Fiberglass boatbuilding pioneer Everett Pearson dies

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Everett Pearson, the first to build production fiberglass boats, made recreational boating affordable to the World War II generation and their children.

Everett Pearson, the first to build production fiberglass boats, made recreational boating affordable to the World War II generation and their children.

Production fiberglass boatbuilding pioneer Everett Pearson, who co-founded Pearson Yachts, died Dec. 24. He was 84.

Pearson Yachts was the first company to build production fiberglass boats, earning Pearson the title “grandfather of fiberglass production,” Trade Only sister publication PassageMaker said.

It was the widespread adoption of fiberglass as pioneered by Pearson that made recreational boating affordable to the World War II generation and their children.

In 1968, Pearson continued his boatbuilding and fiberglass work with the start of Tillotson-Pearson Inc., an obituary in the Providence Journal said. TPI built wind blades, all-composite bus bodies, test track vehicles for Disney Imagineering, the branches on the Animal Kingdom Tree of Life and numerous other products, including J/Boats — the most well known.

“He was an amazing guy, just the kind of guy you really enjoyed being around,” J/Boats designer and co-founder Rodney Johnstone told Trade Only Today. “He always put people at ease.”

J/Boats, built with a balsa core between fiberglass skins as a composite hull material, were the first of their kind.

“We always try to keep abreast of what the newest technology is,” Johnstone said. “We didn’t invent the technology. We’ve really got to thank Everett Pearson for that. If [being cutting-edge] is our reputation, we got it from Everett Pearson. He was the one who really started us down that road. He had a huge influence on us, let’s put it that way.”

“We’d like to take credit for all our stuff being original stuff and we invented it all, but I designed the boats and I can tell you if hadn’t been for Everett, I would’ve designed them differently,” Johnstone said.

The early days

In 1955, cousins Clinton and Everett Pearson began building fiberglass dinghies in their garage on County Street in Seekonk, Mass. They were later asked by American Boat Building to build an auxiliary sailboat that would sell for under $10,000, according to Wikipedia, which was quoted in PassageMaker.

Naval architect Carl Alberg designed the Triton 28 sailing auxiliary — the first of which was built in the cousins’ garage — and launched it at the 1959 New York Boat Show.

The Pearson cousins had to borrow money to get the boat from their garage to the show. They had deposits for 17 boats at the end of the show.

When the cousins returned to Rhode Island, demand for the Triton 28 remained so strong that they purchased the old Herreshoff yard to expand their production site.

Pearson Yachts introduced a number of new models, most of which also were designed by Alberg. By the end of the year the newly founded Pearson Yachts had more than 100 and was turning out nearly one boat a day.

To raise the capital to acquire facilities to meet the demand, the cousins made Pearson Yachts public in April 1959.

Grumman Allied Industries bought the company in 1962, Johnstone said.

After he helped launch TPI, an industrial glass shop in Warren, R.I., Pearson built a 54-footer designed by John Alden with the help of the Hodgdon brothers, Johnstone said, and was building the Edgewood 22s.

Johnstone, who was working for Soundings magazine from 1971 to 1976, met Pearson by visiting monthly to sell him ads. During that time Johnstone built a boat in the garage of his home for his wife and seven children to enjoy. The boat, the first J/24, won races and began to capture the attention of local media.

“[Pearson] came down to look at the boat, and brought his wife down to Stonington, Conn., where I had the boat sitting on a mooring,” Johnstone recalled. “She thought it was a really good-looking boat, and that was enough for Everett. He said, ‘Yeah, this would be an easy boat to build. I want to do it.’ ”

The birth of J/Boats

They signed an informal one-page agreement on the spot.

“We were pretty much operating on a handshake with Everett for 25 years,” Johnstone said.

Rodney Johnstone and his brother Bob, who now runs MJM Yachts, partnered to make the boats with Pearson.

“Bob asked me, in February 1977 when the first J/24s were coming off the line … if I wanted a partner,” Johnstone said. “That was a no-brainer for me because I needed someone who could help me navigate the marketing. He was able to sell a lot of boats, and Everett had the capacity and ability to get the production line going and build a lot of boats.”

Pearson convinced Johnstone to make the boats with a balsa core instead of foam or solid fiberglass. Balsa wouldn’t fall apart over the years like foam, but it would prevent condensation on the inside of the boat’s cabin, as occurs when a boat is solid glass, Johnstone said.

The lighter weight of balsa, as opposed to solid fiberglass, allowed them to engineer more weight in the keel so the boat was more stable and didn’t heel so much when the sails went up, Johnstone said.

“It was pure luck on our part — there weren’t any boats like this out there,” Johnstone said. “The whole fiberglass sailboat industry was just cranking up in the 1970s, so we were right on the front end of a great push, and Everett Pearson was the top builder, technologically speaking. He was the first one to use end-grain balsa core between the skins as a composite hull material.”

“It more affordable for people who wanted a boat to perform really well,” Johnstone said. “Everett was the first one to do it on the production line, and our boats happened to be the first boat. So we were on the front end of the whole modern high-performance production sailboat market.”

“It was just an amazing time,” Johnstone said. “The volume of building sailboats that size — that’ll probably never happen again.”

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