Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Buying a Catalina 320 - Part 1

In response to a question that was posed on the Catalina 320 list by a prospective buyer of a Catalina 320 looking for problem areas to be aware of, I wrote the following response. This response has been refined by input from others, and has been improved from the original email for publication. 

Due to the length of the material, it is being broken out into two blog entries. See Part Two in a future entry.

Catalina 320 Review and Known Issues

By Doug Treff, September Song, Hull 350

In my opinion, the Catalina 320 is a fine vessel for the purpose that it serves me - cruising the Chesapeake Bay. As with any boat, there are pluses and minuses with the design.  Every boat design is a compromise of form and function. I believe that Catalina hit a home run with the 320, and its continued popularity, even after being replaced by a newer model, bears that theory out. The strong C320 owners association adds value as well, since we all share ideas and solutions to problems. Below is a list of things I Love, things I don’t love, common repair issues and design flaws for the C320.

Things I Love:
  •  The Aft cabin - Having the Aft cabin really makes a huge difference in the amount of space on board for accommodating guests. It also offers more privacy than other boats without this feature.  At the 2015 boat show in Annapolis, I toured the current models. The 315, which Catalina considers an equivalent new model to the discontinued 320, does not have the same size aft cabin. You need to move up to a 355 to get a similar aft cabin now.
  • It's competitive compared to other models - I am continually amazed how I can hang with larger boats when out sailing. Boats that should have a speed advantage due to sail area and waterline length, yet I can keep pace with them.
  • The Cockpit is comfortable and roomy for entertaining, and the large wheel makes it easy to sit outboard and see around the cabin while steering the boat. Bonus - the walk-through transom.
  • A full shower in the head - This is my first boat with a shower and it was a huge selling point.
Things I Don't Love:
  • Side-loading aft berth - Whoever sleeps closest to the door to the aft cabin will be disturbed when the other person needs to get up in the middle of the night for any reason. Unfortunately, in this size vessel, there's no other way to design an aft berth this large.
  • Cabin Storage Space - There is limited storage space on the boat. Due to the location of the batteries and sewage tank, the starboard settee is not very useful for storing things. I would never put food in there and you really shouldn't pile a lot of stuff around the batteries.
  • Sail handling locations - When single-handing, the helmsman will need to leave the helm completely to tend the main sheet due to its location on the cabin roof. I generally don't like Hunters but one of the things I've admired about them is the arch with the main sheet right at the helm station. Same comments apply for the Jib sheets. The primary winches need to be about 2 feet further aft for handling by the helmsman.
  • She rounds up easily - Due to the very wide aft cross-section, when the boat heels too far, the rudder loses effectiveness, causing the boat to round up, often resulting in an unexpected tack. Especially troublesome when considering the other problem regarding sail handling. If single-handing, you cannot dump the sails quickly while also tending the wheel. The solution is keeping heel angle under control through sail trim, and reef early. I recommend that every C320 owner make it a priority to properly rig the reefing setup and practice using it so they can do it efficiently when needed.
Common C320 Repair Issues:

There are very few inherent problems that span across all C320 model years. During the production run, Catalina made changes to their design based on customer feedback. The 320 is a good example of a reliable production boat and many survey problems are due to poor or deferred maintenance. Below is a list of known problems and issues that has been pulled from monitoring the C320 list for a number of years. It will give you a good check list.

  • Early models of the C320 did not have solid fiberglass in the deck around the chain plates to protect the core from water leaks. Sometime later, they started doing solid Fiberglass in these areas. Nobody has been able to definitively state when that change was made, so exercise caution here and address chain plate leaks ASAP.
  • Stemhead fitting – There is a known flaw in the design of the original stemhead fitting which could lead to rig failure if a crack develops. The stemhead fitting on all C320s should be examined closely per the article here. It might be wise to share the following information with your surveyor. http://www.catalina320.com/filemgmt_data/files/Stemhead%20Article.pdf
  • Sewage tank vent design flaw – Catalina uses a 5/8” vent fitting on a ¾” hose. The vent is too small and the screen often clogs. Easy to fix, but this can cause all kinds of holding tank problems due to poor venting of tank. See the association site for a fix to this issue.
  • Older 320's may need a fuel tank replacement. If you search the 320 forum, you'll find discussions of fuel tank leaks over the years. Consensus seems to be 15-25 years is about when the failures start in Catalina aluminum tanks. Replacement tanks are available and they DO fit in and out of the boat without cutting any fiberglass.
  • Slow water leak from Aqua-Lift muffler box - You'll need to have your mechanic check for this during the sea-trial. Not a huge amount of water, but it can contribute to an exhaust odor in the cabin over time.
Design flaws – other issues:
  • Port List – Not every boat, but many C320 owners have noticed a slight list to port. This could be different from one boat to the next depending on installed options like air conditioning, or extra batteries.
  • 1996 and older models do not have a molded toe rail aft of the cabin. This is a safety issue and I have already nearly gone overboard twice because my foot slipped right off the boat.This issue was rectified with the 1997 model year.
  • Early models (1995 and older) had a shallow bilge. The deeper bilge is more desirable if you can find one.
As you can see, no boat is without inherent design flaws and common problems. Don't let this list scare you off. The majority of the C320 fleet out there today is well loved and cared for. Hopefully you now will be better armed to uncover some of the common issues.

The next post in this series will focus on how to do your own pre-purchase inspection of a sailboat before you submit an offer or hire a marine surveyor.


  1. Thank you Doug, This post was very helpful, I have been looking at the C320 for some time comparing it to the 34 and 36 along with other brands, like the Jeanneau 361. For the price it seams like the best all around boat, since I have 7 grand children cock pit size and comfort is the most important to me, normally I have 4 or 5 at a time with me. I sail on a friends J 105 and was thing on moving the traveler in front of the wheel as long as it is not older the a 97 98 when the put the hatch in the back cabin. I also am considering adding a second set of winches near the wheel to make handling sails when sailing short handling. Once again thank you for your input. Sincerely Michael

    1. If you add an auto pilot everything falls into place, pretty much where ever it's located.