Boat Review October 2019 Issue

Carl Alberg’s Ageless Commander

Pearson’s rugged, soulful daysailer turns 55 without missing a beat.

The Commanders slim figure above the water belies a husky keel that helps it track impeccably, even as the wind pipes up.

In the early 1960s, building boats designed by Carl Alberg, Philip Rhodes and Bill Tripp, Pearson Yachts was on a roll. The Alberg-designed Triton had been the catalyst; its debut at the 1959 New York Boat Show had been a runaway hit, and by 1964 it was all hands on deck at the former textile mill in Bristol, R.I. Beyond filling many orders for the 28-foot Triton, the Pearson factory was producing–often at the rate of one model per-day, or more–the Ensign, Alberg 35, Rhodes 41, and Invicta, all of which in 2019 are considered “Classic Plastic.” The 38-foot Invicta won the Newport Bermuda Race in 1964, the first-ever fiberglass boat ever to do so. The Pearson cousins, Clinton and Everett, who’d once built dinghies in a Seekonk, Mass., garage were a bona fide success story 10 years in the making.

In 1964, however, the company’s course would be forever altered. By then Grumman Industries, the military aircraft manufacturer, owned a controlling interest in Pearson, and they weren’t happy about the $100 per-boat royalties they paid their chief designer, Carl Alberg. Alberg was by then making around $40K per year under this arrangement, which was quite a bit of money. The “stubborn Swede” wouldn’t capitulate; it was time for him to hit the bricks. Next to go was one of the company’s founders, Clinton, who’d never really adjusted to working for Grumman. Not to worry: Both he and Alberg would land on their feet, Alberg later producing iconic designs for Clinton’s new business down the street, Bristol Yachts. As ever, Alberg continued to design boats for other companies over what would eventually become a long, hallowed career.

From the chaos of 1964 emerged a 26-foot daysailer at the Pearson yard that Alberg would later choose as his own personal boat. Called the Commander, it was essentially a Spartan, daysailing version of the Pearson Ariel—same hull, with a shorter coach roof and a nine-foot cockpit—that had been in production since 1961. In his dotage, Alberg could be spotted in and around the waters of Marblehead, Mass., aboard the Commander he named after his wife, Alma. Considering the many fine designs to emerge from Alberg’s board, many of them smallish boats capable of being singlehanded, that he chose this particular boat seems significant.

In total, Pearson Yachts built 310 Commanders between 1964 and 1967. The folks who notice such things have, over the years, pointed out that the boat’s aesthetics and hull are eerily similar to the Hinckley 21, a wooden 28-footer Alberg designed many years earlier while working for John Alden. Both the Hinckley 21 and Pearson Commander—long and lean, with large overhangs, cutaway full keels and low sheer—owe much to the Nordic Folkboat, the characteristics of which Alberg reportedly admired. Like the Folkboat, the Commander is a well-mannered, sea-kindly boat that usually gets you where you want to go, but whose performance these days, as compared to other boats her size, is rarely described as scintillating.

It was different in the 1960s, though. Other qualities trumped performance. From Pearson literature at the time: “Commander is 26 feet of stiff, able, comfortable and fast boat. She’ll tickle the turnbuckles of any skipper who wants to lead a double life. . .  . She takes to blue water like she was twice her size! “

“Long-lasting” was a big deal back then, and fiberglass being a relatively new kid in town, the material delivered, as promised. Some might even say to the industry’s detriment. Certainly it would work against Pearson in later years, when the company would essentially be competing for market share against some of its own boats.

In 2019 the Pearson Commander is over 50 years old and many of them -—lovingly maintained, and even actively raced in a fleet on San Francisco Bay – have survived the ravages of time. With so many boats by so many different designers out there at around 26 feet, it’s not hard to imagine why so many Commanders still exist, and why Alberg himself was particularly fond of the design. The reason? They’re pretty. Simple as that. And, beyond their classic good looks, which evoke a special time in the history of yacht building, they’re easy and fun.

