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Go Inside the Catalina Factory with SAIL Magazine

2005-10-18
Catalina Yachts doesn’t release sales figures. It’s a healthy, long-lived, privately owned company, and it doesn’t have to. But you don’t have to inspect the books to know that Catalina is one of the highest-volume sailboat builders in the U.S.

Considering the volume of their production, it’s both surprising and admirable that the company is managed by only three principals. Along with putting out boats, they stay close to their customers and maintain powerful bonds of loyalty. Founder Frank Butler handles warranty claims himself, because if there’s a problem, he wants to know; if you’ve been around Catalina owners at all, you’ve probably heard them sing his praises.

Frank Butler was a hands-on machine-shop owner when he jumped into the middle of the fiberglass boatbuilding revolution in the 1960s, by accident. The guy he paid to build him a boat didn’t get the job done, so Butler walked into the shop, took over the team, and finished the boat himself. When he left with his finished boat, he took part of the team with him and created Wesco Marine, which still exists as a machine shop supplying parts to Catalina. Then Butler introduced Coronado Yachts, including the Coronado 25, the first boat built with a molded interior pan, which both cut production costs and improved structural integrity.

When Butler sold Coronado to the Whittaker Corporation, he had a vision for a 22-foot trailerable that would give a new type of sailor access to distant waters. Whittaker wasn’t interested, so when his non-compete clause ran out, Butler created Catalina Yachts and in 1970 introduced the swing-keel Catalina 22. Now, 16,000 Catalina 22s later, the updated version shares production with 26 other Catalina models from 13 to 50 feet.

Altogether, more than 75,000 Catalinas have come off the assembly lines. The 20-year run of Catalina 27s produced more than 6,600 boats beginning in 1971, and the boats were user-friendly even if the engineering in the early years was spotty. Time passed, and the company’s engineering savvy improved. Patrick Childress clarified that much by singlehanding a Catalina 27 around the world between 1979 and 1982. Long production runs are common at Catalina. The first of 900-plus Catalina 42s hit the water in 1988, and the 42 is now in a Mark Il version. The 36, with more than 2,200 built, has also been updated, but with care, so as to preserve the active one-design fleet. As of 2004 the company has more than 130 dealers worldwide, most of the output stays in the U.S.

Catalinas are not about cutting-edge technology. Butler, vice-president/head designer Gerry Douglas, and sales manager Sharon Day have worked together for more than a quarter-century, and they prefer to keep the boats evolving with the market. They ask Catalina owners for their gripes and wish lists, and they listen to what people want. In general, this translates to cruiser-racers of moderate proportions, with plenty of interior space. Catalina’s 196,000-square-foot plant in Woodland Hills, California—north of the Hollywood Hills from Los Angeles—was originally built to turn out Saturn rocket engines for the Apollo moon missions. The company also builds boats in Key Largo, Florida. Both are large plants, but size comparisons are deceptive. In Florida, operations take place in a number of buildings; in California, layup and assembly take place mostly in the main plant, with specialized functions dispersed among nearby satellite facilities producing, among other things, wood interior components, metal parts (for pulpits, stanchions, and so on), lead keels, and a supply of non-tapered masts (specialized masts are subcontracted). Hulls and decks are laid up by hand. Smaller assemblies that benefit from being finished on two sides are constructed with resin- transfer molding (RTM), a vacuum process that yields lighter-weight parts, reduces emissions, and will probably be used on larger parts in the future.

Catalina is its own supply chain, producing all of its own keels, inner-spring mattresses, biminis and dodgers, and a large portion of its own sails. “Most components are double-tracked,” Douglas says. “That means that we make some and we buy some. We build as much of the boat as possible, then we act as one of the suppliers.”

How much is “as much as possible”? Enough to include refrigerator doors. And the company smelts its own lead for keels. The machine shop, besides producing such items as spreader ends and masthead fittings, makes propeller shafts and trues the components to be installed as matched sets. A Plexiglas forming oven turns out shelves for medicine cabinets. Florida and California plants exchange certain parts, but mostly the boats are built in one place. There is no duplication of models between plants. Economies of scale help the company hit those all-important price points, as do volume discounts on such items as diesel engines and winches. “Sailboats,” Douglas says, “are among the last mass-produced, hand-built products in the United States.”

Now that fiberglass boat construction has a half century history, it’s appropriate to call Catalina’s building methods “traditional “.Major structures are laid up by hand female molds (the molds are built in-house), and hulls are solid glass. The first lamination into the mold after the ISO/NPG gelcoat is a vinylester skin coat that acts as a barrier against moisture. Structural layers that follow are primarily E-glass with a percentage of S-glass, using mostly knitted laminates, which have more strength for their weight than woven laminates. At the California plant, high-density foam stringers are glassed into the hulls (above); at the Florida plant, hulls of 35 to 47 feet are fitted with a structural grid. Chopper guns are used for some non-structural components, such as iceboxes Parts that benefit from being finished on two sides are constructed with resin-transfer molding (RTM), a vacuum process that saves weight and reduces emissions.

Decks are the first structures to appear on the factory floor. (above). Except for dinghies under 16 feet (built with all-vinylester resins and foam-cored decks), decks are laid up with a balsa core with plywood or solid glass substituted for balsa wherever stanchions and other gear will be through-bolted. The solid coring is insurance against water intrusion. Metal backing plates, either aluminum or brass, are molded in to increase strength and spread the loads. When hardware is mounted later in the build process, an anti-seizing compound is used on fasteners so that they can be removed some day, if need be (below). Decks incorporate Kevlar reinforcing at the corners, and multiple mats are laid in for vertical reinforcing. For rigidity, decks are structurally bonded to interior overhead liners, leaving deck and liner as a single structure. The surface of the liner serves as a finished overhead for the interior.

All Catalinas incorporate fairly complex one-piece hull liners that strengthen the hull and include complete or nearly complete furniture modules (above). The factory offers five interiors for the 42, and there are five interior molds to match. For any given model, there are 25 to 50 molds for the major parts, plus shower pans, vanity tops, and other lesser components. Each liner is extensively pre-plumbed with conduit that will later carry wiring, plumbing, and LPG tubes (below and right). Even boats that are ordered with minimal equipment will be plumbed to accommodate retrofits and to simplify access for ease of maintenance.

Catalina joins hull and deck early in the build process. Depending on the model, hull-to-deck joints are either overlapped external or internal flanges or outward-turning flanges.

On models built in California, engine and interior components are passed below for installation into a completed


Catalina Yachts • 21200 Victory Boulevard • Woodland Hills, California 91367 • Phone 818 884-7700
Catalina Yachts Florida • 7200 Bryan Dairy Rd • Largo, FL 33777 • Phone 727-544-6681


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