Popular coastal cruiser with a big interior makes a great first 'big' boat
The Catalina 28 underscores why Catalina has built more sailboats than any other American builder-more than 60,000 and counting. This versatile sloop is easy to handle and sails surprisingly well. There is nothing extreme about the design and it's relatively simple to maintain. The high-volume interior has more room than many 32-foot boats. There is excellent factory support, an active owner's group and parts and services are readily available. The 28 is affordable to buy and to operate. Furthermore, when you want to move up or down there is a well defined market for selling the boat. This adds up to a formula for success in an industry where failure can be the norm.
Catalina, based in Southern California, is famous for long production runs. Introduced in 1991 the 28 (and with the 270 that was launched a year later) replaced the legendary Catalina 27 as the all-time best selling keel boat. An updated version in 1995, the 28 MK II is still in production. If you're looking for a first "big" boat to introduce your family to sailing, or simply looking for one of the best values in the 28- to 30-foot range, you owe it to yourself to look closely at a used Catalina 28. With prices ranging from less than $30,000 for an older model to just under $60,000 for an almost new boat, the 28 is a lot of boat for the buck.
Designed by Gerry Douglas and his in-house design team, the 28 sports the distinct Catalina profile. The sheerline is flat, the bow overhang is moderate, the broad transom is reversed and there is ample freeboard. The sloping cabintrunk extends well into the foredeck and the dark portlights are vintage Catalina. This is a big 28-foot boat, and not just because the LOA is actually 28 feet, 6 inches. The beam is a healthy 10 feet, 2 inches and it's carried well aft, especially in the MK II, and the bilges are full, creating a voluminous hull.
Below the waterline, the forefoot is relatively shallow, the fin keel angles aft and the rudder is balanced, another example of Catalina's well-honed hull shape that provides decent performance through a range of conditions. The standard draft is 5 feet, 3 inches, however, the 3-foot, 8-inch shoal-draft wing keel was a popular option and seems to be widely available on the used boat market. The iron ballast weighs in at 3,200 pounds for the standard fin keel model, the wing keel is slightly heavier. The fin keel model displaces 8,300 pounds. A double-spreader sloop, the 28 was offered with either a standard or a tall rig. By most accounts the boat is stiff in a blow, and unless you sail on San Francisco Bay, the tall rig, which has an air draft of 44 feet, 4 inches, is the preferred option. The fin-keel standard-rig 28 has a sail area-to-displacement ratio of 14.21, while the tall rig bumps it up to 15.46. Either way, the 28 will not be a demon in light air.
Catalina uses its production scale to build boats efficiently. For example, they use the same hatches and deck fittings on several different models, streamlining production costs and for the most part, passing savings on to consumers. That does not mean the company's boats are not well built. On the contrary, while smaller Catalinas less than 40 feet are not specifically built for crossing oceans, they hold up very well under most cruising conditions. And of course, plenty of Catalinas have completed impressive bluewater voyages, including circumnavigations. Catalina owners are loyal. It is safe to say that more owners stay with Catalinas when they move up to a larger model than with any other manufacturer. This simply would not be the case if its boats were poorly built.
The 28's construction is fairly typical of the entire Catalina line. The hull is solid fiberglass, hand layed and the deck is balsa cored. The hull and deck are joined with an overlapping, shoe box joint that also incorporates the aluminum toerail. This is a good technique for limiting leaks but it does expose this critical joint to side impacts. The bulkheads are marine plywood with hardwood veneers. The bulkheads are slotted into the deck liner as molded liners are used throughout the boat. Over the years I have observed that some of the secondary bonding is not as robust as it might be. The iron keel is externally fastened. Fiberglass stringers stiffen the hull and provide athwartship support.
What to look for
The first item to consider is whether or not the MK II is worth the extra money, typically you will pay 25 to 35 percent more than an original 28. Several changes were introduced with the updated model in late 1995. The aft hull section was widened slightly, making the aft cabin more commodious. The galley was redesigned and sail controls were fine tuned. John Cairns, who sails Talisman, a 1992 Catalina 28, on Lake Erie, says with a laugh, "They addressed all my petty concerns with the MK II." Some of those issues include an inaccessible refrigeration compartment, inadequate locker latches, the location of the batteries in the stern and poor ventilation in the aft cabin. Cairns is right, these are slight problems and easily corrected. "Overall," he told me, "I am impressed with the boat, it has held up very well." Other owners have reported gelcoat cracking and crazing and annoying leaks, including around the base of the pedestal.
