This early fin keel and spade rudder coastal cruiser makes a great first big boat
The history of Pearson Yachts parallels the history of the American sailboat industry in many ways, at least until the 1990s when the once proud company gave up the ship in a sea of red ink. Cousins Everett and Clint Pearson launched their modest enterprise in 1956, first building dinghies and runabouts in an old textile plant in Bristol, Rhode Island. In 1959 the pair took a flyer and introduced the soon to be legendary 29-foot Triton. The boat was a huge success as the company took 17 orders at that year's New York boat show.
Other models followed and Pearson Yachts rode the wave of fiberglass boat construction to the very top, eventually becoming the largest sailboat builder in the country. Like so many other builders, however, Pearson was consumed by a conglomerate, in this case mammoth Grumman Allied Industries, which alienated its dealers and didn't adapt to the growing specialization that dominates today's sailboat market. As a result, the name Pearson, which once represented cutting-edge technology and quality construction, became staid and lost its appeal.
Pearson's legacy, however, does not lie with its muddled corporate history. No, the company will always be remembered for the many and varied boats it built. Early designs were by Alberg, Alden and Rhodes. In 1966 Bill Shaw took over as the general manager and chief designer. Shaw gradually changed the underwater profile of most of Pearson's lineup. The fin keel and spade rudders of the Pearson 26 and 30 replaced the cutaway full-keel shape, trademarks of the Vanguard, Invicta, Countess and others. Introduced in 1971, the 30 was an immediate success and more than 1,000 boats were built during a nine-year production run. The 26, which was first available in 1970, was another best seller. By the time Pearson took the boat off line in 1983, more than 1,700 had been launched, with another 400 or so built to a slightly modified deck design known first as the Weekender and later as the 26 One-Design.
First impressions are long lasting, even if they do date their authors when revealed. There was a well-kept Pearson 26 moored just down the dock from my family's Sabre 28 on the Clinton River in Mount Clemens, Michigan. We're talking back in the early '70s. I remember clearly (despite my tender age) how it had a putrid green deck and cabintop. Seasick green we dubbed it. The Pearson 26 was one of the first boats available in different colors, and the shades offered were interesting to say the least. Still I liked the lines of the P26 then and continue to appreciate them today. The qualities that led to Pearson's popularity are evident in the 26. It is solidly constructed, handles well when the wind pipes up and is extremely user-friendly. It is also an excellent value.
The P26 has a modest sheer, typical of the times, and an unobtrusive stair step in the cabintop that provides headroom and light below. The Weekender and the One-Design have a straight cabintop and consequently about 5 feet of headroom. The clean, gentle entry has a fair amount of overhang and leads to a rather flat forefoot. The fin keel is swept back as is the spade rudder. Displacement is 5,400 pounds, with 2,200 pounds of iron ballast providing a 40 percent ballast-to-displacement ratio, which partially accounts for the boat's stiffness. Sail area is 321 square feet, translating into an SA/D ratio of 16.6, a classic so-called coastal cruiser. Beam is a generous 8 feet, 8 inches and the draft is 4 feet. The sloop rig has an air draft of just over 35 feet. The boat motors smartly with a 9.9-horsepower outboard.
The Pearson 26 construction varies a bit from early boats like the Ariel, Wanderer and Pearson Alberg 35. Production techniques were becoming more efficient and Pearson didn't hesitate to employ them. The hull is solid fiberglass, and like almost all boats of that time, the deck is balsa cored. In fact, Everett Pearson was a pioneer in developing end-grain balsa as a coring material. The P26 makes use of molded liners, which are a blessing and a curse. While liners streamline production and offer a bit of hull rigidity and uniformity, they make accessing wiring and hull fittings very difficult and can also give the boat a sterile look.
The hull-and-deck joint is on an outward flange, sealed, through-bolted and covered with a vinyl rubrail. What is interesting about this joint is that it is fiberglassed from the inside. This makes it watertight, and few 26 owners complain about leaking hull-and-deck joints. However, the external joint is exposed to damage from smacking into docks and other things that boats occasionally smack into. If production efficiencies were responsible for this joint, then I would understand because it is easier to manufacture boats with external flanges. However, glassing over the joint from the inside is anything but efficient, and we all know what a bother vinyl rubrails can be. Still, it's important to note that few 26 owners mention problems and replacement rails are available. The keel is cast iron, which is something of a maintenance headache, and externally fastened with eight hefty bolts.
What to look for
If you are considering a P26, the first thing to look for is Dan Pfeiffer's Web page. It can be found at www.en.com/users/danp/boat/boat.htmor by searching for Pearson 26. Other P26 owners refer to Pfeiffer as "The Guru," and his site contains an incredible amount of detail about the boat, so be certain to check it out. He has an owner's page with comments from many P26 owners, both past and present, which is very informative. Naturally, with so many boats floating about, most problems have been well documented, as have most solutions to those problems.
Let's first take a look at some changes made during 13 years of production. In 1975 the Weekender first went on the market. This model has the identical hull shape of the P26, but the cockpit is a couple of feet longer and the cabintop is a bit shorter, reducing interior volume. If you plan to strictly daysail the Weekender or the later One-Design, which had slightly tighter sheeting angles, might be the models to look for. Also in 1975, a separate shelf was added in the port locker for fuel tank storage. This was an important addition since it was otherwise possible for gas fumes to end up in the bilge. The Weekender was phased out in 1976 and the P26 One-Design was offered until the last year of production in 1983.