Construction

Much has been made of early fiberglass boat construction and the tendency to “overbuild” using fiberglass, a material that didn’t yet have a track record. The Commander was built during this era, her single skin hull of multiple layers of 1 ½-oz. mat and 24-oz. woven roving. The thickness of the glass, depending on which part of the boat you’re looking at, varies from 1/4” to 7/8”.

The hull is stiff; on poppits or rafted up you won’t see it flex. The hull/deck attachment is a simple butt joint that’s been taped and glassed, and sealed with a durable caulk. Despite not being mechanically fastened, this aspect of the boat’s construction is rarely mentioned as a weakness. Leaking has been reported on boats in which the caulk has dried out. A stainless steel rub rail is screwed into the joint.

There are no keel bolts: The hull is a single-part mold with the ballast (2,500 lbs.) dropped in after the hull and keel were fabricated. A layer of fiberglass holds everything in place. All in, the boat displaces about 5,400 lbs. In Commander models ordered with an outboard engine well (the majority), two lead pigs in the bilge compensate for the weight of the missing engine, which would have likely been an Atomic 4. Commander owners wishing for a “livelier” sailing experience often remove the pigs, with no ill effects save the boat becoming a bit more tender.

The deck is cored with end-grain balsa. Boats with lifelines are prone to deck rot if stanchion bases haven’t been re-bedded over the years. Removing the deck skin and replacing the core is time-consuming and expensive, though not necessarily a deal-breaker, especially for hands-on buyers.

In early Commanders there was no bridge deck. This made access to the cabin easier, but was eventually deemed unsafe and remedied late in the Commander’s run, around hull no. 224. None of them have bulkheads between the aft lazarettes and the main cabin. Today this arrangement is generally frowned upon since, in the event of a broach, water can pour straight through an unsecured lazarette into the main cabin. Concerned owners add seals and latches to the lazarettes.

Replacing the original cockpit coaming boards – which serve as convenient backrests and keep water out of the cockpit—is harder than it looks. A surprisingly tough polysulfide bond awaits anyone lucky enough to remove the many screws that hold the coaming in place.

The Commander’s mast—the same mast used on the bigger Triton— is deck-stepped with a compression post in the cabin that ultimately rests on the keel. The mast step on most Commanders is a wooden laminate with a cross-shaped cutout underneath to accommodate deck hardware. Wooden mast steps original to the boat, if not meticulously maintained, are often ugly, though not necessarily compromised. Replacements are no longer available. While they can be reproduced easily enough, quite a few owners have elected to machine new ones out of aluminum, the same material used by the Pearson yard in later Commanders.

The rudder is attached to the keel and hung on a bronze shaft. The blade itself is made of three pieces of mahogany through-bolted to the shaft and tied together with straps. While the rudders themselves have proven durable over the years, and fairly low-maintenance, prospective new owners should check the rudder bearings, shaft and shoe. Rudders have been lost due to failed shafts. When replacing a shaft, always use bronze to match the shoe and OEM tiller head.

On boats with brass seacocks in the bow—part of the original straight-in/straight-out head system (now illegal in most harbors)—be sure the grounding wires are still attached. At stake is the structural integrity of the exterior flange/strainer.

Many Commander owners remove the seacocks. Original turnbuckles are bronze/chrome. The stainless steel stays and shrouds, if original, should be inspected, as well as the chainplates. Over the years the backstay chainplate, in particular, has undergone much scrutiny. This is because it’s through-bolted to a small hanging knee that’s tabbed to the stern, but not the deck.

Because of its location in the aft lazarette, where an outboard engine often resides, it’s also prone to having its fiberglass scraped off by an overly large motor, which can create a potential spot for water ingress. This, the free-floating aspect of the knee, and the structure’s relatively small size are the reasons some owners modify and strengthen this attachment point. That said, its location in the aft lazarette also makes the fix fairly straightforward.

Interior

The Commander’s interior—settees, sink, cabinetry, etc.—is made of plywood taped to the hull. Done correctly this provides a strong internal support structure, and gives the Commander owner ample leeway for home-spun modifications. While proper building specs were generally followed at the factory, such as peeling the plastic laminate on the hull where plywood is taped for better adhesion, the aesthetic result isn’t always perfect. Wrinkled cloth and frayed edges are fairly common. The interior trim and cabin sole are teak; the bulkheads and cabinetry are covered in a faux-teak plastic laminate. The laminate itself has proven remarkably durable over the years, but just try getting paint to stick; extensive sanding and prep work is de rigueur.

