29 November 2013

Boat Review: Catalina 36

We’re working through various options for when we buy a new boat next year. I imagine sailboat shopping can be tedious and a bit overwhelming, so we want to try to narrow things down to a few potential boats for our short-list. At this point our high-level criteria are (which I'm sure will change considerably as we do more research):
  • Cost – Despite our best efforts we haven’t won the lottery, so ideally we’re looking for something in the US$50-60k range. This is just a ballpark figure at this point and very much depends upon what the boat comes kitted out with and what work and upgrades it needs. We still buy lottery tickets from time to time so maybe this will change. Here’s hoping.
  • Size – We’re looking for something in the 35-38’ range for two reasons – cost and ease of sailing. We currently sail on a 26’ boat so I’m sure anything larger will seem palatial at this point. And depending upon budget constraints, we may even go with something smaller than 35'.
  • Configuration – We’re only interested in a sloop (only two sails to worry about) and we want a shoal draft as we’ll be initially exploring the Caribbean (at least that's our current thinking).
  • Interior – We want two cabins so that we can have guests come and visit and a U-shaped galley aft. Scott is on the taller side so we need decent headroom. Other than that, we’re not too fussy.
So first cab off the rank (or boat in this case) in our boat reviews is the Catalina 36.
The Catalina 36 is one of the most popular boats of this size with over 3,000 built between 1982-2006. The original version (MK I) was replaced in 1995 by the MK II which has has a larger cockpit and a more roomy and comfortable quarter berth cabin. With the MK II, Catalina also moved to using vinylester rather than polyester resins in the outer layers to reduce osmotic blistering. I have no idea what vinylester is (the term makes me think of some guy named Lester with a lot of tacky gold chains wearing a vinyl suit saying, "Hey baby, what's your sign?"), but anything which prevents osmosis is a good thing in my book.
Both versions are solid laminate with fiberglass and plastic resin – you won’t find any balsa or foam inside their cores which I find reassuring. (Balsa wood is what you make model airplanes out of and which a 4-year old child can easily snap in two. Intuitively, doesn’t seem like something structurally sound. I’m sure it is or else it wouldn’t be used, but I just can’t get my head around it.) The decks and cabin, however, are cores with balsa wood and plywood sandwiched between fiberglass laminates.
There are two options for the keel – a standard fin keel with 5’10” draft or a swept back delta wing keel with 4’5” draft. The wings are meant to make up for the shallower draft through some sort of “hydrodynamic” effect when the boat gets tippy. I don’t know what that means but I also didn’t understand how the AC72 catamarans flew on top of the water either in the America’s Cup. All I’m interested in is the shallower draft so we have less chance of running aground.
Up Top
The Catalina 36 has wide side decks, double lifelines and a molded toe rail. I like this set-up as it means you can easily move forward and do so more safely. There is an anchor lock and stainless steel roller at the bow. The mainsheet traveler is mounted forward of the companionway and the halyards are led to winches at the companionway so everything is kept out of the cockpit. The Catalina 36 is steered by a wheel at the stern. There are differences in the transom with earlier boats having a solid transom and later ones having a walk-through one along with a nifty swim platform.
The Catalina 36 is rigged as a simple masthead sloop which ticks one of our major requirements. You have a choice of two sail plans – standard rig with 555 sq ft of sail area or a tall rig with 601 sq ft (and which has a mast that is two feet taller and a boom which is a foot longer). I guess people who like to race in areas with lighter winds prefer the taller rig. I’m planning on taking things slowly so I’m sure we would be happy with the standard rig.
Down Below
Overall, the Catalina 36 has good set-up down below which ticks our basic requirements, including:
  • V-berth forward
  • Head with sit-down shower to port
  • Hanging locker and storage to starboard
  • Main saloon with U-shaped dinette to port and two seats separated by small table to starboard
  • Aft galley on the port side with double stainless steel sink, two burner stove and oven, top loading icebox and decent storage
  • Navigation station on starboard across from galley
  • Quarter berth cabin with double berth aft
In his review of a Catalina 36 in Sailing Today, Jake Firth describes the interior as well suited to Americans, “Without being too cruel or clich├ęd about America’s obesity epidemic, everything below on this boat smacks of being designed with the larger girths in mind.” I feel reassured that I can eat as many cookies and cakes as I want and still fit into the Catalina 36. Girth wasn’t on our original list of criteria, but maybe we’ll add it on.
Although I find engines boring, they are pretty important things (unless you are the Pardeys and can maneuver and anchor your boat expertly without one). The Catalina 36 comes with a Universal/Westerbeke marine diesel engine which can be three or four cylinder models ranging from 21-30hp depending on when the boat was built. Although they are supposed to be reliable engines, there was a recall in 2002 of some of the 1997-2000 model engines which affected a large number of boats. I’ll let Scott worry about this one.
What To Look Out For
Some potential issues to look out which are flagged up by Jack Horner in his 2012 review in Boat U.S. include:
  • A less expensive shoebox style deck-to-hull joint was used in the build instead of a more substantial flanged joint with heavy-duty rub rail. This makes the boat more vulnerable to damage from minor docking incidents. (“Minor docking incidents” has our name written all over it, so definitely something to watch out for. And I wouldn’t rule out “major” ones either.)
  • The fiberglass liners used for the interior compartments are tabbed in place in a way that is structurally sound but can be difficult to access for inspections or service.
  • The stainless steel steamhead fitting which the forestay attaches to can corrode so this needs to be periodically inspected and addressed if any corrosion or cracking is found.
  • You need to watch out for leaking deck-to-hull joints, windows and hatches in older models. (Although I imagine you need to look out for leaking in most older boats?)
  • And you may find some osmosis, particularly in the MK I version.
Jake Firth also points out that if you’re looking at a wing keel boat, you should look for grounding damage to the rudders especially the earlier versions where the rudders were deeper than the keel.
The Catalina 36 is a very popular boat with a proven design and track record. Overall, this is a plus as there is an active owner’s association who are happy to share their expertise and experience and resale may be easier as it is a well-known boat (although we know you don’t expect to make money selling your boat on). On the other hand, there are a lot of them out there, so if you’re hoping to be unique, this isn’t the boat for you. It is one of the more affordable options out there in this price range (they seem to be averaging around US$50-70k based on current Yachtworld listings), but affordability does mean trade-offs in design and finish. The set-up is good down below and relatively spacious, although in an ideal world, I would like a separate shower cubicle. The one big downside of the Catalina 36 is that it is a coastal cruiser and while I’m sure she has been taken out on blue water passages, it would probably require quite a bit of modification and that means money. So overall, the Catalina 36 looks like she meets our basic requirements and we’re putting her on our shortlist of boats to check out more thoroughly.

