Dave Smith Reviews the Columbia 34 MkII

When the MKII Columbia 34 MKII first came out it in 1971, it was billed as the boat that “The Seven Sleeper for Seven Footers”, and “The room of a 38 footer for the price you would expect in a 32 footer”. Both slogans capture the allure of the MKII Columbia 34.

The MKII 34 designed by Bill Trip replaced the earlier traditional Columbia 34 with a high freeboard bubble top design that was common to the Columbia 26, 39, 43 and 50. The boat was intended to be a coastal cruiser or weekender for a family of four or more. The sail plan was a simple sloop rig, but could be ordered with a cutter rig. It came standard with a gas burning Palmer P-60 auxiliary, or the optional Ablin diesel. It has an external cast iron bolted on keel and a spade rudder. Shoal draft keels and centerboard keels were also available. Overall it was, and remains a good value on the used boat market.

Layout and Description

The layout of the MKII 34 is pretty typical for boats of its age and size. Forward is the anchor locker, and generously sized traditional V-berth. Some boats were built with drawers under each side of the V-berth, and some just had top access lockers. Under the center of the v-berth there is a large gelcoat storage locker that could be converted into a 100+ gallon water tank. Some boats were also equipped with optional teak cabinets running along the ceiling on each side of the V-berth. All boats had shelves running along the edges of the v-berth with teak pin railing.

Traveling aft, on the port side are two hanging lockers, and on the starboard is the head. There is enough room in the head to be comfortable in most situations. Some boats came with two built in storage drawers, pressure hot and cold water, and a shower. All had a large built in teak storage cabinet, mirror, and six-inch deck opening overhead. The countertops were a part of the interior liner and were finished in gelcoat.

Just aft of the head on the starboard side is a U-shaped dinette that seats 4 adults comfortably. The table is covered with the standard wood grained Formica, has teak fiddles and can be lowered to make a comfortable bed for two.

Across from the dinette is a long settee/couch with a cushion back that can fold up to make a second bunk. Some of the 34’s had portlights in the hull behind the dinette and settees. These are apt to go underwater when the boat heals more that 15 degrees, but were well bedded and rarely leaked.

Aft of the settee on the port side is the galley. There is a single stainless sink, 4 adequately sized teak drawers, a locker under the sink, and two large cabinets built into the side of the boat closed with textured brown sliding plastic doors. There was a gimbaled 2-burner alcohol stove and oven combo unit mounted on aft of the sink. Aft of the stove is the cavernous top loading ice box which drains into the bilge. Working is the galley is hindered slightly by the sloping floor in this area. Engine driven refrigeration and pressure hot and cold water were optional.

On the starboard side across from the galley is a quarter berth, with a large teak navigation desk that opens for storage, and slides aft when not in use. The navigation desk is really a ingenious design that keeps lots of charts and supplies neat and orderly. There are also four built in teak drawers just aft of navigation station.

To service the engine, the fiberglass stairs are removed and access to the Palmer is good.

The cockpit is appropriately sized and can seat 4 comfortably and more with less comfort. Two large lazeretes are accessed through hinged teak lids. The space in the lazerettes is huge and cavernous like the icebox.

The Columbia 34 came with a tiller and a Yacht Specialties wheel was available as on option. She carries 40 gallons of water in the fiberglass integral tank below the port settee, and 30 gallons of fuel in a steel tank which is under the forward portion of the dinette.

Performance Review

The Columbia 34 is not exactly a speed demon, but it will always get you there. For the most part the ride is very dry, and little if any water ends up on deck or in the cockpit.

When motoring with the original Palmer and a two bladed propeller, speeds are usually above 5 kts with an engine speed of 2000 RPM. In these conditions the motor burned a little less than a gallon an hour.

The boat does not have a generous sail plan (about the same sail area as a Columbia 30), so it doesn’t perform well in light air. With the high freeboard, it isn’t as good up wind as some other designs, and it likes to be reefed early when going to windward.

A cute little characteristic of the 34 is that the galley and head sinks slip below the waterline when the boat is heeled beyond 15 degrees, so you learn to close these through hull fittings before sailing or risk letting in a lot of water.

What to look for in a used Columbia 34

The Columbia 34 has some problem areas that are unique to the design, and some which are common to all 28-year-old fiberglass boats.

