Beneteau vs Hunter
When you ask about the relative quality of boats by the big three, Beneteau, Hunter and Catalina, there is no one universally right answer here. To use my favorite analogy, it is like trying to say that vanilla ice cream is always better than strawberry or vice versa. They have very distinct differences but the differences are more a matter of style, details, and personal preference.
In my book, most of the big three''s boats really are not intended as offshore boats. They lack the kind of details that are really a part and parcel of offshore cruising. Some of these are philosophical such as proper seaberths for half of the crew, galleys and heads that work offshore, hand holds at shoulder level where they do some good when a boat is heeled. Some are more significant such as high freeboard, large Plexiglas areas and large open deck areas without footholds.
Of the three, Beneteau has introduced a couple new boats (473 and 393 two-cabin layout) that look to be a little better suited to offshore work than the standard fair from the other two manufacturers.
When you talk about the big sellers in the U.S.- Hunter, Catalina, or Beneteau, you can not make a blanket statement that one or the other is better built or worse built than the others. They each have things that they do very well and other areas that they do not so well. My take on each is as follows:
Beneteau has a number of different lines. The First series is their performance line and generally seem to be better built and finished than their Oceanis or Beneteau ''number series''.
My experience with Beneteaus number series is that they have nice layouts with cleaver little details. Like the other two manufacturers, they tend to be lightly built and place an emphasis on accommodations over performance in this size range. I like Beneteau''s hull deck joint best of the three. I also like their fit and finish best as well.
On the negative side, Beneteau does not publish ballast for their boats but from past data on similar models they tend to be a little lightly ballasted. I am not a big fan of Groupe Finot designed boats (although the new Finot and Berret designed 473 and 393 looks like neat boats). Their boats tend to be overly beamy and do not handle a chop or have as comfortable a motion as well as a narrower hull form. Still Finot is a good as anyone in the world in modeling this form and their boats have reasonable performance for what they are. I do like their hull shapes better than the Hunter in question.
One issue that I have with Beneteau comes from conversations with surveyors. In looking at the design of Beneteaus systems they do not do as good a job as Hunter at meeting U.S. safety standards. This is especially true when it comes to the design of their systems. (For example in examining a Beneteau 38s5''s propane locker I noticed an opening that was not properly sealed and connected that locker to the interior of the boat. That is a very serious no-no. It may have only been a missing finishing detail but a serious one.)
They all tend to do things in a way that is cheaper to build and perfectly sound until it needs to be fixed. For example, the Beneteau that I know most intimately used crimped hose connectors that cannot be reused. Another example is the sprayed varnish finishes. They look great but cannot be easily touched up once scratched without removing and spraying the whole panel. (This is becoming more common in the industry due to air emissions and speed of finishing the work.)
I really do not like that Beneteau is pushing in mast furling mainsails. In my mind In Mast furlers are a really bad idea, especially on boats of this size. In-mast mains really kill performance and shorten sail life spans. They are not good in light air (lose too much area to the hollow leeches) and not too good in a blow (they slip down the luff and power up at just the time when you really need flat sails.)
Beneteaus also tend to use a lot of materials and methods of construction that are not readily available over here. Plumbing connections, through-hulls, deck cleats and misc. hardware are often non-standard in the U.S. market. This is somewhat offset by the Beneteau USA''s (in Marion, S.C.) willingness to be very helpful in getting obscure spare parts very quickly and at surprisingly reasonable prices. I have been extremely impressed with Beneteau''s customer service and warrantee support.
Hunter is the most maligned and controversial of the big three. Hunter Marine marches to the sound of their own drummer and a lot of people don''t like the tune. Their aesthetics are very much an acquired taste and to many of us, who grew up with more traditional designs, would prefer not to buy their look. They tend to be over sold and many of us are somewhat put off by the implication of the "Goes the Distance" motto.
Still looking at them objectively they are reasonable performers for coastal cruising. They offer a lot of accommodations and features for the money. They tend to be sold amazingly well equipped. According to the surveyors that I have talked to Hunter does an excellent job at designing and building boats that meet the various safety standards. Most of the larger older Hunters have a CE ''B'' Classification, which means that they are not certified for Open Ocean usage but the more recent bigger boats have a CE ''A'', which is an open ocean rating.
On the flip side, few builders seem to draw the heavy fire in the court of "common knowledge". Some of this is just plain unwarranted but quite a bit reflects the reality of these boats. They are designed for a very specific clientele. This clientele typically are not circumnavigators but a family that is going to weekend and overnight. Hunters are not really set up with sea berths or offshore galleys but the interiors work well on the anchor. They have narrow side decks and rigs that are at their best reaching but give up a bit beating (headstay sag due to no backstay) and running (the mainsail ends up plastered against the shrouds). Their fractional rigs are easier to tack and are easier to deal with in changing conditions.
