People who start in small boats and trade up often view 27 feet as some kind of milestone, and rightly so. At around 27 feet, an inboard engine and the possibility of standing headroom are enticing. Accommodations often become spacious enough for two couples or a family of four to live aboard for a couple of weeks without strain. And hull speed with appropriate sail and engine power typically permits average-weather runs of 35 to 40 miles in an 8-hour day-long enough legs to satisfy the wanderlust of most cruisers.
Two of the newest 27-foot cruising boat designs are from Beneteau and Catalina, both huge builders. Beneteau bills itself as the largest sailboat company in the world; Catalina lays claim to being the largest in the U.S. The new designs of both companies often set the tone for styling by other sailboat makers.
Checking out both boats at a recent show, we noticed that the base list price of the Beneteau First 265 with inboard ($38,050) was less than 10 percent above the base for the Catalina 270 LE ($34,775). Their Euro-styled interior layouts were at least superficially similar as well, as were hull and sail plan dimensions. Which boat, we wondered, is the better buy, and for whom?
Both the Beneteau and the Catalina utilize modern wide-body, fin-keel, spade-rudder configurations, relatively long waterlines, and moderate rigs with shrouds moved inboard to permit a narrower sheeting base. The Beneteau has a slightly shorter LOA but longer LWL (length waterline), and a nearly plumb bow. The 265’s draft is mid-range (4′ 2″ vs. the Catalina’s choice of 5′ 0″ deep fin or 3′ 6″ fin with wings).
Both test boats have inboards. Catalina does not offer an outboard option as it once did with its old 27. Catalina’s chief engineer, Gerry Douglas, doesn’t think it’s suitable for a 27- footer, especially one weighing 6,400 pounds-and, he says, neither did most buyers of Catalina 27s over the last several years. (Among other problems, in a seaway an outboard prop tends to ventilate too much).
Still, Beneteau, with a 4,800-lb. boat, does offer an outboard version (base price $32,900 excluding engine, which is $5,150 below the inboard Beneteau price with engine) and recommends a 9.9-hp. outboard for those who wish to go this route. So far, few buyers have. Beyond the ventilating prop problem, the reason is mostly economic: By the time Beneteau buyers acquire the outboard engine and associated paraphernalia, the difference between inboard and outboard shrinks to around $3,500-and those who opt for the outboard miss the shore power option and electric hot water heater option which Beneteau throws in” free” with the inboard package.
The rigs of the two boats may appear quite similar at first glance, but upon close inspection a number of important differences emerge.
The Beneteau features a seven eighths rig with single spreaders, adjustable split backstay, mast stepped on deck with compression strut in the cabin, and shrouds tied into a force grid molded into the cabin top via a set of studs threaded into a patented configuration involving stem balls set into bronze plates. (We’d prefer a set of conventional-and more easily adjustable and replaceable turnbuckles.) The mast is stepped on a hinge for lowering the spar at bridges, trailer ramps, or for maintenance, but Beneteau says use of the hinge is not recommended without side-sway preventers- currently available as an option in Europe, but not in the U.S.
The Beneteau’s genoa sheets lead to cars riding on C-shaped aluminum tracks, which double as handrails, on the cabintop. It’s not easy to grab the tracks/rails, which require feeding your fingers through a narrow slot molded in to the coach roof. We’d rather see separate handrails. We’d also prefer to see the Beneteau’s cockpit mounted mainsheet traveler track moved forward onto the cabintop (as the Catalina is configured), so crew moving from cockpit to cabin don’t have to dodge the mainsheet and car. But, unfortunately, moving the track forward isn’t feasible because of the long companionway bridge deck, which reaches forward beyond the boom’s midpoint.
The Catalina’s masthead rig, even with double spreaders (permitting use of a lighter spar than the Beneteau), is more conventional. Although the Catalina’s mast is shorter and its mainsail is smaller, the foretriangle height is two feet longer than the Beneteau’s, resulting in more total sail area when setting a big genoa.