According to Pfeiffer and most P26 owners, the biggest maintenance issue on the boat is the rudder shaft and bearings. The rudder itself is a rather heavy blade made of solid fiberglass, and the stock is aluminum, a poor choice of material since it's soft and subject to wear. Fortunately, the problem has been around for a long time and many 26 owners have replaced the rudder and/or the bearings that slowly eat away at the stock, particularly on the bottom bearings. When evaluating a P26 be sure to carefully check the rudder stock when the boat is out of the water. New bearings can help solve the problem, and if necessary, a new rudder with a stainless stock can be purchased from Foss Foam Products, in Warwick, Rhode Island.
Other items to check for are a delaminated cockpit sole, keel bolt corrosion, keel corrosion and faulty wiring. There is also a plywood core under the maststep on deck that may be rotten. Of course, all age related items, from standing and running rigging to tired sails and outboard motors, should be inspected. Be wary of bargains, especially if you want to spend your time on the water, not in the yard bringing the boat up to speed.
The Pearson 26 has a roomy, relatively comfortable cockpit for three or four adults. As noted earlier, the Weekender and One-Design have slightly larger cockpits. All boats came with tiller steering, although I am sure somewhere in the world there is a 26 retrofitted with wheel steering. There are two sail lockers for storage, and the mainsheet traveler is aft, allowing for end-boom sheeting, which keeps the cockpit clear. There is not much of a bridgedeck-basically just a sill-but this is not a boat intended for offshore sailing. The cockpit seats are low and visibility from the helm over the deckhouse is not great, especially if you're short. The tradeoff is more room below and a drier boat.
There are teak handrails on the raised section of the deckhouse and double lifelines with well-supported stanchions. The boat feels bigger than 26 feet when you make your way forward. The nonskid may be quite worn and not particularly effective, although older Pearsons have aged well and you don't see the gelcoat crazing and cracking common on other boats. The mast is deck stepped, with a compression post below. Look carefully for a depression at the step; it may be sign of delamination. The genoa tracks allow for decent sheeting angles and many boats will be set up to fly spinnakers.
Few people buy the Pearson 26 for its spacious accommodations below. However, the interior plan is well-thought-out, and the boat has more room than you might think. Dropping below, the first thing you'll notice is the headroom, about 5 feet, 10 inches by my estimate. The galley is to port and the icebox faces forward, with the nav station opposite and the settee serving as the seat. Other details may vary as owners have made changes over the years. The boat I recently climbed through here in Ft. Lauderdale had a two-burner stove and sink facing aft.
Most boats have a dinette arrangement to port in the saloon, which is a good use of space in a small boat. This can usually be converted into a double bunk. There is a straight settee to starboard with storage lockers behind. The head and hanging locker are private, with a large V-berth forward. Many boats have a 22-gallon water tank under the forward berth. Teak trim accents the molded white finish, and the overall effect is rather cozy. Two large ports light the saloon, while two smaller ports are in the head compartment. If you live where it's warm, converting these into opening portlights would be a good idea. There is a hatch over the forward cabin.
The boat was designed for an outboard motor, with a built-in motor well eliminating the need to mount a bracket astern and providing a solid, midtransom mounting platform. The fuel tank storage shelf accommodates a standard 6-gallon plastic tank rather nicely. The boat handles well under power, using the tiller for steering and the rudder can be completely turned around for control in reverse. Today's outboards, especially four-strokes, are quiet, clean and reliable. They're also convenient. If you have a problem, you can toss the engine in the trunk and take it the mechanic. Although it is rare, I have heard of P26s fitted with inboards.
Owner comments reflect the forgiving nature of the P26. It's an ideal first "big" boat because it's easy to sail and will stand up in gusty conditions. The helmsperson can control the tiller and sheets, and with a bit of experience, it's ideal for singlehanding. Pfeiffer refutes the notion that the boat develops weather helm, arguing that if sailed on its lines and not wildly overcanvassed it is not an issue. The shape of the hull supports his claim as the P26 has a flat forefoot; the only effect of heeling will be to create leeway. The rudder is also large and located well aft, which serves to reduce helm. Several owners report that they race their boats locally under PHRF. By all accounts they perform best when the wind is more than 10 knots.
The P26 needs a headsail, since performance is marginal under main alone, and a large 130- to 150-percent genoa can be carried upwind with a full main in winds to about 15 knots. At that point shortening up the headsail flattens the boat and keeps the speed up. Most owners tie a reef in the main as the apparent wind inches toward 20 knots. The P26 handles well off the wind, and several owners describe surfing downwind at near double-digit speeds.
The Pearson 26 is an ideal boat to test the waters, so to speak, to see if sailing is indeed something you might enjoy. If you find you can't get enough time on the water, the P26 is not a boat you will quickly outgrow. It pleases on a variety of levels. With prices ranging from $6,000 to $9,000, it is hard to go wrong with this popular American-built favorite.