This 1970s-era racer cruiser was available in standard full-cabin and One Design expanded cockpit versions. In their time, both were competitive in club racing. Today, the Pearson 26 is a good family boat at an affordable price.
When Bill Shaw in 1970 drew the lines for the Pearson 26, Pearson Yachts had been in business for 14 years, but had undergone several management changes. It had a broad product line but, in Shaw’s words, “needed a shot in the arm.” Following introduction of the Pearson 26, sales occurred so quickly that the company was forced to start a second production line.
Pearson yachts was formed in 1956 by the Pearson cousins, Clinton and Everett, and Fred Heald. The trio set up shop in rented space in the basement of a textile plant in Bristol, Rhode Island, where they built six different dinghies designed for club racing. They introduced the Carl Alberg-designed Pearson Triton at the New York Boat Show in 1959; 17 Tritons were sold and more orders poured in. The company found itself in the center ring of the boatbuilding circus.
The company operated so successfully during the merger mania of the 60’s that it was purchased by Grumman Industries. However, like most entrepreneurial types, it didn’t take long for the two Pearsons to chafe at the corporate yoke; Clint was the first to depart in 1964, to form a company that eventually became Bristol Yachts. Everett departed in 1966 and later joined Neil Tillotson in a joint venture that resulted in the formation of Tillotson-Pearson Industries, the firm that today manufactures everything from J-Boats to blades for wind generators and hot tubs, using the SCRIMP resin infusion process.
After cutting his teeth at Sparkman & Stephens, Bill Shaw arrived in 1966 to assume the duties of chief in-house designer, and later as general manager. Among the business tenets he brought to the company was the S & S philosophy that conservative construction techniques prevent failures.
“We calculated loads and designed rigs with a safety factor of three; attachments were designed with a safety factor of four. It might sound like overkill, but we never knew the exact loads a boat would experience,” he recalled.
During his tenure, the company developed a product line that included a dozen boats ranging in size from 23' to 53'. At one time, it had nine production lines running in Rhode Island, Texas and Florida, and was selling 300-400 boats a year that generated $22-$25 million in sales.
Shaw remained with Pearson Yachts through the time Gordon Clayton bought the company from Grumman and until it closed its doors in 1990.
Shaw’s first boats at Pearson were the 30-foot Coaster and Wanderer, which were introduced in 1966. He followed with five other boats before introducing the Pearson 26. Most of his designs reflected the industry trend away from the CCA rule; Shaw’s boats typically had longer waterlines and were beamier than their predecessors, with more spacious accommodations for families. They also displayed a turn of speed.
“The Alberg design and Tritons had run their course,” Shaw said of the genesis of the P 26. “We needed something new.”
The Renegade, a 27-footer he had introduced in 1996, had what was then a revolutionary underbody—separation of the rudder from the keel. The Renegade had a spade rudde, and what was then considered a fin keel, though in today’s vernacular it could be described as having a large cruising fin or a cutaway forefoot.
“So I designed the underbody of the 26,” he said, “with the same type of rudder, but a swept back keel,” that is entirely different than the Renegade. The keel of the P 26 fits today’s profile of a fin; both fore and trailing edges are swept aft and hang from the hull free of other appendages.
“The other design target was price,” he said. As a consequence, the first P 26 was introduced with a sticker price of $5,200, $1,000 less than its prime competitor, the Columbia 26. Dealers and consumers liked the new boat; 100 were sold immediately and the company was soon running two production lines for the P 26 alone.
“It was a lifesaver,” Shaw admitted.
When viewed from the bow or stern, or seen in photos taken from a helicopter, the boat presents a pleasing profile. She has a relatively fine entry, generous but not ungainly beam, and a moderately narrow stern.
Viewed from abeam, however, the high cabintop, which has two levels, is distracting, despite a pleasing shear line and moderate bow overhang. Aesthetics aside, though the high cabintop produces a rather generous 5' 8" of headroom below, many owners complain that it impairs visibility forward when seated. Though a valid complaint, in our experience we’ve found that a tiller extension and sitting on the cockpit coaming does much to alleviate that problem.
