Boat Reviews

Catalina 27

The Catalina 27 is probably the most popular 27-footer ever built. Though cheaply made, owners love them.

Catalina Yachts is a strange company. The builder does no advertising—it’s left up to the local dealers. The operation is owned and run by Frank Butler, who designs the boats, decides on who the dealers will be, sometimes answers his own phone, and for all we know sweeps up at the end of the day. He is probably one of the few people in the marine industry who has made money from building sailboats.

Catalina probably produces more pounds of sailboats every year than any other US builder, and has done so for a long time.

The Catalina 27 has been in production since 1971, and well over 6,000 of them have been built.

This is undoubtedly the largest production run of any 27' sailboat in US history, and probably the biggest anywhere.

The flip side of the coin is that Catalinas are known as cheaply built boats, with lots of corners cut

in places they shouldn’t be cut. According to owners, Catalina dealers have what may be the worst track record in the business in providing warranty service. Yet the owners keep coming back for more, and they love their boats.

 

The Catalina factory, by contrast, has a pretty good record for solving customer complaints. It is quite common for Frank Butler himself to return owners’ calls, making that owner a Catalina customer for life.

Because the Catalina 27 has been in production for so long, there have been numerous changes in the boats over the years. Most of these are small, but as a rule they have represented a steady stream of improvements. For this reason, more recent models are usually more desirable as used boats than earlier models.

At the same time, Catalina 27 owners seem to be inveterate tinkerers, constantly changing and improving small details in the boat. It is not unusual to see an older Catalina 27 meticulously upgraded with many of the changes that are standard on newer models.

Sailing Performance

The variety of options that significantly affect the performance of the Catalina 27 means that you must carefully evaluate the individual boat when determining how she is likely to sail. Most Catalina 27s are the standard keel, standard rig model. About half of these have optional inboard engines, while the others have outboards mounted in an awkward cockpit well. The outboard-powered versions are slightly faster than the inboard boats, since they have less weight to drag through the water.

There is also a shoal keel model, and a tall rig model. The shoal keel has a less-efficient foil, and is heavier than the deep keel to give the boat comparable stability.

The tall rig is favored in light air areas. Boats with the standard rig are generally equipped with 150% genoas to give them additional power in light air.

The standard keel, standard rig boat with inboard has a typical PHRF rating of 208. This puts the

Catalina 27 at the fast end of the fleet of boats of its size and type, such as the Hunter 27, Ericson 27, and O’Day 27. Tall rig and outboard versions are slightly faster.

Because of the large number of Catalina 27s built, you are likely to find good racing for the boat in many areas all around the country, from southern California to the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. A boat that is actively raced may have upgraded sail handling equipment—bigger winches, reinforced chainplates, better mainsheet traveler, more and better sails, etc. This could be a real plus in a used boat.

Because of the differences in rig, ballasting, keel, and engines, the various versions of the boat can’t fairly race against each other as one-designs. The fastest version of the boat is the tall-rig, deep keel boat with outboard; the slowest, the short rig, shoal keel with inboard. You pays your money and takes your choice.

Engine

You can find everything from a beat-up 15-year-old outboard to a brand new diesel pushing the Catalina 27. Originally, you could have your choice of outboard or Atomic 4 gasoline inboard power. The Atomic 4 is twice as much power as the boat needs, but it was one of the most compact inboards made.

There are two variations on the interior: the midships galley/dinette, shown here, and a more conventional aft galley layout. The consensus is that the aft galley layout has better storage and use of space.

All the inboard engines are tucked away under the cockpit, and owners uniformly condemn the installation for its lack of access for service. On a scale of 1 to 5, with one being awful and five being great, the installation is typically rated one or less. Forewarned is forearmed.

At the same time, the outboard well doesn’t win any points for accessibility either, and remote controls in the cockpit are a must for ease of operation. Getting the engine in and out of the well is a chore.

A 10 horse outboard is just about the right size for the boat, and should push her at hull speed in any conditions in which you would care to motor.

Inboard powerplants have been another story. In the late 1970s, a single-cylinder Petter diesel of about 6 hp was offered as an option. Owners report that the boat is grossly underpowered with this engine. In addition, parts are likely to be hard to find. We would definitely avoid the Petter diesel. Far more desirable is either the 11 or 14 horsepower Universal diesel offered in more recent models.