The Catalina 28 has a terrific T-shaped cockpit with wheel steering, and there is room for four adults to sit comfortably while under way. The 32-inch destroyer wheel is by Edson and the primary winches are Lewmar 30s. The walk-through transom allows easy access to the water and the dinghy via a narrow stern platform and the ladder cleverly folds up to form the stern rail. The mainsheet traveler is forward, over the companionway, and although this creates a lot of load on the boom, it really opens up the cockpit and allows easy companionway access. Most 28s will have all sail controls led aft, including a single-line reefing system. I have used this system on several different Catalina models over the years and am not a big fan of it because a single-line system has to overcome too much friction. I think it's faster and ultimately safer to reef the main from the base of the mast where the leverage is best. Because the aft cabin is tucked beneath the cockpit there isn't a cockpit locker. New models however have wonderful seats mounted on the stern rail, a great perch when under sail.
The 28 has fairly wide side decks and the chainplates are mounted inboard for easy maneuvering and tight sheeting angles. The original 28s have teak handrails on the coachroof, while the newer boats have stainless steel. In fact, the elimination of all exterior brightwork was one of the successes of the MK II design. The deck-stepped mast is well supported with fore and aft lower shrouds, a rare sight these days. Check around the mast base for deck depression, a factor if the rig has been over tightened. Catalina was one of the first builders to make double lifelines standard and the stanchions and pulpits are well supported on the 28, although they could be a bit taller.
The interior layout offers two genuine sleeping cabins, a spacious saloon, a full galley and head and a nav station, all in a 28-foot boat. "Two couples can comfortably cruise the boat, at least for awhile," Cairn said. The forward V-berth is good sized and an overhead hatch provides ventilation. This hatch is located on the sloping section of the trunkhouse, which makes it good for catching air and water. It needs to be dogged while under way. The saloon has facing settees and a centerline table that drapes the mast compression post. With the table open four people can eat in style.
The galley is immediately to starboard an includes a large sink, plenty of counter space, and in most cases, a two-burner stove. Be wary of pressurized alcohol stoves on the older models. Also, the icebox, which is under the nav desk, is deep and difficult to access. The head is opposite the galley and includes a shower. Most boats will have hot and cold pressure water. The aft cabin is entered from behind the galley and offers an athwartship double bunk. The only ventilation on the original 28 was through a small port opening into the cockpit. A couple of 12-volt cabin fans will help with this problem. Elegant yet functional, the interior workmanship is surprisingly nice.
The first 28s were fitted with Universal M3-20 diesels, while the later models have been upgraded to 3-cylinder, 26-horsepower Universal model 25XS. Access to the engine is excellent although the sound insulation needs to be improved on older models. Access to the stuffing box is through the aft cabin and requires tearing the berth apart to reach. Cairns said that his Universal 20 pushes the boat along at 5 knots at 2,000 rpm. And it's economical. "I haven't used a tankful of fuel yet in a season, and I use the boat a lot. Of course I sail whenever I can," he said. Fuel capacity is 19 gallons.
"What I like best about my boat is the way she sails," said Cairns, an experienced sailor who recently sailed around Cape Horn. "But not in my 28," he hastened to add. In a 10-knot beam reach the boat balances very well. "That's why I haven't purchased an autopilot, I can leave the wheel and she'll steer herself for extended periods." Cairns said that the helm is light in most conditions, even hard on the wind. The boat is relatively close winded and has a nice turn of speed off the wind. Cairns says he thinks about shortening sail when wind hits 17 to 18 knots but that things don't get to be handful until the wind is steady more than 20 knots. Several owners note that the 28 is stiff in a blow, making it an ideal boat for a family or new sailor as it does not require micromanagement.
The Catalina 28 is a perfect example of why sailing should be more popular, there isn't much not to like about this boat. It isn't an offshore cruiser and it isn't going to win races. It is, however, an affordable cruiser that's easy to sail and comfortable on deck and below. The Catalina 28 should be high on your list if you're looking for a used boat in the $30,000 to $40,000 range.