The Catalina’s rig design strives for simplicity (no backstay bridle adjustment, no line-adjusted genoa car position as on the Beneteau), and ease of use. Helping to make sailing the Catalina a no-hassle experience is an impressive array of standard equipment not seen on the Beneteau: A double-ended mainsheet, adjustable either at a cam cleat on the traveler car or at a cabin top stopper, where a winch can be used; a pair of two-speed Lewmar self-tailing #30s (compared to Beneteau’s single speed #16s); a standard 135-percent genoa on a goodquality Hood single-line furler (compared to Beneteau’s standard 100-percent jib and furler hardware available only as an option); a total of five cabintop stoppers (vs. three for the Beneteau); Dutchman mainsail flaking system; and single-line reefing (though the Catalina test boat did not have single-line reefing rigged).
Other features on deck also favor the Catalina. Working aft from the bow: The welded pulpit, like the stanchions, is 1-inch stainless steel tubing (vs. the Beneteau’s 7 /8-inch), has two horizontal rails (vs. one for the Beneteau) and four legs (three for the Beneteau). There are twin anchor rollers at the stemhead (one on the Beneteau). Both boats have anchor lockers built into the forward deck, but the Beneteau’ s locker has a water tank fill cap in its bottom. This can make it extremely inconvenient to fill the tank when line and chain are piled overt he cap. And the combination bow light is mounted directly behind and partly obscured by the center support of the pulpit.
Moving further aft, the Catalina’s six stanchions are fitted with double lifelines and, being 24-:3/4 inches off the deck, give a good measure of security. In contrast, the Beneteau has only four stanchions, less than 18 inches high, with single lifelines. The low lifelines are at “tripping height,” and while the scale may be aesthetically pleasing, safety is compromised. If we were buying the Beneteau, we’d insist that she be retrofitted with taller stanchions.
The cockpits on both boats have comfortably high, can’ted coamings and angled seats. The Catalina’s cockpit is noticeably roomier, due not only to the absence of a cockpit traveler, but also to the placement of the wheel way aft, with an athwartships helm seat 5 feet wide-big enough for three for cocktails at the mooring. On the Catalina, there’s room for nine at the dock, as big a cockpit as could be desired in this size boat. And that doesn’t include a pair of “observation seats” built into each corner of the push pit.
In contrast, the Beneteau seats no more than seven at the dock, and that assumes that one passenger is seated atop the traveler and the tiller is swung up out of the way.
We have no objection to tillers-in fact we generally prefer them in this size boat-provided there’s no noticeable drag in the rudder tube and that the forward end is a comfortable height over the sole. Unfortunately, the Beneteau failed both tests, even with the height adjustment screw at the rudder head in the extreme “down” position.
The Catalina’s 32-inch stainless steel destroyer wheel on a pedestal is an Edson, a brand we associate with high quality and reliability. The size and placement is good for steering from either a sitting or standing position; brake and compass binnacle (4- inch Danforth Constellation) are standard; pedestal-mounted brackets for additional instruments such as depth sounder and speedo are extra.
The Beneteau’s compass is optional, mounted along with any other optional instruments on the cabinhouse bulkhead, a better position for crew viewing but not as good for the helmsman.
Both boats have swim platforms and stainless swing-down swim ladders. The Catalina easily wins the Ladder Sweepstakes with a four-step, 24-inch wide ladder with flat plastic treads, compared to the Beneteau’s three-step, 8-1/2-inch wide ladderI with treads only 1-1/4-inch wide, tW made by flattening the stainless tubing a bit.
The Catalina’s ladder swings up to form the center part of the push pit, a clever and neat-looking design. The Beneteau ropes off the transom area with a length of lifeline and a pelican hook.
Both swim platforms are molded into “sugar-scoop” transoms, and both are elevated 9 inches off the water, with a bit of transom projecting below. The bottom of the Catalina’s transom misses the water by a couple of inches, but the Beneteau’s, with a short horizontal lip extending aft below the platform, is slightly immersed and thus attracts sea life, evident from the unsightly coating of saltwater slime on our test boat.
Both boats utilize external bolt-on lead keels, suitably thick fiberglass lay-up schedules, solid glass hulls and balsacored decks, and reasonably strong hull-deck connections. Both have highly engineered force grids molded into their hull liners, of particular note since the shrouds in both boats lead not to traditional chainplates but to intermediate tie rods which in turn are joined to metal plates for the most part hidden behind interior liners. On both boats we would prefer better inspection ports to view these crucial joints.
