O'Brien 34 Custom Express Boat Test

O'Brien 34 Custom Express Boat Test

Boat Test O’Brien 34 Custom Express: A CLASSIC REINCARNATED
Author: Alan Zavodny

This boat test ran in ISSUE 94 of BlueWater magazine – NOV-DEC 2012

For the complete feature, including all photos and information captions, you can purchase back-issues here

Peter O’Brien of O’Brien Boats is a both a talented shipwright and experienced gamefisherman – a pioneer of the Cape Bowling Green light-tackle black marlin fishery –which means O’Brien Boats have a reputation carved straight from the bluewater.

Launched in March this year was the newest member of the O’Brien Boats family, a 34-foot gamefisher. Peter’s son Leigh skippered this vessel in the 30th annual Townsville Billfish Challenge in early September – one of Australia’s premier gamefishing tournaments – where he and the team took out Champion Boat honours in the Over 8m Boat category.

To do the boat test on the O’Brien 34 I draw on my 20 years as a practising captain and long experience as a deckhand. This includes time on numerous charter boats including Reef Magic and Top Shot– both O’Briens. I clocked nearly 5000 hours on Reef Magic (a 40-footer) and she never let me down once; and I recall Top Shot’s extraordinary ability to manoeuvre in tight situations and stay close to giant rampaging fish.

Practical Foundation

Peter started his boat-building career in Sydney in the early 1960s, but completed his trade qualification as a shipwright in Townsville. An interest in gamefishing showed him the need for fast, extremely manoeuvrable boats in this industry and led Peter to set up his own business in 1978. Two years later, after a long period of research and development, the first O’Brien was launched – a 33-footer aptly named OB1. Having won the inaugural Townsville International Game Fish Tournament in 1982, this vessel is still catching fish 30 years later.

Since then, over 25 O’Brien gameboats have been launched, as well as three built specially for the Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol, each with their own unique customisations built in by Peter’s expert staff. Peter’s eldest son, Leigh, learned to drive boats before he was out of primary school and is a qualified diesel fitter – he works for the company both in engineering and as crew during the heavy-tackle marlin season. This combined wealth of onboard expertise allows O’Brien Boats to continually improve their design and offer customisations that might never be conceived by mainstream boat manufacturers.

The O’Brien family have long-history of successful gamefishing. Peter has skippered world record captures and made his mark in the record books. Leigh also has record captures under his belt; and Val, Pete’s wife, also has a love of the water and has held a number of world and Australian records. Theirs is a passion shared by the whole family; in short, the O’Brien Boats philosophy is artwork at play!

Breaking New Ground

This first O’Brien played a key role in making Cape Bowling Green’s light-tackle black marlin and sailfish grounds famous. It can be a haul to the waters off Cape Bowling Green from Townsville – rounding Cape Cleveland and turning east you are often greetedor, more appropriately, punched on the nose by the south-easterlies that often exceed 20 knots. OB1 copped a pounding time and time again, but the quest eventually landed her in the record books with catches of the region’s famous black marlin and a host of tournament wins. The original OB1 with her twin mid-mounted Volvos was a classic in her day. Fast in any direction, she could run down a rocketing sailfish or a giant Cairns black.

For reasons of safety as well as practicality, sport and gamefishing rigs have to have a high standard of performance and durability. Peter’s boats are built to up-to-the-minute Maritime Safety Authority standards, and it’s a fair bet few boat builders have Peter’s knowledge and understanding of the survey requirements for charter boats.

Marine tourism, specifically for anglers, represents a massive demand on time and money, so efficiencies are vital to provide a return on investment, and O’Briens are a specific fit into a tough industry. OB1 proved to be a craft that could take on the seas and come back for more. The fact was that not only did she perform, but skippers and crew had a boat that was simple to access and operate. The engine room was designed so that nothing was hard to get at, and bow to stern, the boat layout was such that it was easy to maintain – a factor that is vital in charter fishing boats.

A Classic Reincarnated

This year the pioneering OB1 was reborn. The standard set by the original is a hard one to follow, but is definitely continued in the new model – the only thing that’s changed is that she’s just got better!

