Frank Butler's 25-year-old company updates its image with a scoop transom, modern appendages and an innovative layout, but he still likes a solid fiberglass hull.
Catalina Yachts has carved a reputation in the production boat world by producing yachts that make owner feedback sound like a mantra. Typical comments are, “They provide real value for the dollar,” “This is not a Swan,” “A lot of boat for the money,” or, “They sail well enough, considering that most owners are cruisers.”
Since January 1993, owners of the newest model in the line, the 320, have added a new mantra: “This boat is really fast, and is surprisingly spacious.”
Based on our test sail and factory visit in Southern California, they are correct, especially considering the performance characteristics of earlier models.
Frank Butler opened the doors of the factory in an abandoned aircraft facility in 1969. Since our first review of a Catalina, we’ve been making the point that the company has grown to its position as the largest producer of boats in the country by consistently offering boats that meet the needs of a priceconscious marketplace. Designs have typically carried high-aspect ratio mainsails and large overlapping genoas that powered the boats at reasonable speeds while offering owners comfortable accommodations belowdecks.
The 320 stands apart from earlier models because design modifications have dramatically altered sailing characteristics while increasing the living areas belowdecks and improved crew comfort on deck.
The 320 is pleasing to the eye, partially a reflection of a finer bow entry. While it has a modest overhang at the bow and almost none at the stern, with a waterline of 28' it’s clearly the product of the nearly plumb bow/reverse stern thinking so prevalent in architectural circles these days.
One of the design objectives was to improve performance, so modifications were made to the sail plan, keel and rudder, reflecting tinkering that chief designer Gerry Douglas and Daniel Casal began in the early 90s. Casal told us that the primary motivation was to make the boats easy to handle, since they are often sailed as cruisers by middle-aged couples
who often struggle to manage overlapping genoas. As a consequence, the mast on the 320 has been moved forward, resulting in an increase in the size of the main and reduction in jib size. This makes it easier for the designer to balance the rig. This boat can be sailed similarly to a fractional rig, and depowered by furling the jib or changing to smaller headsails before reefing, and by easing the mainsheet when the wind pipes up (instead of flogging the jib). In a blow, trimming smaller headsails will be easier for the typical cruising couple, especially because the boats are equipped with Lewmar Ocean series self-tailing winches.
From a financial standpoint, Casal’s theory is that jibs are less expensive to replace than mainsails, and sailors will be more comfortable in the meantime. When forced to motorsail, more power will be derived from the mainsail, resulting in quicker trips and less fuel consumption. The flip side is that large mains can be cumbersome to reef and furl.
Underwater appendages were redesigned as well. Rudder size was increased and redistributed in an attempt to generate more lift per square foot of wetted surface. The new shape is deeper, has a shortened chord and elliptical trailing edge, changes that result in a higher aspect ratio. Keels, a fin or optional shallower version with winglets, were reduced in size as well. The new design is significantly narrower at the top so has less drag, and a lower center of gravity.
Increasing crew comfort also was a criteria in the design of the 320, so the hull tapers outward at a gentler angle at B max (maximum beam), which is located just aft of station six. The payoff is a comfortable, spacious cockpit that has drawn positive comments from new owners, and increased living space belowdecks.
The result of the sail plan reconfiguration, which carries roughly the same sail area as the Catalina 34, and redesign of the appendages, are higher pointing angles and better balance at the helm. Coupled witha finer entry and hull design, performance is improved, which even the most casual cruiser should appreciate.
With more than 25 years in business, Butler has overseen the construction of thousands of the 22' to 42' boats he’s designed, including more than 15,000 Catalina 22s, which was among the first boats inducted into the Sailboat Hall of Fame last spring. It is reasonable to assume the company knows how to properly lay up a hull, though it is continually exploring methods that will reduce cost without compromising structural integrity. A change in material from woven to knitted mat was included in the 320, for instance, in an attempt to increase hull strength while reducing displacement and simplifying fabrication.
The hull of the 320 is solid fiberglass, nine alternating layers of 1.5-ounce mat and 21.7-ounce roving. Vinylester resins are used on exterior skins above and below the waterline, so the hull is guaranteed for five years against blistering. Seven additional thicknesses of mat, roving and 2415 Promat are laid up in the bottom of the hull until a thickness of 1" is reached. Layers of 1208 Promat, and 2-mm Coremat reinforce the transom and sections where hull and deck are joined.
The hull-deck joint is a shoe box arrangement with a vertical deck flange extending downward over the hull, which results in a joint having both vertical and horizontal mating surfaces. Additional support is provided by a wood section inserted between the hull and liner, all of which are bonded with a putty consisting of filled polyester resin before being through-bolted with stainless steel fasteners located on 7" centers. It is a strong joint.
