Good sailing, roomy interior and active owners behind the popularity of this coastal cruiser
The Catalina 27 is an American classic. First launched in 1971, more than 6,600 boats were built during a 20-year production run, making it possibly the best-selling 27-footer of all time. Frank Butler, the 27's co-designer, as well as the founder and driving force behind Catalina Yachts, has a uncanny knack for creating boats that people love and they show their love with their checkbooks. Catalina has built more than 60,000 boats, more than any other American sailboat company.
In many ways, the 27 was the model for a design and construction philosophy that continues to serve Catalina today. It is a simple but successful formula-build stylish but definitely affordable boats with semimodern hull shapes and high-volume interiors. Catalina builds its boats efficiently, which is often viewed as a sin by other builders that secretly envy the company's huge production runs. Catalina knows its customers and what they want. The company has an impressive ratio of repeat buyers, which is the ultimate compliment for any builder.
By the same token, used boat buyers also know what they're getting with the Catalina 27. It's a spacious, user-friendly family cruiser. A PHRF rating of around 210 means that it can be raced competitively on Wednesday nights or in active one-design fleets, although racing is not its forte. It is an ideal boat for the way most of us use our boats, that is daysailing and weekend outings. It isn't the best engineered boat in the marina, but it is, as one owner told me, a boat you can let your 16-year-old son take out with his friends and not worry about. And you can find a nice Catalina 27 with an outboard engine for well under $10,000.
The Catalina 27 was a "big" boat when it was first introduced in 1971. In fact, at the time it was the queen of the Catalina fleet. The look is "California 1970s modern." This translates into an almost flat sheerline with a large but nicely blended cabintrunk and cockpit coamings. There is plenty of freeboard and nearly 9 feet of beam, which of course creates space below. Under the water, the high-aspect fin keel sweeps aft, as does the spade rudder. A wing keel shoal-draft model was offered in 1979, reducing the draft from 4 feet to 3 feet, 5 inches but requiring extra ballast. A tall rig option was available for light-air regions.
The Catalina 27 hull is solid fiberglass and the thickness tapers significantly from the waterline up. The deck is plywood cored, which is not the best material for the job, although deck delamination doesn't seem to be the common problem it is on many older boats. Catalina used molded hull and headliners, streamlining the manufacturing process.
I often lament the use of liners in my reviews because they make it difficult to access the hull and have structural limitations. However, for boats less than 30 feet, they make production sense provided that they are well bonded to the hull. The Catalina 27 was not designed or built to be a bluewater boat, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Some original construction details are more worrisome than the less than robust scantlings. Early boats were fitted with gate valves on below-the-waterline through-hull fittings and most deck hardware did not have backing plates. It is likely that these shortcomings have been addressed by owners along the way. The ballast is external and the iron keel bolts should be carefully examined. The ballast-to-displacement ratio is more than 40 percent.
What to look for
The first thing to look for is the right configuration that suits your needs from among the variables: standard or shoal draft, standard or tall rig, outboard or inboard engine, gas or diesel inboard. In addition to the wing keel offered in 1979, a 3-foot shoal draft was an option from the start. If you sail on Chesapeake Bay and plan to race the boat in the active one-design fleet in Annapolis, than you might be best suited with a standard draft, tall rig, outboard engine, early model 27. These were the lightest, fastest and cheapest boats. If you live in Florida and want to cross the Gulf Stream and cruise the Bahamas, the shoal draft, standard rig, inboard diesel model might be your best choice. There were many small changes made during the long production run, so the best acquisition strategy is to look at many different boats before making a choice.
In addition to finding the right configuration, there are several other problems to be wary of. Leaks are the bane of many 27s and water finds its way below through the hull-and-deck joint, the hatches, the chainplates and deck fittings. Chainplate leaks often result in bulkhead delamination.
Be sure to check the through-hull fittings and replace any gate valves with seacocks. Also, check for backing plates on deck fittings, occasionally owners have added these and sometimes by remounting the fittings they have inadvertently created leaks. The lack of backing plates allowed deck fittings to move, and the gelcoat around chocks, cleats, and other fittings is often crazed and cracked. Other items to inspect are the spreaders and particularly the cast aluminum spreader sockets as they're prone to failure. The result can be a mast toppling into the drink. Apparently Catalina is well aware of this problem and has a ready-made replacement kit available.