First and foremost is the decks. Delaminated and rotten plywood cores are very common on these boats, (and almost any 20+ year old boat for that matter). Make sure your surveyor taps out the decks and quantifies the amount of delamination present. Small sections (less than a square foot) of voids are not generally considered a problem, bigger than that can be.

Some 34’s have a balsa cored hull below the waterline. This is apparent by looking in the lazerettes and if the hull has a core, there will be a step increase in thickness of about ¾” around the waterline. If the boat has a core, water can get seep into it and cause the same kind of trouble it does in decks, but worse. Before buying a balsa cored hull make sure have the yard pull a couple of through hull fittings and check the core. Knotmeters and depth meters are the most susceptible and should be checked for sure. Columbia did a good job and removed the core around all the factory installed through hulls. What you have to watch out for, are the ones a previous owner, or a boat yard installed.

Keel bolts on all the Columbia boats of the 70’s era are always something to look out for. Often the studs, nuts and channels are in terrible looking condition. Commonly when the studs are descaled they still have adequate threads, and all that needs to be done is to cut off the nuts, install new channels, washers and nuts. If the studs are too far gone however, new studs will need to be drilled and tapped into the keel. Accessibility to some of the nuts and bolts is very limited, so make sure your surveyor looks at them carefully to determine how far the repair has to go.

The bulkhead spacing in the rear of the boat is a bit sparse. The result is some boats are rather “flexible” in this area, and permanent oil canning has been observed on some boats. Make sure your surveyor checks the hull in this area for delamination and structural integrity.

The mast on the Columbia 34 is deck stepped with a large solid teak compression post on the inside. Several of the Columbia 34’s I’ve seen have shown signs of deck compression in this area. Cracked gelcoat or a head door that doesn’t shut are telltale signs that the deck is crushed in this area or sagging a little. It’s not the end of the world, but something to discuss with your surveyor.

The lower shrouds on the Columbia 34 are attached to the deck with large backing plates. Attaching shrouds this way is not as strong as attaching them to a bulkhead or directly to the hull. If the gelcoat around the backing plates is cracked, it is an indication that the deck is flexing a lot in this area, probably caused either by delamination, or water intrusion into the core of the deck.

Projects or areas for improvement:

Although the Columbia 34 is cavernous inside, it lacks extensive storage space. It is adequate for short trips, but for long term cruising or living aboard, there are some unused areas in the boat that are well worth opening up.

There is significant dead space behind the dinette cushions. Although the original cushions were screwed to the fiberglass seat backs, a more efficient method is to attach them with two inch Velcro and use a jig saw or saber saw to cut out a square opening behind each cushion. This is great storage for canned goods or equipment. Similar storage is available behind the port settee, and the bathroom mirror.

A quarter sheet of ¾” teak plywood can be installed over the foot of the quarter berth which allows storage above the lower portion of the bunk. If this is done properly the navigation desk will still slide under it.

A flexible water tank can be installed under the floor in the v-berth area to increase the water capacity without taking up any otherwise useable room.

Some sort of a shelf or storage organizer is required in the lazerettes. As designed, the space us so huge and deep things end up in a big pile too deep to reach.

Summary and Conclusion

The Columbia 34 is a great boat for long term cruising for two, family of four for a week, or as a liveaboard for one (well ok maybe two, but it is tight).

The Columbia 34 was not designed to be a “Blue-Water” boat and lacks some of the qualities found on such vessels. Examples are the lower shrouds are attached to the deck and not to a bulkhead or the side of the hull. It has a spade rudder, which isn't as strong as a skeg hung rudder or a "Barndoor" attached to the end of a full keel. The spacing between bulkheads is rather long in the rear quarters which makes the hull rather flexible in this area. The mast is deck stepped which puts a lot of load in the deck as opposed to on the keel. The deck to hull joint is glued and riveted, really strong boats are glassed, glued, and screwed. None of these are that big of a deal by themselves, but the add up a little. Don’t be confused here, the boat can easily take long trips and endure heavy weather, but it has some deficiencies that separate it from the latest Halberg Rassey or a vintage Westsail 32.

About the Authors:

The author and his wife bought their Columbia 34 in 1995. The boat, Eclipse, was very original and had been left unused for many years. They returned her back to sailing condition and over time fitted her out for cruising. They spent several years cruising the southern California Channel Islands aboard the Eclipse and in 1998 left for Mexico aboard her. After 3000 miles in Mexico, they returned and bought a Columbia 45 Total Eclipseand have started all over again.