through shower room is next, with the main cabin at the stern.
The fit-out adopts the style that has become something of a Boating Leisure Services trademark: solid oak is used throughout, with shadow gap tongue and groove below the gunwales and painted cabin sides above. There’s more shadow gap on the ceiling and the floor is also solid oak. All the oak furniture is made to a very high standard –it looks both solid and stylish.
Access to the bedroom under the tug deck is pretty special, because at first sight you wouldn’t know it was there. Entering the boat from the tug deck you walk into the saloon down three steps, all of which provide storage, including a wine store. To one side there’s a heated cupboard with an umbrella stand and a glazed cupboard above. There’s a similar arrangement on the other side. What’s clever is that the steps slide into one of the cupboards, allowing entry to the under-deck room. They run on heavy duty castors and are kept on track by guide runners.
As this is a space under a tug deck, there was never going to be massive headroom, but it still feels like a proper room. It’s lined with the same tongue and groove as the rest of the boat and there are cubby holes all around for storing things. There are electrical sockets, some of which include USB ports for charging, and connections for a TV in one corner.
As we’ve said, the water tank surrounds the room so it’s pretty well insulated. There’s heating in the form of finrads under wooden grates at the entrance and ventilation at the bow.But what makes it really special is the glass panel in the tug deck which floods the space with light. It’s the sort of glass used for the floors of observation decks, such as at the top of the Blackpool Tower. It’s well over an inch thick and is surrounded by colour-change LED lights, eventually it will have a blind too. This room means there’s a permanently available second bed, which many owners would find useful, and it would make a great child’s bedroom.
The saloon itself has plenty of space for a large sofa. Opposite, there’s a unit with a TV on top and cupboards below, and more of the useful sockets complete with USB ports. There’s also LED under gunwale lighting, which can be set to any colour you like (or, indeed, to sequence through the colours, disco style). Each set is controlled by a shiny black panel. A couple of bar stools offer somewhere to sit at the breakfast bar, which also has a door hiding a washing machine.
This is a very smart looking galley, with seemingly acres of granite worktop and a stainless steel sink with a stylish tap. Underneath there’s a fridge, a six-setting dishwasher (which uses just seven litres of water - less than you’d use washing up) and a magic corner cupboard with a light inside. The oven and four-burner hob are by Caple, as is the impressive angled extractor fan – which even has a remote control –above. There are high level cupboards and a plate rack, with internal lights turned on by simply touching the hinges.
A quadrant shower is the main feature of this walk-through room; it’s lined with laminate and has an ‘infinity’ shower tray that appears to have no drain. The mixer has a digital display that shows water temperature and the time, so you can see whether you’re late for your rendezvous with your locking partners (or work, depending on circumstances).Alongside there’s a large pullout shelving unit. The lower fixed shelves have the shower pump behind, and can be pulled out if access is needed. On the opposite side there’s a unit with a basin and storage, and a Vetus macerater loo. The flooring is Flotex, which is both hard-wearing and waterproof.
The bed is in line and extends thanks to a pull out platform. The whole thing lifts on gas struts to reveal a large, carpeted, and illuminated storage area. The bottom half of the bed base contains the loo holding tank. As it covers the whole area of the bed, it’s slightly more on one side of the boat than the other, but experiments with filling the tank have shown it hardly affects the trim. The calorifier is also under here.
At the head of the bed there’s a useful shelf that lifts to reveal storage space. There are high level cupboards above with reading lights turned on by more touch switches. At the foot of the bed there’s a chest of drawers and a wardrobe. Unusually, there are no windows in the cabin. Instead there’s one of the double glazed pigeon boxes in the roof and side doors on both sides. The cabin is also open-plan to the stern. Steps lead up over the engine to the back counter, while the electrical cupboards are on the other side.
Columbus is powered by a Beta 50, a rather bigger engine than you might expect in a 60ft boat. It’s a decision made largely because of the very hefty electrical system on board. This is believed to be the first narrowboat in the UK to have Victron lithium batteries. There are four, each of 160Ah, so there’s a very substantial amount of power available. What’s more, the boat has a 24-volt system rather than a 12-volt one (Boating Leisure Services are long time proponents of 24v because it’s more robust and offers better performance), so each appliance pulls half the current.
The advantages of lithium batteries are that you can run them right down to empty. That gives you twice the available power of lead acid batteries, which are damaged if they go below 50 percent. What’s more, lithiums continue to deliver their full voltage right up to the last moment. If you had a more everyday set-up, with lead acid batteries and 12v and wanted an equivalent output, you’d need a battery bank totalling 1400Ah.
Lithium batteries charge very quickly, too. This bank can go from zero to 100 percent charged in three hours. And that brings us back to the Beta 50 which is fitted with two 100-amp alternators, to charge the domestic bank. Lithium batteries have had something of a bad press in the recent past, having caught fire on some aircraft. Of course, the batteries on a narrowboat aren’t used anywhere near as close to their limits as the ones on passenger jets. And there’s a clever box of tricks that continually monitors them, including what’s going in, and what’s coming out. It can shut down the alternators or the batteries if it senses something is amiss.
One major disadvantage with lithium batteries at the moment is the initial outlay. Each of the four batteries cost £1500, a significant part of any budget. But it looks less expensive when you consider that they should last a good 15 or 20 years; in some uses, they’re said to last up to 30 years. And the likelihood is that when they need to be replaced in a couple of decades, the price of such batteries will have dropped significantly as the technology is more widely used. To turn the 24 volts into a 240v supply there’s a 5kW Victron Quattro inverter. This is also part of a clever system for when you’re connected to shore power because it can combine the shoreline with the battery output, providing 9kW of power available at any one moment. Put simply, this is one of the most advanced electrical systems we’ve ever seen on a narrowboat.
At first sight, access to the engine looks a little tricky because it’s fairly tightly boxed in, but the covers are all removable. For everyday tasks, the two engine boards are a reasonable size and easy to lift. For bigger jobs, the steps can be dismantled and the side panel removed. Heating is from an Eberspächer diesel boiler. It’s fitted with the EasyStart Call system, so it can tell you remotely what the temperature on the boat is, and you can use your phone to turn on the warmth.
ON THE WATER
There can’t be many better ways to spend a sunny day than steering a fine looking tug along our waterways. And, as you might expect from a Tyler Wilson shell, this one handles extremely well. It responds to the tiller and turns very well. It’s also is fitted with the latest version of the Axiom propeller, so there’s very little wash, and the boat stops quickly when you put it into reverse.
The Morse control is comfortably placed and has the button for the Vetus bow thruster on it. It’s a 75kgf model, which really delivers some grunt. The other switches, such as headlight and nav lights, are also easy to see and reach.
Tugs are very appealing – they’ve won at Crick before and almost certainly will again. And this one is particularly attractive: the traditional exterior looks the part, while the inside has the contemporary, high quality look and feel that people like. And then there’s the element that really makes it stand out, the extra bedroom under the tug deck. At the show, you could see people were excited by it and the glass panel. And that’s why they voted for it. So how much does a boat like this cost? Columbus is priced at £158,000 and that’s a significant amount of money (although there were boats at the show costing considerably more), but for that you get a high quality boat for your cash, a superb shell with fantastic detailing, a well thought out layout, top drawer fit-out and very advanced electrics. But perhaps what’s more important is that this is a boat it’s very easy to fall in love with – and when a boat can make you smile every time you think about it, it really is a winner.