The Catalina 27 has a shallow but comfortable cockpit with a locker to port and aft lazarette. Tiller steering was standard, although I have seen some early boats retrofitted with a pedestal and wheel. Late in the production run, wheel steering became an option and many boats after 1984 are equipped with wheels. The companionway is enormous and there is not a bridgedeck to speak of. Companionway leaks are common, especially on older models before a sea hood was added. The mainsheet arrangement shifted around over the years. Early boats lead the sheet aft, but the angle from the boom to the traveler is not very efficient and tends to interfere with the helmsman. Later boats mounted the traveler over the companionway, however this midboom sheeting really adds a lot of friction to the system and loads up a boom section that isn't very stout.
The headsail tracks are inboard, allowing close sheeting angles. The standard rigging requires a close inspection, and if it is older than 10 years consider updating it. Double lifelines became standard early, but the lifelines were led to the base of the bow pulpit. This was fairly common in the 1960s and early 1970s, allowing the deck-sweeping genoas to roam freely. The forward hatch mounts flush, which is nice looking and saves a few toe bruises, but almost assures leaks when a wave sloshes aboard. A nice improvement was the molded external chain locker added on later models.
The interior is spacious and user-friendly. It doesn't feature elegant joinerwork, but so what, you don't buy a Catalina 27 for the craftsmanship, you buy it to have fun on the water. The huge companionway makes stepping below a breeze, which is not always the case in small boats. If you happen across an old boat that hasn't been updated, it is like stepping into a time capsule. Honest John, the 1974 model I examined in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, still had the original plaid cushion covers and weird orange brown shag carpeting. Still, the boat has more room below than my brother's Centurion 32 of the same vintage.
Catalina offered two basic interior plans. The standard layout includes a V-berth forward followed by an enclosed head. The saloon has two opposite settees and the galley is aft to port. The dinette interior layout places the galley alongside to port with a dinette to starboard and two quarter berths, which are the best sleeping berths on the boat. For cruising purposes the dinette arrangement is more convenient, although the standard plan is less cluttered. Both layouts include plenty of storage, although it is under the settees and something of a pain to access. Headroom is about 6 feet and ventilation is adequate. Most galleys will have small one- or two-burner alcohol stoves, and some may have 12-volt refrigeration, although this will likely have required a complete icebox rebuild as the original insulation was inadequate. The original icebox drain tends to back flow when heeled to port. The electrical panel is tucked away in the quarter berth.
When it comes to the engine, you'll find a great variety when you start looking at used Catalina 27s. Originally the boat was offered with either an outboard or an Atomic 4 gasoline engine. The outboard was designed to fit into the aft locker, or engine well, and while this kept the engine out of sight, it didn't make it easy to operate or maintain. Most owners fitted remote engine controls. The advantage of an outboard is that you can haul it off the boat, put it in the trunk and take it to a shop for repairs. And, when it's past its prime you simply buy a new one. The disadvantages include the lack of power (you need at least a 9.9-horsepower engine) difficulty in maneuvering in tight quarters and the inability to charge the batteries efficiently.
The inboard option is probably better, although the engine location under the cockpit is difficult to access, making even simple tasks like checking the oil a challenge. The Universal Atomic 4 at one time dominated the sailboat market and is plenty of engine for the Catalina 27. Although gasoline engines have gone out of fashion, Atomic 4 parts are readily available and cheap. You can actually buy a completely rebuilt Atomic 4 for less than a new 10-horsepower outboard. Diesels became an option in the late 1970s. Some boats were fitted with a 6-horsepower Petter, which is a cranky machine under the best of conditions and doesn't provide much oomph. Later boats had two-cylinder Universal diesels. If I could find a 27 with one of these, especially if it had low hours, I'd jump on it.
Naturally, the different hull and rig configurations influence the sailing characteristics. One of the most surprising features of the 27 is how nicely it sails. The boat is fairly well balanced, and according to several owner reports, thrives upwind in moderate conditions. In heavy air the 27 is a bit tender and one owner suggests putting the first reef in the main at 12 knots. Ironically, another says he sails his boat on breezy San Francisco Bay and is impressed with how stiff the boat is. Several owners who race the boat note that fairing the hull is critical, and another attributes his success to changing the wire rope halyards to Kevlar. My own experience is limited to a few sails on Michigan's Lake St. Clair long ago, but I clearly remember the boat being responsive, relatively fast and easy to sail.
The Catalina 27 fits the vague description of coastal cruiser and casual racer. With that said, several boats have made impressive passages. I remember talking with a young solo sailor in Bermuda who was heading toward the Caribbean in his 27, and I heard of another 27 that circumnavigated.
The Catalina 27 didn't become one of the most popular boats ever built without good reason. It offers good sailing, comfortable accommodations, one-design fleets and active owner's groups. With prices ranging from around $6,000 for old, tired 27s to around $20,000 for late-model gems, the boat is also a terrific value.