Common Issues With Catalina Yacht Sailboats

Common Issues With Catalina Yacht Sailboats | Life of Sailing

Last Updated by

Daniel Wade

August 30, 2022

Catalina sailboats have always been known for durability and quality, but they have some common issues to look out for.

Catalina sailboats, especially older vessels, commonly suffer from deck core failure, mast boot compression fatigue, keel separation, chain plate attachment failure, and fiberglass delamination issues.

In this article, we'll cover six of the most common problems unique to Catalina sailboats. Additionally, we'll show you how to spot these issues, along with a general idea of the time and effort required to repair them.

We sourced the information in this article from Catalina sailboat owners and sources familiar with repairing these vessels.


Table of contents

Do Brand New Catalina Sailboats Have Any Problems?

Generally no, brand new Catalina Yachts are extremely high-quality and have virtually no common issues down the line. These sailboats are manufactured using the highest-quality materials that are economical.

And thanks to modern manufacturing techniques, even the best materials are now affordable for standard sailboats. Catalina yachts are high-end sailboats today and cost upwards of $200,000 in many cases. Thus, you can expect top-quality reliability and design.

Do Older Catalina Sailboats Have Any Problems?

Used Catalina sailboats are a different story. These boats were produced and sold at a much lower price point and with more 'standard' quality materials. For example, veneer was used instead of wood in some applications and whatnot.

However, they're still great boats—some of the best on the used market. Catalina yachts are affordable, especially the models built en masse in the 1970s and 1980s.

Most Common Problems with Catalina Sailboats

Catalina sailboats are some of the most numerous ever produced. These boats were built during a time when fiberglass boat building was fairly well established, but we didn't have as many quality materials to choose from.

It has been over 50 years since the first Catalina yachts rolled off the production line, and we've learned a lot since then. Additionally, despite their high quality, there are some common issues with these boats that warrant some inspection by owners and prospective buyers.

Here are some of the issues we look out for, along with how to spot them on used Catalina yachts.

1. Broken Mast Stays

Standing rigging is extremely important on Bermuda-rigged sloops, especially fiberglass vessels with aluminum masts. Unlike solid-masted vessels, like gaff-rigged catboats, virtually all Catalina sailboats rely on stainless steel stay cables to keep their masts up.

It's common on older Catalina sailboats for stays to be corroded or improperly tightened. This is bad news, as it often leads to complete stay failure and subsequent mast collapse. You should always inspect your standing rigging on an old fiberglass sailboat and replace it promptly if it stretches or shows signs of corrosion.

2. Deck Failure from Water Ingress

Old Catalina sailboats are notorious for deck failures, and they're pretty easy to spot once the degradation becomes advanced. Deck failure on Catalina sailboats is usually caused when water or rot makes its way into the organic deck core material and rots it away.

Remember, the decks of fiberglass boats are usually made from a combination of wood, foam, particleboard, and fiberglass for strength and water tightness.

When the outer layer deteriorates or cracks, water can get inside and turn the structural support below into worthless goo. Then it's only a matter of time before someone's boot makes a hole in the deck, which was once safe to walk on.

Usually, small soft spots in the deck of a Catalina sailboat can be repaired with relative ease, though it will require you to cut out and remove the affected area. It becomes a bigger issue when the rot affects a more vital area of the boat, such as a structural support beam.

You can find weak spots in the deck by looking for play in the deck surface. Usually, a weak spot will feel spongy or buckle under your weight. If you're walking around on the deck (on a surface that's supposed to be stepped on) and the deck moves from your weight, it's a bad sign.

3. Mast Compression Fatigue

Catalina masts are usually fastened to a strengthened point on the deck. If you follow the mast below decks, you'll notice a wooden beam (usually part of the woodwork between compartments) which leads to a solid mast step below the deck.

Catalina masts are held down by the stays with tremendous pressure, as hollow aluminum masts can be pushed hard but not bent. This transfers a heavy load through the support beam in the cabin and into the block in the floor. Over time, this pressure can deform or crack the compression post block.