The deck is cored with plywood sections, and the cabin top with end-grain balsa.
In typical Catalina fashion, the interior of the boat consists of molded fiberglass liners tabbed to the hull that add strength but make life difficult when dealing with a problem such as occurred with some of the first 320s: Inadequate wiring runs were buried beneath the pans during the layout, and chafe and breaks occurred. Those boats were rewired and retrofitted with PVC conduit; subsequent boats were redesigned to eliminate the problem. As we toured
the factory and saw boats in varying stages of production, we were impressed by the level of attention to detail, even on surfaces that would ultimately be covered by the liners. Nonetheless, the wiring problem supports our bias against liners which restrict access to some parts of the hull.
The bilge in early models also proved to be too shallow, so new owners often found water sloshing about amidships. Those boats were retrofitted with baffles, which helps alleviate the problem. Later, the molds were retooled to create deeper cavities below the floorboards. We didn’t notice any problem during our test of the boat.
The mast, a tapered doublespreader section constructed by Sparcraft, is stepped on deck. However, to avoid stress problems in the deck, loads are transferred directly to a compression post, which is a hardcast anodized tube attached belowdecks to 4" x 8" beams laminated to a fiberglass structural grid system.
Wire standing rigging is attached to deck plates that connect stainless tie rods located in the main salon to an L-shaped aluminum bar laminated into the hull that acts as a chainplate.
The 320 is designed specifically for the cruising market and accommodations reflect the designers’ intent to enhance performance without compromising on creature comforts.
The most noticeable characteristic of the space belowdecks is that the boat feels bigger than a 32- footer. In fact, at 11' 9", it is beamy. One owner, who considered purchasing similarly-sized boats offered by two competitors, and the Catalina 36, told us that
he purchased the 320 because he didn’t feel there was any compromise on space belowdecks, and the boat could be easily doublehanded by he and his middle-aged wife. He says he added a lot of cruising gear with the money he saved.
The immediate impression upon stepping below is of lightness reflected from the varnished ash battens that line the hull, teak bulkheads and hand rails, and a teak and holly sole. Non-wood surfaces are white, accented by suede-like cushions on two settees. Sunlight filters into the boat from two Lewmar hatches and 10 portlights, four of which open to provide ventilation. Overhead lights are scattered throughout. The companionway steps are rounded up at the ends, making it easier to use when the boat is heeled.
The galley, located to port, has a double stainless sink, Groehe faucets, laminated surfaces, a 5-cubicfoot Adler-Barber refrigerator with 4" insulation, and a Hillerange two-burner stove/oven. A dry locker, three large overhead cabinets, and a pot and pans cupboard aft of the ice box, offer adequate storage space for cruising.
The head, located to starboard at the foot of the companionway, has adequate lighting but seems to increase in size with the light from a skylight and mirrors that cover a bulkhead. It is not spacious, but has a sink, toilet, and shower with its own sump pump. Access to head hoses is facilitated by removing the back panel of the medicine cabinet; three through-hulls are located in a cubby near the wet locker.
The saloon has comfortable seating for four people at a table, mounted on a post, that converts to a double berth, and for others on a port settee, the front of which doubles as seating for the navigator.
The nav station table is adequately-sized, but the boat’s electrical panel is located in a spot that would be a better candidate for loran, GPS and other instruments. A shelf located above the panel offers a great spot for books but could better have been utilized for electronics. One owner, who had added instruments, radar and autopilot to the boat, was forced to buy a second panel.
The forepeak is large enough to sleep two adults, and has storage bins port and starboard, and two drawers. A unique touch is that the main panels of the bulkhead separating the forepeak from the saloon are removable, adding to the sense of spaciousness by creating view corridors as well as improving air circulation between the cabins.
The master stateroom is amazingly spacious, considering this is a 32-footer. Accessed to starboard at the foot of the companionway, it is furnished with a queen-size berth and has standing headroom. It has a hanging locker, the only one on the boat (on wet trips, the head might have to be utilized for additional hanging space), and a small bookshelf. Natural light and ventilation are provided by three cockpit portlights.
Another owner, who described himself as being 6' 2" and weighing 230 pounds, shared the berth with his wife during a month-long cruise and told us he was very comfortable. Because it’s located below the cockpit, there’s the possibility it will be noisy when sailing through the night,.
The engine is located aft of the companionway steps, and is accessed most easily from the stateroom. While it is well insulated and easily accessible when changing lubricants and filters, we wondered about the potential for odors. However, two owners, each of whom have spent extended periods aboard, reported neither odors nor noise problems.