On both boats, the pulpits and stanchions are fastened to the deck with a single large threaded stud, projecting down through the deck and secured with a large washer and nut. Although this design is somewhat non-traditional, it seems solid enough. Still, we question what will happen to the deck when someone falls against a stanchion; four through-bolts and large backing plates to distribute the load would be better. Even more dubious are the two parts of the backstay bridle on the Beneteau which are simply fastened to straps welded to the bases of the push pit,rather than to their own chainplates. Because of the extra forces involved, we’d worry about stress cracks eventually appearing around these bases.
Deck hard ware (blocks, tracks, hatches, ports) on the Catalina is mostly made by Garhauer, Nibo, and Beckson, all vendors noted for producing decent-quality but low-cost equipment. On the Beneteau, Harken, Spinlock, and Lewmar are predominant. As already mentioned, both boats use Lewmar winches. We judged all branded hardware on both boats to be of acceptable quality.
We did our testing on the Manatee River off the pier of Massey Yachts in Palmetto, Florida. (Massey sells both Catalina and Beneteau). The test Catalina was the wing-keel version; the Beneteau had the standard rig. (A tall rig is optional.)
Both boats seemed quite stiff, well balanced, and very responsive to the helm. Both could be spun in more or less their own length. The day we sailed the Beneteau, it was blowing 15 knots steadily and 20 in gusts, and the 265 heeled not more than 25 degrees close-hauled with full sail. This impressed us. So did the Catalina, which was at least as stable on a breezier day (wind 20-25, occasional gusts to 30) with full sail, only burying the rail once in a particularly vicious wind burst. In short, we wouldn’t hesitate to sail either boat in dusty weather.
Though hard to judge in such strong, shifting winds, we think the Beneteau had the edge in sailing speed, as her statistics would indicate. Under power, however, her smaller engine and prop (single-cylinder, 9-hp., 26-CID Volvo, 15 x 12 optional folding prop) was definitely not as effective upwind as the Catalina’s (threecylinder, 18-hp, 3 7-CID Perkins, twoblade 13 x 10 prop). The Catalina’s Perkins also was smoother and quieter, despite the fact that its engine box (two removable clam-shells back to back, of fiberglass-foam sandwich construction) had no added insulation, while the Beneteau’s plywood box was lined with soft foam. Engine and shaft log access was very good on the Beneteau, superb on the Catalina.
At the moment, PHRF for the Beneteau is 168. The Catalina’s is not yet determined, but we would anticipate it will come in around the 195-205 range.
The interior layouts on the two boats are quite similar: large double berth aft galley to port next to the companionway, head opposite the galley, Ushaped dining area around a smallish table supported by the mast compression post and V-berth forward.
These overall similarities make the differences between the designs more obvious. For example, on the Catalina the entrance to the double aft is via a solid teak door, whereas on the Beneteau it is through a sliding curtain.
All berths on both boats have comfortable 4-inch cushions. The aft berth on the Beneteau measures 60″ x 77″, and you sleep parallel to the keel; the Catalina is slightly narrower at 57 inches wide, is 74 inches to 86 inches long depending on which side you’re on, and you sleep athwartships. We wouldn’t be inclined to sleep two in either aft berth, since the inside party not only doesn’t have much vertical roll-over room due to incursion of the cockpit sole, but also must crawl over the outside party to get up.
Neither the Catalina nor the Beneteau forward berths have these problems. On the Beneteau, you can lower the table and set up the berth without undue commotion; but setting up the Catalina berth involves a lot of fussy positioning of the raised forward seat and locking it in place with a pair of hard-to-reach latches. We’d like to see Catalina restudy the process to make set-up easier.
The forward berth on the Beneteau measures 19 inches at the front, 76 inches at the back, and is 88 inches long. On the Catalina it’s 10 inches at the front, 68 inches at the back, and 75 inches long. Tall folks will appreciate the larger Beneteau berth.