The straight-in/straight-out original head is located below the v-berth, and the boat’s water tank, as well. Forward of the v-berth is the boat’s anchor locker, which is accessible only from this space (there’s no hatch on deck). Headroom below is 5’1”. Again, think Spartan. The good life is topside. Below, for the most part, is for sleeping or getting out of the rain.

Performance

Life in the Commander’s cockpit is good . . . unless, of course, you’re motoring. The clamshell vents on the aft lazarette don’t adequately ventilate the engine, which means that most of your motoring must be done with the hatch open. Close the hatch, and your motor is soon gasping for air. Novel ways have been created to introduce more air to the lazarette, or to pipe exhaust outboard, all in the name of peace and quiet. It’s not just an issue for the Commander; most boats with outboard engine wells suffer the same problem. The solution is to sail more and motor less – to put the “auxiliary” back in “auxiliary engine.”

Backing the Commander down can be squirrelly due to the outboard motor’s proximity to the rudder and the boat’s full keel. Physically turning the motor in the direction you’re trying to go, as though on a dinghy, helps. Moving forward under power, while using this same technique (turning both the rudder and motor in the same direction), allows you to turn the boat in an extremely tight radius. A modern 6-hp outboard will push the Commander at hull speed in light conditions.

Because of the Commander’s narrow beam she might, at first, seem tender. But then her high ballast ratio kicks in and she settles down nicely, even in a fairly strong breeze. According to one former Commander owner, Antonio Rico, who sailed his Mephisto Cat in San Francisco Bay when he lived there, “Commanders are stiff and heavy -- they love a good blow! The breeze in San Francisco Bay is consistently 25 knots and I was among the last to reef the main, though I didn’t have to very often. That said, the Commander has low freeboard, so going upwind they do keep you quite moist.”

And, of course, once the boat starts to heel, its long overhangs are immersed and the waterline increases, thereby improving theoretical hull speed. The Commander’s displacement/length ratio of 360 puts the boat in the “very heavy” category. However, in a seaway she won’t bounce like many modern yachts her size, and thanks to her full keel she tracks as though on rails. Her 16.8 sail area/displacement ratio is good enough to keep her moving in a light breeze, especially with a large headsail.

As on many Alberg-designed boats, the Commander’s mast is well forward and the main is large. In a blow, to prevent weather helm, the prudent sailor reefs the main before reducing headsail.

Conclusion

After Carl Alberg himself, Zoltan
(Gyurko) Istvan is probably the most famous former Pearson Commander owner. His trip in the 1990s from California to Greece on The Way, took him across the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, up the Red Sea, and into the Mediterranean. In the Pacific he survived a mid-ocean storm, and off Vanuatu he bounced across a large reef (twice), the boat not much worse for wear. Several Ariels-—the “cruising” version of the Commander—have made long ocean voyages, at least one each to France, Australia and to Hawaii and back from California.

This is not what the Commander was built for, of course. It’s far more at home in coastal waters, where Alberg sailed his Alma, or in an enclosed space like San Francisco Bay, with wind enough to spare. A decent Commander can be bought for as little as $1,000; one that’s been meticulously gone over and properly outfitted? Expect to pay no more than $6K.

Commanders are simple, easily modified, fun to sail, and still–after all these years—capable of turning heads. As such, fans of full-keeled designs from the ’60s might give the Commander a look, or anyone on a budget looking for a plucky little daysailer.

Comments (1)

All true. We are s/v "Lucky Dawg" - Commander #65's happy owners for the past dozen years. She's a beaut! Those Alberg lines! She sails in both light winds and in a blow with 5-7' swell gracefully. An easy single-hander. We sail Lake Michigan from Muskegon Lake port.

Posted by: LuckyDawg | October 2, 2019 9:38 PM    Report this comment

New to Practical Sailor?
Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In