Columbia8250BBy Pat Sturgeon

An Australian America’s Cup designer, Alan Payne, designed the Columbia 8.7. It was one of a series of yachts in the new cruiser line of boats, deemed the "wide body super cruisers", built by Columbia. The Columbia 8.7 has a turbulent production history. The first 8.7s rolled off the line in 1976, but in 1978 Columbia closed down because of labor problems. In 1979 Howard Hughes, from Hughes Boat Works, picked up all the molds and brought them to Centralia near London, ON. Hughes went into receivership in 1982. Aura Yachts then took over until 1986, at which point Hughes took the line back again. After this, Hughes built a few more 8.7s, until a fire destroyed his factory in Orangeville.

Alan Payne was somewhat ahead of his time when he designed this hull shape. The unique wine glass transom and flat sheer was a look that people tended to either love or hate, and the 10-foot beam, carried well aft, was a design feature that didn’t become popular until the mid-eighties. But the Hughes’ acquisition paid off, and the 8.7’s debut at the Toronto Dockside show in 1979 was a big hit. Buyers found it was one of the few boats to offer over six feet of head room in a boat less than 30 feet in length. Hughes was also offering hot and cold pressure water with a shower, 110-volt shore power with a built in battery charger along with a diesel inboard. The base boat even came complete with sails. The only compromise on style was the rather high coach house (to achieve the 6’ 1" headroom), which needs some getting used to, or as Aura versions did, some deceiving sleek ports to make her look less porky top-sides. On the Water

My first experience sailing the 8.7 was in the summer of 1980. I was doing a sea trial for a couple of potential buyers, while working for Hughes Columbia’s Port Credit division. It was a typical Lake Ontario sailing day; we left about 3 p.m., and ended up coming back after midnight. While on the water, we experienced every possible wind condition under 20 knots and sailed her at all points. The most impressive performance feature, I discovered, was the way the boat tracked with the helm locked. It basically sailed by itself on a beam reach for over two hours. Although this is quite typical of well-balanced full keel boats, the Columbia has a modified keel with a partially skegged rudder, which provides for better off-the-wind performance. In light winds you might find yourself looking for more sail to put up, as it feels quite heavy, but in anything over 10 knots the boat comes to life, and the symmetrical underbody with the wineglass transom glides through the water, leaving very little turbulence behind her With an average PHRF of 200, it is not a boat for the racers, but cruisers of all abilities will appreciate the winning combination of performance and ample amenities. And with the accommodation of a floating cottage, the Columbia 8.7 will help ward off two-footitis for a good while. The rig

Characteristic of its design era, the rig is a low-aspect sail plan totaling 424 sq. ft. between main and jib. A long boom supports the massive main sail, and the mast is deck stepped with a single set of spreaders. Hughes used a Cinkel painted spar, which boasts internal halyards, built in wiring conduits and an integral pole car track. Although not as well constructed as the similar Isomat mast, the spar is a definite upgrade from the US built boats, which used raw aluminum sections. The shrouds are well inboard to allow for close sheeting, and a strong upwind performance, while the rig is stayed with forward and aft lowers, to keep the mast stable in choppy conditions. The main sheet is located on the bridge deck and has a good sheeting angle with the boom, eliminating the need for more than the standard four-to-one main sheet system.

So what is so special about down below?

It is usually the spacious interior accommodations that convince boat browsers to come back and take a second look, after shopping for other boats in the same price range and size. The steps going down are not a suicide drop, but on a gradual grade. The galley is off to port with plenty of cupboard space and a large, but relatively shallow, ice box so you won’t go missing when you pursue that run-away radish. There is a custom cover over the stove, which provides additional counter space, and slides back and down while the stove is in use. Every possible type of stove has been found on these boats, ranging from two-burner pressure alcohol, to stoves with ovens, and full propane stoves with ovens. The galley has a large single sink with hot and cold pressure water (at least since they were made in Canada). This boat was also one of the first to have a garbage bin built in. Going forward on the port side, there is a long single berth with a foot well for sleeping. Beyond that, in the forward cabin, is a set of drawers and a full hanging locker. You can close off the forward V-berth for privacy and still enjoy good ventilation with opening ports on both sides and the large over-head hatch. The length of the V-berth is a bit short for people over six feet, but it does provide ample storage space underneath and on each side. There is a removable filler piece that enables you to change in privacy with the door closed.