The Beneteau has the edge on locker space, with three separate hanging lockers (including one open-air unit in the head), and a liquor cabinet under what a Beneteau brochure describes as a nav station. In reality, there’s not enough space to unroll even a small chart on the work surface presented, which is effectively cut in two by a fiddle across its middle. Still, the “nav station” top gives the galley slave some countertop space-space sadly lacking in the galley where it should be. The Catalina also suffers from lack of sufficient galley top working space.
The use of maintenance-hungry exterior wood has been completely eliminated on the Catalina, and minimized on the Beneteau except for the companionway drop slides (King StarBoard plastic on the Catalina, nicely varnished cherry-veneer plywood on the Beneteau). Below, both boats use some wood to visually warm up the otherwise mostly white interior. The surface is totally fiberglass on the Catalina, but on the Beneteau, soft white foambacked vinyl lines the upper halves of the hull sides. If this vinyl is anything like the stuff used on boats 15 or 20 years ago, the foam backing can be expected to dry out and crumble to powder eventually.
Catalina’s use of wood is sparing (varnished teak doors and trim, teak dining table, small patch of maple and teak sole forward), while Beneteau’s is lavish (varnished cherry bulkheads and trim, full teak sole). The wood is set off on both boats by neatly made upholstery on berths and settees, on the Catalina by a combination of Ultrasuede-like material and light patterned cotton fabrics, on the Beneteau by a practical and soft dark green velvet.
The Beneteau interior gives an impression of good craftsmanship, above-average but not consummately executed, and a dark though pleasantly airy cabin. On the Catalina, the impression is of a more basic, but much lighter and equally airy boat. The Catalina’s lightness is helped by a skylight of milk-white Plexiglas (two layers thick) abaft the mast, and more area in the main cabin ports. For ventilation, the Catalina has six opening ports plus a forward hatch, while the Beneteau has eight plus a forward hatch. Screens for the ports (but not for either the forward or main hatch) are standard on both the Catalina and the Beneteau. Neither boat has a rollup sunshade over the forward hatch, which would be a nice touch.
The Bottom Line
To some extent, the choice between the Beneteau 2 65 and the Catalina 270 LE is a trade off between elegant French styling on the one hand, and no-nonsense American practicality on the other. (Of interest to “Buy America” advocates is the fact that both boats are built in the U.S., the Catalina in Woodland Hills, California, and the Beneteau in Marion, South Carolina.)
The choice is also between the Beneteau’s lighter hull with quicker acceleration, and the Catalina’s equally maneuverable but heavier hull with greater load-carrying capacity and living space below.
All boats are compromises, and personal taste and prejudices do enter the picture. That said, we admit to a clear preference for the Catalina. We especially like the lightness and brightness of its interior, enhanced by numerous large ports and an overhead skylight. Most of all, we like the Catalina’s greater value for the money-not just because the overall price is about 10 percent lower than a comparable Beneteau, but because of the better choice of standard items. For example, note the differences between some of the Beneteau’s items and the Catalina’s: 9-hp. raw-water-cooled engine vs. 18-hp. freshwater-cooled; no engine tach or fuel gauge vs. both standard; 8.25-gallon fuel tank vs. 14 gallons; 16.25-gallon water tank vs. 26 gallons; holding tank 11.5 gallons vs. 18; single-speed #16 self-tailing Lewmars vs. two-speed #30 STs; a 1.6- gpm Shurflo pressure water pump vs. a 2.8-gpm Shurflo pump: a gimbaled two-burner non-pressure alcohol stove vs. a gimbaled two-burner LPG stove, and so on.
Now if Catalina would only install a good-size hanging locker, put in more working counter surface in the galley, make it easier to make up the forward berth…
At a Glance
Strengths and Weaknesses
The Catalina is heavier, more stable, roomier, better equipped, and has a lower price tag. The Beneteau has more stowage lockers, faster acceleration, and French-favored rather than California favored Eurostyle. Both boats do well in heavy air. Neither is a racehorse likely to win much in competition. Neither wins the prize as the ultimate low-cost 27-footer, though the Catalina 270 (without the LE suffix) at less than $30,000, may come close.
We’d go for the Catalina without hesitation. People who are more style and performance conscious, however, may prefer the classy accouterments of the Beneteau, and fall in love with her despite its other shortcomings.