The modern OB1 is a custom fit-out and Peter is keen to point out that his boats are all tailored to owners’ requirements, and that meticulous care goes into every inch of the build –they’re not a production-line product. A replacement boat, fitted with similar engines, tower and top-of-the-line electronics would cost around $770,000.

My first impressions of the O’Brien 34 are it looks and feels bigger. Her sleek, good looks and a top performance turned a lot of heads at the 2012 Townsville Billfish Challenge! As a fishing platform, the simple fact is that the O’Brien 34 has it all: strategically placed rodholders, rocket launcher or gamechair; big freezer/fridges; a very effective cockpit space; and sensible layouts for the saloon, galley, cabin and tower.

Fighting Room

Nothing in the cockpit will get in your way. It’s dry and free of spray when the vessel is underway. Up close and tight, deckhands can knee-lock on the coaming to safely lean over the gunnel and get a gloved hand around a bill to extract a hook. There’s room for deckie and anglers. Even with an angler locked-up tight to a big fish in the game chair, the crew has enough room to handle it; and with multiple hook-ups anglers can easily get to the bow.

If a dolphinfish hits the deck instead of the fishbox, the electric deck hose will whip the mess away in a quick blast, as there aren’t any tight corners or edges to make the clean-up a hard task. A friendlier cockpit for reef fishing has yet to be invented! The livebait tank in the stern gunnel can swim 50 to 60 yellowtail; slimy tubes can be fitted into the tank; and the deck-wash pump can deliver enough water flow to keep tuna alive in tuna tubes.

Comfort And Visibility

The O’Brien 34’s tower is built by Black Marlin Towers on Queensland’s Gold Coast. Step up onto the gunnel and scaling the ladder to the tower station is easy. Getting around the tower on your way to fish from the bow isn’t difficult either.

The layout in the tower – featuring two Furuno 12-inch NavNet sounders, radar and GPS displays – is neat and simple. Twin Disc ‘QuickShift’ lever controls are smooth and right where you want them for when you want to move the boat around quickly. The tower has ample padding for those rough days, and on the troll a fold-out seat gives skippers a chance to take the weight off their feet. Importantly, all-round visibility is what it should be from a tower.

The saloon entrance is flanked on both port and starboard sides with refrigeration boxes that can be turned to freezer or fridges. The aisle between them is open saloon-to-cockpit style –a wide passageway between the boxes gives quick access to the saloon station. Many serious gamefishers favour this configuration as the box-tops make great rigging tables or seats to watch trolled baits or lures.

Both the saloon and cockpit have vantage points with excellent vision over the wake. Additionally, the big windows in the saloon extend visibility, offering crew and anglers a place to scan for tell-tale signs of surface activity away from the boat’s trolling zone. Visibility forward is adequate from the saloon station, while visibility through the big side-windows is good.

Saloon Console

Furuno 8-inch and 12-inch NavNet systems, sounder, radar and GPS head the console in the saloon; and easy-to-see and read ‘SmartCraft’ engine monitoring gauges are mounted on the console’s top face. The helm chair is a comfortable fit and makes the helm an easy place to manage the boat from.

The Twin Disc QuickShift controls make the boat easy to park; the skipper and deckie would find it a breeze seeing their way into a tight berth. This setup means you could fight a fish and drive OB1 with as few as two people onboard – a few quick steps from the helm and you’re right beside the angler ready with gaff or tagpole.

The saloon is noticeably clean and neat. A storage drawer under the starboard-side lounge is big enough for fishing tackle. Under the lounge cushion is storage for life jackets and safety gear. On the longer portside-lounge is another drawer, and under the cushion lounge is storage space where this boat has room for more fishing gear, spare belts, tools, additional ropes or an assortment of boat parts. Behind the backrest is the 240W eutectic dual-coil refrigeration electronics.

Under the seat directly across from the backrest sits a refrigeration drive system, which is neat, compact and very easy to get to and work on. A power take-off from the gearbox drives the off-engine refrigeration compressor – a far superior system to belt-driven compressors. The system provides excellent refrigeration and alleviates the need to run a genset. Shore power pulls down the freezer temperature, as the efficiency of hydraulic-powered refrigeration can keep the freezers colder than the usual 240W AC-powered eutectic systems.