This phenomenon is called compression fatigue, and it's pretty easy to spot. You probably won't have any indication of compression fatigue from the above decks unless the deck below the mast begins to sag noticeably. By that point, you've got bigger problems to deal with, and the vessel will need extensive repairs.

You can spot compression fatigue in a few ways. First, severe fatigue will usually be visible from the deck itself in the form of a sunken mast mount or cracks around the surface. Inside, any deformation or cracking in the ceiling around the compression post is cause for concern.

Finally, you can look below the floor at the mast block and look for cracks or deformation. A healthy mast block will have nice, even lines and an asymmetrical appearance. Most importantly, the top will be flat, and the fiberglass around the top of the post will be straight and free of cracks.

4. Keel and Hull Separation—The "Catalina Smile"

One of the most notorious failures on older Catalina sailboats is the separation of the keel and hull. Catalina sailboats are designed with a joint that connects the hull and the keel section of the vessel, and this area is known to fail from running aground or just from aging.

In fact, this form of separation is so common that there's a name for it. Sailors call it "the Catalina Smile," and it refers to the smile-shaped separation that occurs on the leading edge of the keel. This is an issue that anyone buying a 30+-year-old Catalina should definitely look for.

So what happens? This is due to the way the keel mounts to the boat. Catalina sailboats usually use heavy lead keels that are bolted to the bottom of the hull. These keels separate due to stretched fiberglass, impact, and loosened bolts.

It also happens when, over time, the seal between the keel and the hull fails and water corrodes the bolts. This problem isn't unique to Catalina sailboats—it can happen on any fin keelboat. It's common because the company was an early and widespread adopter of the fin keel design.

So can it be fixed, and is the Catalina Smile a fatal flaw? It depends entirely on the extent of the damage and when it occurs. If corroded bolts cause the keel to loosen, it can swing from side to side and crack the hull. There are a few cases of boats sinking this way.

But if it's not too severe, then you can have a competent boatyard repair it for a reasonable price. Additionally, you don't have to repair all cases of the Catalina Smile immediately, as minor cases require attention but aren't an immediate threat to the boat.

5. Chain Plate and Chain Plate Attachment Failure

Chainplates and chain plate attachments occasionally fail on Catalina sailboats, especially if they've been allowed to corrode. Another common cause of chain plate failure is the use of dissimilar or weak metals for replacement parts.

Some of these sailboats are over 50 years old. There have likely been many owners, and some may have improperly replaced chain plate attachments over the years.

Some use hardware store parts to replace high-strength and corrosion-resistant rigging components, which can break under pressure or cause irreversible galvanic corrosion when exposed to saltwater.

Luckily, this isn't the end of the world on used Catalina sailboats. Assuming the chainplate hasn't deformed the hull or torn out, you can replace all the potentially dangerous parts and bolts for a reasonable cost.

Failure most often occurs around chainplates when sails are deployed or when rigging is tightened. Replace all corroded or questionable parts before tightening rigging, and especially after you upgrade your standing rigging.

6. Fiberglass Delamination

Fiberglass delamination is a common issue on earlier fiberglass boats, especially those produced by Catalina in the 1960s and 1970s. Fiberglass delamination happens due to exposure to sunlight, abrasion, and water ingress, and it can happen almost anywhere on the boat.

Delamination occurs when one (or several) layers of fiberglass cloth become unglued from the others. Since Catalina sailboats are built with several layers of cloth, the occasional delamination due to age or abuse isn't uncommon—and it usually isn't immediately catastrophic.

Delamination can become an issue if it runs deeper than the first layer. Additionally, de-lamination can allow water to seep into the core and rot out the deck from within—a process that is extraordinarily difficult to stop once it starts.

Luckily, most cases of fiberglass delamination can be repaired with relative ease. Small areas of delamination can be fixed with a simple fiberglass cloth and resin kit from West Marine or by an experienced boatyard for a reasonable cost.

Common Issues With Catalina Yacht Sailboats
Daniel Wade

Daniel Wade

I've personally had thousands of questions about sailing and sailboats over the years. As I learn and experience sailing, and the community, I share the answers that work and make sense to me, here on Life of Sailing.

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