Moving aft again, the head is on the starboard side, across from the drawers and hanging locker. It is a little tight, but all the amenities of larger more expensive boats have been squeezed in. Storage is adequate for most toiletries, but no more. There is hot and cold pressure water with a shower attachment, but the shower creates a bit of a problem, as it drains directly into the bilge. Not a good idea! Most bilge pumps do not macerate so you will likely spend a lot of time unclogging them.

The saloon has a roomy feel to it because the main table folds up and into a recessed cavity with a book shelf on the bulkhead, beside which, is a concealed bar that pops out. The starboard double is designed for basketball players. It is joined to the quarter berth with a small variance in height (which a cushion would easily fix), and folds out to a full double. Each settee has a swing-up, hinged back that increases the bunk width and provides ample storage for bedding when it is not in use.

If you lucky enough to find a brochure on the Columbia 8.7, you will see that it shows a swing down chart table at the quarter berth. The Canadian versions do not have this, instead, the quarter berth has been widened to the width of, and dare I say it, a comfortable twin.

Now you are probably thinking something must suffer as the result of all these amenities, and the engine compartment would seem the logical choice. But you would be wrong in this assumption. Engine access is simply a matter of removing the steps, sliding the bottom of the storage compartment above the engine out, and then removing the two front panels. This arrangement ensures full accessibility to the front, and sides of the engine. Hughes and Aura thoughtfully put a 12-volt light in the engine area, so you can always see what you are doing when servicing the engine. Most boats came with the standard 15-horsepower, twin-cylinder Yanmar diesel. Hughes offered an upgrade to the 22.5 horsepower three-cylinder Yanmar. The older ones built in the US by Columbia had either the Atomic gas engine or the Volvo MD 7 A, a 13-horsepower diesel. I have seen a rare 18-horsepower Volvo 2002 diesel on a later Aura-built boat once. The shaft is a bit light as it is only ¾ of an inch instead of the more common 1" thickness.

The electrical system is probably the most unique thing about the Canadian-built Columbias. Hughes used a converter instead of a separate charger to provide the 12-volt source. What this means is that when you plugged into shore power, (a standard feature on all boats) the 12-volt system for the boat actually runs off of the converted 110 volt AC current, which is half-wave rectified, while at the same time, a built in 15-amp battery charger charges your batteries. The advantage of this is that you do not have to worry about your battery charger having to do double the duty to charge the batteries while you are draining them with your house circuits. The disadvantage is that you get a 60-cycle hum from your stereo if it is a typical automotive set up for the high frequencies of a car’s ignition. The 12-volt refrigeration and instruments do not like this impure DC voltage either, and tend to act radically as a result. The solution however, is simple. Connect your stereo and refrigeration directly to your battery terminals, and wait until you unplug to go sailing before you trust your instruments. Construction

The Columbia’s hull is solid, hand laid glass, and the deck is a balsa sandwich construction. The interior is all teak, comprising of some solid components and marine ply, (only the deck head is a fiberglass liner). During construction the entire interior is clamped to a massive jig and lowered inside the hull where the bulkheads are bonded to the hull and the stringers are glassed the full length. This, along with the hull shape, keeps the boat free of distortion while underway. Prospective buyers should be aware that the decks are known to leak around the toe rail and windows, primarily due to the lack of proper caulking at the factory. The Hughes Columbia 8.7 has been the sleeper of the used-boat market over the past 8-10 years. It is commonly confused with the Hughes 29, and the manufacturer’s tumultuous history deterred some buyers. Because of this, the value of the boats has stayed relatively low, making it a bargain in today’s market. The price for a Columbia 8.7 from 1980 and on is between $30,000 and $40,000 depending on condition and age.

Originally published in Canadian Yachting's Spring 1997 issue.

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