Having just acquired a pretty nice 1979 31' Cal, I have some comments regarding the handling. The tender part of the boat as compared to say a Catalina 30 of similar, or even newer vintage does ring true however, one feature I've found at the helm as compared to even newer Hunters & Catalina's was the "feel" at the helm is superior with the Cal! Maybe I'm wrong, but from the limited experience I have had with the others, the Cal has the best handling hands down.
Yes, the boat does tend to lean more (more tender) than a Catalina, but, it's more nimble/responsive, sporty and easy on the helm, more than others I've skippered. Possibly the only boat that felt this sweet was a Tayana 55' I briefly skippered during the club's training cruise. All sailboats lean, however. The ones that do earlier, may seem to cut through the oncoming waves instead of pounding into them.
And yes, small cockpit means less comfort for more than 2 or 3 people, but for typical sailing, even single handling, the ease of the winches right there near the helm for the genoa, the mainsheet right there, and the traveler line can be easily reached for quick de-powering of the mainsal when needed, something I just learned after starting sailing like about 40 years ago... Plus, a smaller cockpit means less water that can fill the cockpit up.
Every boat has it's pros and cons. However, with some ingenuity, some of the shortcomings of the boat can be overcome. I.e., went out yesterday, September 5th, 2012, during a good blow of around 20+_ mph of wind right off Dana Point. Boat handled well with a reefed main and the 100% jib most of the way out. I was told by a sailmaker on Shelter Island, San Diego, that based on the construction of the sails (Starboard), they are Original. Now, they are getting some use!
CHECK THiS OUT: I'd guess with the wind around 15-20+ just yesterday 8/5/12, we briefly hit just over 9 MPH (the gps I had got switched to mph and now fixed) at our fastest (just under or at 8 Knots), easily averaging over 7+ MPH under reefed main & most of the jib out. The boat was in the groove, for sure. Also, was able to sail wing & wing on the way back recently from Catalina on a dead run with the auto pilot keeping the course, while I just kept the jib sail full manually handling the jib sheet, and keeping an eye on the main sail to steer clear of accidental gibes. But, the handling was very good, easy, actually, thanks to auto pilot; and with no small thanks to a reliable wind from behind.
West Marine in San Diego put in a great Boom Kicker, thanks to Bill referring it to me, he even was the one to install it and make the appropriate adapter so the whole thing would work out properly. Way to go Bill at West Marine,San Diego, CA!!
No worries about quickly lowering main sail (either for reefing or all the way) without setting the topping lift and having a potentially serious event! The boom will not fall/lower, nice! Plus, the heavy duty boom wont come down on anybody or the dodger or the new bimini. This safety feature of not having to first set a topping lift is so worth the cost of having it installed!