We may also check out the Catalina 34 as well. The folks over at Sail Far, Live Free just bought one and it looks great. They gave us some good pointers about the differences between the Catalina 34 and 36 in their comments section on their blog and it sounds like the 2' difference between the two boats might not be that big of a deal. I have a feeling it will be like this - constantly adding new boats to the list to look at and potentially becoming completely overwhelmed by choice!

We would love to hear from your thoughts on the Catalina 36, as well as any suggestions of other boats we should look at.
If you're interested in other slightly eccentric posts on how to buy a sailboat when you know nothing about sailing or boats, check out this page.

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Notes: If you're interested in finding out more about the Catalina 36, some good resources include Jack Horner's review in Boat US, Jake Firth's review of a Catalina 36 from a British perspective in Sailing Today, the Catalina 36 International Association and the Catalina Owner's Association. You can find the specs for the original Catalina 36 here and the MK II here. If you're a fan of the whole Tumbleweed tiny house movement, check out this video of living aboard a Catalina 36. You can also check out Catalina's website for info about the company in general, as well as their current models.

Via The Graphics Fairy


  1. Are you searching on Yachtworld.com Its a great resource....

    1. Yes, that is a really great resource! Scott is always looking at Yachtworld and dreaming about his next boat. I think the other one he looks at is sailboatlistings.com - I don't know if you've run across that one? Cheers - Ellen

    2. If you are looking at Catalina's you might consider the Catalina 38, which evolved from a Sparkman and Stephens design. This means you know it's a sweet sailing boat.
      I hear you about winning the lottery. Maybe some day.

    3. Good tip on the Catalina 38 - I'll check that one out. Thanks!

  2. Not familiar with the 36, but did bareboat a Catalina 309 for a few days. For a 30 foot boat we found it to be quite spacious, my only space complaint was the ability to take a shower in the small-ish head (don't know how it compares to the 36).


    I could live on the 309, and the prices of mono's are better than cats...but after our experience with hurricane Sandy, my wife dictated the 2 hull minimum in our quest. The best advice I can give (for what it is worth) is to keep an open mind. The boat we are about to close on wasn't on our original list at all. :)

    Good luck with your search!

    1. I think the open mind will be essential. It seems like every day we do some more research we add more boats to the maybe list. it can be a bit overwhelming at times. Thanks for the info on the Catalina 309 - I'll check your post out on it. Cheers - Ellen

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  4. awesome boat. if you are looking for the best boats then vso marine provide the best boats.
    SOV Yachts

  5. We have a 1985 C-36 MK1. Love it. We have sailed her from San Diego to Zihuatanejo and all over the sea of Cortez.She was well suited for the task. Equipped with all Garmin electronics including AIS and autopilot plus 450 watts of solar.We rented out the house and have lived aboard "SPICA" for four years. Some things never get old.

  6. Its a pinch out of your budget, but the Island Packet 350 is a great boat. Rigged as a cutter but can be sailed with 2.

    1. The Island Packet 350 is a nice boat - we would be interested, but as you say they can be a bit pricey. Do you have one?

  7. You might want to look at our site at www.catalina36.org. Some of the Members have their boats for sale including a great one in Michigan for $57K. I live on my C36 and love it. By the way the aft cabin is more spacious in the MkI model.

    1. They are great boats! They were definitely one of the ones we were considering, but we ended up buying a Moody 346 just recently.

  8. Given that the UK is the most obese nation in Western Europe and the NHS doctors are talking about the UK's obesity epidemic, I think the authors of these reviews should stop chucking stones in glass houses.

    It was explained to me when I owned my Catalina that the companionway was intentionally made large enough so that the auxiliary engine could be lifted straight out without having to strip it down to the block should it need to be replaced. If you look, in most Catalina's the engine is almost directly below the 'large' companionway.

    just saying.

    1. Good point - it would make it so much easier to get the engine out. Although, one hopes that you never have to repower.

  9. I took the bait and click on this "popular post" on your home page. When we bought our Catalina 36 we did absolutely no research, nada, ziltch, nothing - a total impulse buy. Good review. Can I bribe you to research our next boat?

  10. I currently own a 27 Watkins shallow draft and love it but it's not big enough to make my trip to st Croix so I found an 88 model cat 36 I'm Concidering .so far it looks like a solid boat but I'm told people have lost their rudders because of corrosion .any thoughts


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