Cook's Delight

It’s just a step down from the saloon into a beaming galley to starboard, with a handy rod rack situated at the side of the stairway, and a sliding door that can be locked for security purposes. The galley features a big Corian counter-top housing a sink and a two-burner gas stove. A microwave/convection oven above the counter sits alongside a line of fine teak cupboards. Beneath the hot plate is a column of teak draws and adjoining cupboards, beside which is an AC/DC fridge/freezer.

Located directly above that on the cabin bulkhead are all the ship’s batteries’ DC isolation switches, above which sit the breaker-panel switches for the boat’s electrical systems.

The galley is a masterpiece, one look and its potential is obvious: ample counter space, and cupboards and draws fit for any boater with culinary passions; and the presence of a stainless fireproof bulkhead above the stove is evidence of the vessel’s survey accreditation.

Clean And Rested

Vee-berths are situated forward. The bow flare is particularly evident here on the O’Brien 34 Custom Express, as the four berths on two levels offers ample space for two people above and two people below to spread themselves out comfortably. The upper berths have five side-cupboards, and the lower vee-berths have storage under the cushions.

Portside of the galley is a fully fitted-out toilet and shower compartment with a simple, practical and effective layout. It’s the same moulding as the O’Brien 47. A little nip-and-tuck and some clever engineering from the designers resulted in a functional, spacious bathroom. Toilet and shower are separated by a vanity bench-top adorned with mirror-faced cupboards above the sink and a cupboard below.

Easy Maintenance

Typical of the O’Brien design, this is a well laid-out engineroom that would please even the most fastidious owners.

Twin Cummins QSB 5.9-litre 480hp engines with a pair of MGX-5075a Twin Disc QuickShift transmissions are fitted under the saloon floor. Access into the engine room is via two lift-out panels that take up the space between the two sofa lounges. The smaller of the two panels is easy to remove and offers easy pre-starting checks before any cruise. The larger panel offers far greater access and can still be handled by one person, and is intended as access for major servicing such as oil changes.

Bigger items, such as heat exchangers, intercoolers and turbos, can be accessed by removing the lounges, allowing for complete access all around the engines. It’s a simple two-person task that exposes both motors completely. Re-powering down the track of ownership –getting old engines out and new ones in – would be a simple task.

Access to batteries, fuel and oil filters, coolant tanks and drive belts and air cleaners is afforded with a minimum of fuss. Typical of modern engine installations, electric pumps are fitted to simplify the oil-change process. A hatch in the aisle between the two motors houses the raw-water intake valves and strainers.

The bilge system is to Survey Charter Standard, with control valves in the starboard cockpit locker. Altogether, it’s easy to access and easy to use.


The Townsville Billfish Challenge allowed me to witness just how well this boat performs. After the shotgun racing start it powered across the wakes of other cruisers, throwing sea away from the boat with the O’Brien flare doing its job admirably. Even in big seas, water and spray is pushed away from the boat.

On the test run it was a calm day, but it’s obvious that the sharp entry, deep-vee forefoot slices through the sea and works extremely well. Typical of the sharpness, it carves the sea and slides effortlessly through the water. On the plane and on the run the ride is faultless. At full-flight, response to the helm is smooth and in tight turns the boat has a solid grip on the water. High-speed turns are stable and positive.

The QSB 5.9-litre 480hp engines produce 352kW at 3400rpm – in a 34-footer that’s a lot of horsepower–and OB1 simply doesn’t need this kind of grunt, although due to good hull-design she handles the power with effortless ease.

Cruising at 1000rpm will give around 8 knots at around 8 litres of fuel per hour. At 2600rpm the motors give 22 knots of speed, consuming 85 litres per hour; 2800rpm gives 26 knots at104 litres per hour. Flat stick at 3400 rpm, OB1 clawed at 40 knots on the GPS and pumped the tank for 200 litres per hour.

With a fuel capacity of 2000 litres, the boat has a cruising range of nearly 500 nautical miles. She’ll achieve these figures at any speed between 22 and 26 knots. Even though a long voyage would add weight in people and stores, riding on the O’Brien 34 gives the feeling she could easily handle heavy loads with little fuss. Hence, keeping to a rev range between 2600 and 2800rpm will allow long voyages to the more dynamic offshore fishing grounds.