Owner feedback after 340 boats indicates that the size and design of the T-shaped cockpit is appealing to cruisers and dockside loungers. It’s 8' 9" long, 5' 7" wide, and has 17" wide seats with 13" high, ergonomically- designed backrests, and good storage capacity under the seats.
The helmsman can handle a conventionally mounted 40" Edson wheel from a seat mounted on the stern, or take a position on either rail. Access to the rudder post for an emergency tiller is aft of the binnacle, which means that the emergency tiller will be steered "backwards" from the stern.
There’s comfortable seating for six in the cockpit, and two additional “observation seats” mounted on the stern pulpit. The helmsman’s seat is removable, which allows a section of the stern to be removed to reach the swim platform and ladder.
The port lazarette was designed to provide cruisers with adequate space for two 26" bicycles, or
sailing gear. A removable tray in this compartment has space for electrical cords, winch handles and the like. A second self-contained storage compartment with an overboard vent houses a propane tank, hoses for which are installed in runs along the hull at the factory. Further aft, batteries are stored in a small compartment at the stern. A lazarette to starboard is large enough for stowage of a dinghy or life raft. Water and fuel fillers are on the corner of the stern, so spills should not slop into the cockpit.
Standard equipment includes four Lewmar winches. The primaries are self-tailing 44s, with self-tailing 30s mounted on the cabin top for halyards, the mainsheet and traveler controls. This arrangement will work well until owners opt to add a spinnaker, at which point two additional winches will be a must.
Halyards are led aft to sheet stoppers on the cabin top located just aft of the main traveler; controls for the solid vang and topping lift were not, a common complaint among owners not anxious to begin drilling holes in their new boats. Because the mainsheet and vang are the only controls for the fully-battened main, performance-oriented sailors are adding a Cunningham and adjustable backstay, options we feel cruisers should consider as well. One owner said he felt the sail track was inadequate for racing, so upgraded to sturdier gear.
Unlike more performance-oriented designs, the Schaefer 2000 roller furler has been mounted above the deck, which may reduce the efficiency of a genoa, in exchange for improving visibility. The tradeoff, though, is a uniquely designed anchor well with two molded areas for lightweight-type anchors and a third for a plow, plus room for rode, which is attached to an electric winch mounted below.
We tested the boat in 10-12 knot breezes in the Pacific Ocean and also solicited comments from other 320 owners. The boat moves effortlessly under power from the three-cylinder Yanmar that is now standard equipment. It is responsive, turns on its keel and, in the words of one owner, “could be steered backwards through a slalom course.”
The 320 tacks easily, and points to within 40-45 degrees of apparent wind. One owner reported that the addition of sail controls improved pointing ability by five degrees, but since our demo boat had only the mainsheet and vang, we couldn’t achieve higher angles. Purpose-built sails instead of a furler-mounted genoa also would improve performance.
Once into the 2'-4' ocean swells, we found the motion to be seakindly, though the helm is so wellbalanced it takes time to find a proper sailing groove. Sitting behind the wheel made it difficult to see the telltales, and finding a comfortable spot on the rail was difficult because the cockpit is so wide. When we hit the groove, however, the boat buried its shoulder and rewarded good helmsmanship with squirts forward, sailing best at about 15 degrees of heel. We are not sure if it would have more feel and sail more efficiently with a tiller, or whether we just needed more time at the wheel.
We discovered the boat has a turn of speed when we overtook two 35-38-footers cruising in the same sailing lanes. One owner, who formerly sailed a Catalina 30, reports that the boat is significantly faster than the 30 or 34, and another won his cruising division the first year on the race course, sailing with a provisional PHRF handicap of 150.
Our only time downwind was spent with just a genoa; we suspect it will need a cruising or conventional spinnaker to improve performance when sailing deep jibe angles.
The sailaway price of a 320 as we tested the boat, including fully-battened main, 135% genoa on a Schaefer furler, 3-cylinder diesel, and assorted other equipment, is $70,975. We agree with owners who say they are receiving good value. During a tour of the factory, we had the opportunity to see several boats in various stages of production, and consider quality control to be well-above average. The design is well thought out, and the performance better than we’veexperienced with other Catalina models. The average weekend cruiser will be able to step aboard and spend enjoyable time afloat, but those planning extended cruises will find themselves reorganizing stowage and creating spaces and methods for hanging gear.
Racers should plan on expenditures for sail controls and well-cut racing sails.
Owners we talked to said after-sale service was excellent; one mentioned that when he has a problem he simply “calls Frank.”
We liked the boat, and think it bears close inspection.