The Atomic 4 presents a dilemma. Though it has been discontinued, parts are readily available. On the other hand, access to the engine is so poor—oil changes require major contortions—that routine maintenance may have been neglected by the owner, shortening the engine’s life. If service access is bad, we suspect that access to replace the engine would be abominable. Some owners report that service access has been improved by cutting holes in the bulkhead between the quarterberths and the engine.

Construction

The Catalina is the Volkswagen of the boat market. It’s basic, but it will get you where you want to go. Originally, there were no backing plates on stanchions, rails, or deck hardware. This means that you’re likely to find gelcoat cracks around these fittings on older boats. Many owners have chosen to upgrade this aspect of their boats, so you may find an older boat that has been conscientiously brought up to higher standards.

 

The through hull fittings on older boats are simply gate valves screwed onto pipe nipples glassed into the hull—a poor practice. Many owners have replaced these with proper seacock installations. Another problem with through hulls is the placement of the skin fitting for the icebox drain—it allows water to run back into the box when the boat is heeled.

“Minor” complaints from owners include gelcoat voids, deck delamination, leaking chainplates, leaking ports, and leaking hull-to-deck joints. Not all

owners report these, of course, and the number of complaints may simply be a function of the huge number of Catalina 27s built.

Ironically, many of those with complaints love the boat, and say they would buy it again. While a number of Catalina buyers are first time boat owners, others buy the boat knowing the reputation for mediocre workmanship, but recognizing that they can get more boat for their dollar with Catalina than withalmost any other boat built. They are willing to either accept the limitations, or do themselves the upgrading that they feel is required.

This results in a much higher level of satisfaction with the boat than you would expect with a lowpriced product.

While some of the complaints about construction details are minor, others deserve immediate attention. In older boats, check the lower shroud U-bolt chainplates to see if they have been upgraded. A number of the original fittings have failed, causing the rig to go over the side.

Another rig weakness is the cast aluminum spreader sockets originally used on the mast. They should be replaced with the later stainless steel fabrications. Failures of the cast sockets have cost several rigs.

While the best location for a mainsheet traveler would be the forward end of the cockpit, there’s no bridgedeck there for mounting it, so you’re stuck with either the original location in the aft end of the cockpit, or the newer location over the companionway hatch. Unfortunately, there are several drawbacks to the latter spot: it wipes out the possibility of a companionway dodger, which would be a good idea due to the huge opening the hatch makes in the deck. Owners report that the forward location results in so much friction and additional sheet load that the mainsheet is hard to trim. In addition, the traveler in this position partially blocks off the main companionway opening.

Catalina hardware has never been much to write home about. Almost everything on the boat beyond the barest necessity is an option—and by “option” we mean, if you want it, you do it yourself. But of course if you like to fiddle with your boat, this can be seen as a plus.

There are few pieces of exterior trim: handrails on the cabin top, trim around the companionway. Trim takes time to put on, and teak costs money. Remember, this is a Volkswagen.

A big plus in later model boats is a seahood over the sliding companionway hatch. The old hatch design leaks badly if heavy spray or solid water comes aboard.

Later models also have a molded-in foredeck anchor well, a significant improvement.

The Catalina 27 has gradually gotten heavier over the years. The original displacement of the deep keel, outboard model was 5,650 pounds, with the shoal keel model about 500 pounds heavier. With the addition of a more sophisticated interior, inboard engine, fuel tanks, more interior trim, and many other improvements, displacement has crept up to about 6850 pounds for the deep keel versions, and 7,300 pounds for the shoal draft boat. This helps explain why a number of owners complain that the boat floats with her waterline submerged. It also means that if you want to race, you might want to consider an older, lighter model.

Interior

The Catalina 27 has more headroom than most 27- footers, and the huge companionway makes the interior seem exceptionally spacious when the hatch is open.

There have been two interiors: a traditional, aft galley layout, and a midships galley/dinette version. Although owners tend to prefer whichever layout they have, there is some consensus that the traditional layout offers better storage and a more reasonable use of space. With the dinette made up into a double berth, that version has six berths—at least two more than you really want on a boat this size. On the aft galley model, the starboard settee makes up into a double, once again giving you six berths. Unfortunately, not all the berths are very usable. Most owners report that the forward V-berths are too short and too narrow to be comfortable for two people, so try it out before deciding on the boat. The quarterberths are the only decent size berths on the boat.