The Pearson 26 One Design (OD), which has an identical hull and underbody, has a much more conventional and pleasing profile. Except for the difference in windage, the boats are nearly twins; the significant difference is that at 8' 11" the cockpit of the 26 OD is 2' longer then the P 26, with a corresponding reduction in space belowdecks and less headroom. The 26 OD is also 200 lbs. lighter.
Compared to most Pearson models, the P 26 has a rather high aspect ratio mainsail that sails well with a 150% genoa in 16-18 knots of breeze, without reefing the main. It carries 321 sq. ft. of sail under a 100% working jib, with a mast that is 31' 6" above the deck, and a 10'-long boom that is high enough above the cockpit to clear the heads of most crew when changing course. The D/L ratio is a rather moderate 228, and the SA/D ratio is 17.1, which places it in the performance category when compared to most boats of the same vintage. Many owners told PS that the P 26 holds its own in fleets of 30-foot boats.
Like every boat produced by Pearson during the 1970’s, construction of the P 26 was fairly straightforward.
Solid fiberglass hulls were laid up by hand using alternating layers of mat and roving. Decks were cored with end-grain balsa. Interiors in the P 26 were “reinforced fiberglass interior units” (a pan) that included V-berth, settees, compartments for the hanging locker and head, and countertops port and starboard below the companionway.
Shaw pointed out that interior cabinetry and shelving was designed to fit into pre-molded areas with high tolerances so as to avoid extensive carpentry.
“The shelves on the hull in the forward compartment don’t run all the way to the bow, or aft to the bulkhead. All the carpenters had to do for proper installation was fit screws into predrilled holes,” he said.
Stainless steel chainplates were secured with four stainless steel bolts to fiberglass sections molded into the interior of the hull. The main bulkhead was made of plywood with a wood grain facing that was tabbed to the hull using alternating layers of mat and roving that overlapped each seam by 3".
Shaw pointed out that “the outer three inches of the bulkhead were milled until bare wood was exposed so we would have a good bond.” He is unaware of any failures.
The hull-deck joint is criticized because of leaks on many boats, which Shaw attributes to two conditions.
“The joint was an inward flange on hull and deck, which we bonded with glass and then covered with a vinyl rail. However, the failure was not in our construction method but in the adhesives available at that time. We used silicone in the joint and it eventually failed.”
A second contributor was the pool used to test boats before they were shipped. Under normal circumstances, boats were dropped into a 50' x 80' pond, an inspector was placed belowdecks, and overhead sprinklers doused boats while the inspector searched for leaks.
“When the temperature in the shed fell below 15 degrees,” he said. “the water crystals would freeze so we had no indication of leaks until the boats were delivered to warmer climates.”
Many owners comment on the failure of the rudder bearing, which Shaw attributes primarily to the effect of long-term use or silt.
“Nylon bearings were placed at both ends of the rudder tube. Under continuous heavy use, or in areas where there is silt in the water, they will eventually fail and require replacement,” he said. Owners say they need frequent replacement.
The P 26 has an external iron keel fitted into a recess in the hull where it is secured by four keel bolts. A comment among owners is that cracks caused by movement of the keel will appear at the junction of hull and keel. A cosmetic blemish, the crack is not indicative of a structural weakness, though inspection of keel bolts on any aging vessel should be done at regular intervals. Another common complaint is that the iron keel was not properly prepped and is susceptible to rust.
The anodized aluminum mast on both models is stepped on the deck and supported by an athwartships beam located forward of the cabin bulkhead. Because it is in close proximity to the hatch over the V-berth, it should be inspected annually. Water may invade the area and cause delamination of it. Also check both ends of the compression post.
The boat has adequate light for a 26-footer. Both models have two large, fixed ports in the main salon, and two smaller fixed ports in the forward sleeping compartment. Reading lights were installed in the main cabin and forward.
One of Shaw’s goals in the design of the boat was to create four berths large enough for average sized adults, and he succeeded with the P 26. The V-berth forward is enclosed by solid sliding doors, measures 6' 5" on the centerline, and is adequate for two adults or three children. In the main cabin, a 7' settee to starboard converts to a berth; the dinette table, which is marginally large enough as a dining table for a couple and two children, converts to a 6' berth.
The enclosed water closet is located between the two cabins; a hanging locker is opposite the head.