Twin Disc 5075a QuickShift transmissions allow total control– forward or astern in any direction – just by shifting through gear states at will. The electronics manage the gear shifts quickly and smoothly, and get the wheels spinning with minimal delays – it couldn’t be done faster.

QuickShift boxes are renowned transmissions. Push OB1 hard from a standstill and she’s quick to lift; throw the levers hard astern and she rides down smoothly. The transmissions do the change smooth as silk, and you feel the 21-inch, five-bladed props grab the sea before suddenly you’re heading stern-first fast, real fast.

Fish Chaser

This gamefisher will handle drift fishing, and keeping anglers aligned to a current is easy due to the response on the helm. Casting lures for GTs off the bow of this boat would be hard to beat, and that helm response can position you close to the bommies to lob poppers right on target. Ideal for trolling lures, the wake is clean and the wash at bait speed is perfect.

When backing-down hard in reverse, water at the stern doesn’t well-up as it does with a flat transom. The camber of the transom pushes water sideways, enabling a stern-first charge that would be an adrenalin rush for anyone. This boat ‘hauls arse’ astern!

Flick levers on the helm controls and she spins in her own length. Haul her hard astern both engines, flick a throttle and adjust a prop spin and you can aim her with amazing accuracy.

With the cambered stern slipstreaming the water she exhibits characteristics that show real fish-chasing potential.

There’s no tendency to bury, and a tweak on either throttle keeps her on target. Throw gears hard forward and the anglers had better hang on! Too much throttle, and well, it’s just a matter of your experience on the helm, although she’ll stop if you want her to. This gamefisher has impeccable manners – she will do exactly as you ask of her. She’s very, very good.

Reef Magic and Top Shot were great boats for the open sea and OB1 definitely portrays kinships to Top Shot in her ability to manoeuvre. In all likelihood, how fast the angler can crank the reel’s handle is this boat’s only limiting factor when chasing big fish.

For Any Occasion

The O’Brien 34’s ability as a gamefisher is just the beginning – the boat is far more than that. If you want to cruise Sydney Harbour and park at Darling Harbour for a restaurant sojourn, the O’Brien has the grace and style to look the part.

This gamefisher will take six people anywhere they want to go. For a day or extended weekends away along coastal waterways, or far offshore, the O’Brien 34 has what is needed to take you there with no fuss. She’ll give you a great time on the water, is well equipped and offers plenty of room to move. She’ll bring you home quickly and in comfort – and, importantly, the running costs won’t give you a heart attack.


  • Custom-built by true experts
  • Angling setup designed for performance
  • Superb handling even in rough conditions
  • Easy engine room access and maintenance
  • Big-boat performance without the running costs


  • Fuel: 2000 litres
  • Fresh water: 600 litres


  • Material: Moulded fibreglass, balsa core
  • Hull Type: Deep-vee
  • LOA: 10.78 metres
  • Beam: 3.7 metres
  • Draft: 0.9 metres
  • Deadrise: 22 degrees (at transom)
  • Weight: 10.5 tonnes


  • Make/model: Twin Cummins QSB5.9-480
  • Type: Turbocharged 24-valve inline 6-cylinder 4-stroke
  • Rated hp: 480
  • Displacement: 5.9 litres
  • Gearbox: Twin Disc MGX 5075a QuickShift
  • Ratio: 2.05:1
  • Propellers: 21-inch, five-blade VEEM

SPECIFICATIONS: O’Brien 34 Custom Express
Options fitted: Furuno electronics including DFFI sounder module, GP320 GPS, 36-mile radar, 4 x NavNet screens and a 12-inch NavPilot 711; Clarion audio; oil tank (40lt) and change system;cockpit AC/DC refrigeration; livebait tank moulded into transom; Reelax HD marlin chair; electric Teezer reels; Lee’s outriggers; Black Marlin tower; Marine Survey and equipment to MSQ.  

O'Brien 34 Custom Express Boat Test

Boat Test O’Brien 34 Custom Express: A CLASSIC REINCARNATED
Author: Alan Zavodny
Supplied by: O’Brien Boats 

This boat test ran in ISSUE 94 of BlueWater magazine – NOV-DEC 2012

For the complete feature, including all photos and information captions, you can purchase back-issues here

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