Although there’s a fair amount of storage space under the main cabin settees, it’s hard to get to. A common owner modification is to add access doors to the settee faces, making it unnecessary to lift the seat cushions to get to the storage below.

A lot of owners consider the Catalina 27 a twoperson boat, despite the number of berths. Six close friends on a boat this size could become bitter enemies on a rainy cruise that lasted a week or more, but that’s a characteristic of 27-footers in general, not the Catalina 27 in particular. Nominal headroom is 6' 1". This is on the centerline at the aft end of the main cabin. It’s less everywhere else, but still more than you expect in a boat this size.

Originally, the boat’s electrical panel was on the face of the port quarterberth—a poor location, vulnerable to spray through the companionway or water from the bilge. That rudimentary switch panel has been replaced on newer models with a good circuit breaker panel located in the starboard quarterberth— well-protected and reasonably accessible. We’d relocate the electrical panel on an older boat.

Icebox insulation on older boats is non-existent for all practical purposes. It’s better on newer models, but it’s still a far cry from a good icebox.

You are unlikely to find the Catalina 27 equipped with anything more sophisticated than a two-burner alcohol stove. As long as you don’t do a lot of cooking this will be adequate, but longer cruises could turn into a grim test for the conscientious cook who wants to do much beyond heating up cans of stew or boiling water for coffee.

Ventilation of the interior ranges from poor to excellent, depending on either the age of the boat or the amount of upgrading done by the owners. In old boats, the forward cabin is stifling in hot weather. Newer boats have two aft-facing ventilation hatches over the head and passageway, as well as a hatch in the forward end of the cabin trunk. Unless added by owners, there is no provision for foul weather ventilation. Several cowl vents in dorade boxes would be a good addition for this boat.

All in all, the Catalina 27 has about as much interior room as it’s possible to cram into a boat with a waterline of less than 22'. There is reasonable headroom without ungainly height of topsides something a lot of small-boat designers have yet to accomplish.

Conclusions

Although there are smaller boats in the Catalina line, the 27 is a popular entry level daysailer and coastal cruiser. It’s a good-looking boat, and it sails well.

There are many trade-offs inherent in buying an inexpensive boat, and the Catalina 27 is no exception. You won’t find a lot of varnished teak or fancy systems in a Catalina 27. Unless upgraded by the owner, deck hardware and sail handling systems are likely to be rudimentary.

Because so many Catalina 27s have been built, there’s usually a number of them on the market at any one time. Careful shopping should result in finding a vintage and level of equipment that match your taste and pocketbook.

Despite the fact that the Catalina 27 was designed and built as a coastal cruiser-racer, several have actually made circumnavigations. We don’t recommendusing the boat this way, but it goes to show that good preparation and seamanship may be more important than your boat when it comes to successful offshore voyaging.

There have been so many minor changes made to the Catalina 27 over the years that we doubt if anyone has kept up to date on all of them. Some of these upgrades are structurally important, such as the modification of the shroud attachments and the change in spreader fittings. Others, such as the foredeck anchor well, make the boat more useful.

If you get seriously interested in a Catalina 27, get a normal marine survey, and in addition, look for a knowledgeable Catalina 27 owner to go over the boat with you to point out specific potential problems. This may be one case in which the amateur surveyor has some advantages over the professional.

Don’t buy a Catalina 27 thinking you’re going to get Mercedes quality at a Volkswagen price. This is basic sailing transportation, an entry level boat. But if you recognize the boat for what it is, you probably won’t be disappointed. Catalinas are always in demand, and they hold their value better than you would expect. Remember, however, that price will vary substantially with age, engine, and equipment. A new Catalina 27 costs several times the price of the original, 6,000 boats ago.

A lot of owners move up from the Catalina 27 to the Catalina 30. The boats are like peas in a pod in design, styling, and construction; anyone who is happy with the Catalina 27 is likely to be happy with the Catalina 30.

We’re sure that fact is not lost on Frank Butler. He has a good record with the Catalina 27, and we suspect he’s smiling all the way to the bank.

Comments (1)

As for adding remote controls there is no better option than the PowerTiller from Powertiller.com

Posted by: William L | February 20, 2013 1:23 PM    Report this comment

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