A raceboat heritage makes the Catalina 38 a nimble cruiser.
By MICHAEL ROBERTSON JUNE 12, 2014
In 1978, Catalina Yachts was a young company with a Midas touch, enjoying brisk sales of its
sailboats from 22 to 30 feet, all of them designed and built in house. And then company owner
Frank Butler tried something different. He bought the mold for the Yankee 38, designed by
Sparkman & Stephens and descended from a successful oneoff IOR aluminum raceboat, from
the bankrupt Yankee Boat Co. Butler saw this competitive racer as a flagship that would raise the
profile of the Catalina fleet. He was right. In 1980, the Catalina 38 was selected for the prestigious
Congressional Cup. The company went on to build 366 Catalina 38s over the next 14 years.
Butler made significant changes to the S&S design. He replaced the skeghung rudder with a
balanced spade rudder and created a highaspectratio rig with a taller mast and shorter boom.
He redesigned the interior for weekender livability and the deck and trunk cabin to match Catalina
Other aspects of the dated racing design — long overhangs, generous tumblehome and a pert
little reverse transom — give the Catalina 38 its pleasing lines. Butler’s redesigned deck gives it a
sleek, low profile but narrow side decks are a result of those changes. Passage from the cockpit to
the foredeck can be tricky, especially if a wide dodger is fitted.
With its pedigree, it’s no surprise that owners report the Catalina 38 sails to windward like it’s on
rails and also sails beautifully in light air. That superior upwind performance comes with a draft that
approaches 7 feet, a limiting factor for some cruising sailors.
Boats designed to the IOR have a reputation for poor manners and instability downwind. But that
reputation was earned under race conditions when boats were intentionally overpowered and
driven hard. A cruising couple is unlikely to push any boat to the brink of broaching, and many find
the IOR warhorses, including the Catalina 38, in fact make fine cruising boats.
Down below, the major interior components are incorporated into a molded hull liner. Teak trim
and veneer are used for doors, drawer facings and bulkheads. In early models the cabin sole was
fiberglass, but in later models it was covered with teak and holly veneer.
The keelstepped mast abuts the bulkhead forward of the main saloon. Forward of the bulkhead
are the head to port, lockers to starboard and the Vberth, which easily accommodates two adults.
A Ushaped dinette to port (that converts to a double berth) is the main feature in the saloon. Aft of
the dinette is a snug Ushaped galley.
On the starboard side of the saloon is a long settee with stowage behind and beneath it. A nav
station backs up to a quarter berth that extends under the cockpit.
Owners with cruising plans might find the tankage limiting, but they should avoid adding weight in
the bow and stern of this fine-ended boat.
The Atomic 4 gasoline engine was fitted in very early boats but many have been replaced. The 24
horsepower Universal diesel in later ones reportedly lacks the power to push the boat at hull
speed in moderate wind and chop. Engine access is adequate.
The Catalina 38 enjoys a loyal following, and owners praise its design, build quality and
performance. Rare for boats of this vintage, the builder is still in business, and provides design
and parts support.
This article first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Cruising World.