The galley has a sink located aft to port and a pressurized alcohol stove, which would be among the first items we would replace on any boat. Alcohol, once touted as the safest stove fuel, has a light blue flame that is difficult to see. And attempts to put out alcohol fires with water usually result in just pushing the flame around, rather than extinguishing it. These problems, however, are most common with pressurized stoves. The Origo non-pressurized stoves, often seen as retrofits, are much easier to fill and safer to operate.
A small ice chest is located below the companionway step.
The 26 OD has smaller accommodations and fewer creature comforts unless they were added as options. It has the same V-berth forward. A portable toilet was optional. Little privacy is afforded by curtains enclosing the head and forward berth.
Because the cockpit is 2' longer than the P 26, the cabin is proportionately shorter, so the average 6-footer sleeping on berths amidships will be cramped.
If an optional two-burner stove and sink were installed to port on the bulkhead, the port berth will be of little use except as a seating area.
Storage in both models is below the V-berth and settees. Shelves run along both sides of the hull in the bow and main cabin. A small cavity in the bow serves as a storage area for an anchor rode. A 22-gallon water tank is located beneath the V-berth in the P 26.
Overall, the combination of the boat’s 8' 8-1/2" beam and 5' 8" headroom combine to create a reasonably comfortable 26-footer.
The deck layout on both models is uncomplicated and clean.
The self-bailing cockpit of the P 26 comfortably seats four adults; the OD is large enough for six. Because the tiller extends forward of the standard Lewmar #7 jib winches, most crews will trim sails from a position aft of the helmsman. Molded fiberglass lips running athwartships atop the coachroof and on the deck just forward of the cockpit deflect water overboard, a nice touch that’s uncommon on boats of this vintage.
To accommodate the jib sheet leads, a short section of T-track is located outboard on the toerail.
The mainsheet is an end-boom arrangement that terminates at the stern, so it is also easily controlled by the jib trimmer. The boat is easy to doublehand, even when flying a spinnaker.
Main and jib halyards are 7 x 19 wire with Dacron tails led to cleats on the mast. Because of the stepped cabintop, it will be difficult to lead halyards aft to sheet stoppers; considering the short distance to the mast, we consider that a minor shortcoming. Though this is a small boat, we’d still opt for roller furling.
Lazarettes on both sides of the cockpit provide storage for sails and gear.
For auxiliary power, Pearson recommended an outboard in the 6- to 10-hp. range. Most owners surveyed have 8- or 10-hp. motors, and claim speeds of 5-6 knots. Because of the height of the transom, a long-shaft outboard will be most efficient and quiet. Cavitation is a risk with a short-shaft motor.
On the 26 OD, the port lazarette is designated for a fuel tank; a 5-gallon fuel tank fits securely beneath the starboard seat on the P 26.
We sailed the P 26 in the blustery northwesterlies that predominate on San Francisco Bay during summer months, and in the same conditions in the Pacific Ocean outside the Golden Gate. We found her performance equal to or better than that of similarly sized boats. She’ll hold her own against the Cal 27s, Catalina 27s and Ericson 27s of the same generation.
She sails well to weather, tacks through 90° of apparent wind, and is stable downwind, though we were unable to test her flying a spinnaker.
The P 26 is also relatively dry when pounding to weather in the short, 2- to 4-foot chop encountered on the bay, and handles ocean swells without hobbyhorsing. As a safety precaution, we sailed with hatchboards in place when sailing downwind in the ocean.
Though nearly 30 years old, Shaw’s design of this daysailer/cruiser still has tremendous appeal, especially compared to the cost of new boats of the same size. She affords couples with children adequate space in the cockpit and below decks to sail or overnight in relative comfort. She is still competitive in racing fleets, though the 26 OD will have more appeal to racers, despite the tradeoffs in creature comforts.
She’s well built, but will require maintenance of the hull-deck joint and the rudder bearings. Also check the keel bolts, and the iron keel for signs of corrosion.
Aesthetically, owner criticism of the high crown of her cabin is legitimate, but it’s a visual impediment easily overcome by the addition of a tiller extension.
The boat rides easily at anchor, and with the forward hatch propped open it is well ventilated.
Because 1,777 traditional 26s were built, compared to 262 ODs, the former will be easier to find on the used market. Most ODs were placed in racing fleets along the East Coast.
Potential buyers should be able to find a well-maintained P 26 for $6,000-$8,000—an excellent value.