Things I dislike about Hunters; I really do not like the huge plastic port lights. This will deteriorate (my experience about 10 to 14 years in Maryland) and these big panels will be become unsafe and in need of replacement. That will be very expensive. I don''t like the rolled out hull deck joint. While it provides a nice rubrail, it is highly vulnerable and from an engineering standpoint has the most bending stresses and highest strains compared to almost any other kind of hull deck joint. My prior boat had this detail and it was the one single thing that I really hated about that boat. It is one thing to do this on a 28 foot 4100 lb. Kevlar boat like my prior boat and an entirely different thing to do on a large all glass boat)
I don''t like the B&R backstayless rigs. I have spent a lot of time on fractional rigs and masthead rigs. To me a fractional rig really makes a lot of sense for cruising but only with a backstay adjuster. Ideally, Fractional rigs can carry considerable larger working sail plans because of their ability to increase backstay tension and quickly depower the sailplan. This means few sail changes and few reefs. BUT the B&R rig does not use a backstay so rapid depowering is not an option. In that case much of the advantage of a fractional rig is lost.
Compared to other builders, Hunter''s interiors also tend to be a bit more sterile.
Lastly if you buy a Hunter you have to deal with the emotional issues about them. There are absolutely rabid Hunter haters out there. You can not under estimate the vehemence of their hatred. Then there are rabid Hunter lovers and defenders out there. They can be almost as bad. This roiling controversy results in a situation where you are left either defending the boat to detractors or defending you lack of defense to the rabid defenders.
My experience with Catalina is that they are no better-built and no better sailors than the other two. They have their strengths and they have their weaknesses. The thing about Catalina (at least in the US) they are seen as being the most normal. They are not great boats, but they have no big faults either. Catalina uses a lot of well-known hardware and details. They tend not to walk down the path less traveled which depending on your perspective is both a real strength and a real disadvantage. They definitely care about how they are perceived. I raised some issues with Catalinas on another BB and Frank Butler, the founder and president of Catalina, called me personally and explained to me why I was wrong in my opinion. (I have actually met both Frank Butler and Warren Luhrs from Hunter and both are people who are trying to do the right thing. They each have a vision of what that right thing is and (and even if their detractors question their definition of what is the right way to go with their boats) they seem to pursue their goals with a lot of personal integrity.) Catalinas are generally roomy and generally sail reasonably well. They don''t have the kind of quirky details that can drive you crazy with the other two companies.
The negatives on the Catalinas are somewhat subjective, but in terms of fit and finish, Catalinas seem to be the worst of the three. (The flip side is that they have finishes that the average guy can maintain.) Their boats have a dated look to my eye but to many people that can be seen as a traditional charm.
Then there is the cored hull issue. The other two manufacturers use some coring in their hulls but really limit the use of coring to limited areas above the waterline. Cored hulls are considerably lighter and stiffer. This means less heeling and less flexing which can fatigue the glass over time. (Obviously this is not a universally held belief and I am sure that there are people out there who would not buy a cored hull on a dare.) Cored hulls are actually more expensive to produce if they are produced with care. In any event, per conversations at the Annapolis Boat Show, Catalina is in the process of switching over to cored hulls on a number of their newest models with a couple models that have already switched over. To me building a boat intended for coastal use without a cored hull is just plain backwards BUT I emphasize that this is only my opinion and its not hard to make the case for either side of this argument.
In any event it all comes down to how you will use you boat. If all you are doing is coastal work then any of the three should work. I have spent a lot of time on examples of all three manufacturers and none of the three are compellingly superior to the other two. It''s a matter of what you wish to accomplish and which one moves you most.
Catalina like Hunter uses glued hull to deck joints. As Mr. Butler pointed out to me, Catalina uses a space age adhesive caulk developed for the aerospace industry and it is very tenacious stuff. The bolts are only there for alignment during construction. I think that this is a reasonable hull to deck joint but it is not may favorite.
The biggest complaint with Catalinas is the lack of warrantee support. I have had quite a few Catalinas complain about this issue and although when ever I say this I ask anyone with a good Catalina warrantee experience to please talk about it, I have yet to have anyone defend Catalina''s record. The stories that I have encountered are reprehensible and negatively color my view of these boats. In one conversation with a gentleman dumping a new boat, I came to realize that in theory it is possible to get a comparatively new Catalina with some pretty expensive but curable problems that were dumped after a warrantee battle.
In conclusion, it all comes down to how you will use you boat. If all you are doing is coastal work then any of the three should work. I have spent a lot of time on examples of all three manufacturers and none of the three are compellingly superior to the other two. It''s a matter of what you wish to accomplish and which one moves you most.
In any case good luck in your search and let us know what you decided to do. Your decision making process might be helpful to others making this kind of decision.