1996, October; Moreton Bay, Brisbane: The Brisbane-based boat-building company of Nichols Brothers celebrated its Golden Jubilee in 1996, and any firm that can prosper through fifty years in the tough arena of Australian recreational boating has to be doing the right thing. To make last year extra special, the company took out the Boat of the Year Award with its Cruise Craft Outsider 650, and founder of the enterprise, Roy Nichols, celebrated his 75th birthday.
All the boats are built under the Cruise Craft brand with some 18 models ranging from 4.7 to 7.5 metres. The Caprice is a development of the Cruise Craft Capri 533, with a bit of extra room on board to make things more comfortable. The style is quite classic half-cab with somewhat angular lines to the deck coamings and cabin, but with a good balance and with pleasing style.
The transom is uncluttered with small boarding steps either side flanked by handrails that curve to follow the gun'l line. The engine well is comparatively large, but allows (smallish) quarter seats either side that are nicely upholstered and that give a good ride. A clever idea has a lift-up panel across the front of the engine well that doesn't intrude on cockpit floor space when it's down (and when it also conceals most of the aft bilge area), but then quickly lifts to form a table for snacks, drinks (two drink holders are neatly fitted in its front corners), games or whatever you'd like.
With the table up, vision and access into the aft bilges is a snap. The finish is splatter-fibreglass which is easy to keep clean, and the visible engineering is neat and strong with the battery mounted to starboard and the oil reservoir to port.
The cockpit floor is carpeted with removable panels over the 112 litre aluminium fuel tank. Capacious sidepockets would soak up a lot of your onboard bits and pieces, while more storage is in the moulded base of the driver's seat (accessible from the front, and at two levels to keep things separated). Underneath the first mate's seat is located a huge cooler. I think that this is a good approach, making it convenient to take the cooler inside at home, load it up with all the human sustenance and lubrication needed for the voyage, then lift it onboard where it is securely held in floor-mounted brackets out of the way under the seat. Beside both the front seats are higher level stowage pockets.
A slight step takes you down into the cabin which feels very light and roomy. The entrance is wide and clear, and big windows in the sides and front let in stacks of natural light. A forward removable centre section of the vee-seating would enable you to hide away a portable toilet. Room under the side seats would take bulky items such as lifejackets, and sidepockets give even more storage space. An overhead hatch is big enough to give quick access out to the foredeck.
The seats are long enough for sleeping overnight, and are upholstered in a pleasant fabric. Incidentally, the sidepockets run across the front of the cabin for a little bonus storage.
The area behind the dash and gauges is covered by a hinged panel that keeps things tidy most of the time, and yet that makes it easy to check wiring and other bits for maintenance work. Below the panel was mounted a GME 27 Mhz radio with its mic clipped to the dash. Whilst putting the radio in the cabin keeps it out of the sun and any spray, it makes it a bit inconvenient to use when you want to change channels or adjust controls. On balance, I think I'd prefer it to be mounted closer to the wheel where its controls could be more easily seen and used whilst sitting/standing to drive. However, that's a personal thing that could be set to suit your individual preference.
I found the steering position to be comfortable. Our particular boat didn't have an adjustable seat (but that can be arranged), so I found the reach to the wheel just a bit long. However, sitting to drive was still enjoyable, as was standing when I found I had plenty of room. We ran with the canopies up, which is more often the case these days in times of ozone holes and stronger sun, but I still had full standing headroom at the wheel, and there was even more further aft. Vision forward through the screen was excellent.
The gauges are mounted in an angled panel nicely above the wheel so that, sitting or standing, they were easy to view. We had a tacho and speedo with gauges for fuel, trim and volts plus an hour meter down lower behind the wheel. A Lowrance X25B sounder was mounted to starboard in the corner of the screen. A big grab rail across the wide opening into the cabin was handy for the first mate.
The Caprice was easy to drive and not at all sensitive to trim. I found I could leave the Johnson around the quarter trim mark and that allowed smooth cruising as well as smart acceleration on plane from rest. On the other hand, using the trim when you wanted did allow fine-tuning the boat's performance. Turning the wheel brought the Caprice around predictably and smoothly with good manners. Into a punchy Moreton Bay chop, the Cruise Craft hull did a great job with a solid feel and a smooth ride; stability was pleasing too when running as well as when stopped or drifting.
The V4 Johnson was straight out of its carton so was still tight. Nevertheless, it ran with vigour to push the Caprice to an indicated top speed of 64 kph at 5,200 rpm. Intermediate cruise speeds were most pleasant with the speedo showing 34 kph at 3,500 rpm, 45 kph at 4,000 and 53 kph at 4,500 rpm. Performance could only improve as the Johnno clocked up a few more hours. That's a pretty neat set of results from 115 hp, and says a lot about the Nichols Brothers' ability to match good design and hull balance with an optimum power unit.
All that 50 years of Nichols Brothers experience help to make the Caprice a strong and well-mannered boat that is targeted at the family market, but that would be welcome in just about any boating application. It's ideal for newcomers with its easy handling and maintenance, although more experienced boaties would also appreciate its stability and performance.
SPECIFICATIONS: CRUISE CRAFT CAPRICE 550
Overall length: 5.36 metres
Beam: 2.28 metres
Deadrise: 20 degrees
Weight (approx. boat only): 612 kgs
Fuel: 112 litres
Power as tested: Johnson 115 hp
Top Speed: 64 kph
Price (at time of review): $32,950 on trailer