Pearson 303

An above-average coastal cruiser that makes the most of its 30-foot length.


The Pearson 303, introduced in 1983, is a fairly typical example of the kind of work Pearson was doing in the mid-1980s, continuing until its sale in 1991 to Aqua Buoy, which has yet to resume production. During 1983, Pearson built 12 different models, ranging from the durable 22′ 6″ Ensign to the Pearson 530, the largest boat the company ever built. The long-standing 35 centerboarder and 365 ketch had been dropped the year before, and the mainstays of the fleet were the 323 and 424. Only the 30′ Flyer departed from the company’s commitment to cruiser/racers—the unfortunate appellation given to just about any boxy boat with a fin keel.

Pearson 303 Specs

Pearson was decidedly more into the family coastal cruiser than serious racing, though its boats were commonly club raced under PHRF.

The Pearson 303, and later the 34, 36, 37 and 39 seemed to be nearly the same boat drawn to different lengths. Indeed, in 1991, all of the above models, except the 303 (terminated in 1986), were in production at the same time. There was a bland sameness to them. Not only in terms of the standard hull and deck colors, non-skid pattern, window treatments and interior finish, but in their lines as well.

One would suppose that designer Bill Shaw believed the formula to be successful, and for a time it probably was. Nevertheless, we suspect it also may have accounted for the company’s eventual demise. Time and again it has been said that larger boatbuilders, because they end up competing with their own previously-sold boats, must continually introduce new models. Example: You want to buy a Pearson 36, and are tempted to buy new. But a three-year-old model sells for less and is better equipped. You conclude that buying new is bad business. The dealer, sensing you are on the fence, tells you the company is about to introduce the Pearson 37, a much bigger and better boat with all sorts of improvements. So you take the hook and buy a new 37. But the phenomenon perpetuates itself, and because each new model requires expensive tooling, the company is making nowhere near the money it appears to be.

In their defense, Shaw and Pearson over the years designed and built a number of very interesting boats that were atypical of the rest of the line. The centerboard Pearson 40 and one-design Flyer come to mind. And though Pearson sold quite a few of each by any other builder’s standard, these departure designs never were accepted as well as the company’s family cruiser/racers. It seems the company was consumed in a vortex spun of its own successful sameness.

The Design

A quick look at the numbers shows that the Pearson 303 is a conservative design, moderate in every respect. Its displacement/length ratio is 274, and its sail area/displacement ratio is 15.6. These figures suggest a boat that is easily handled and with adequate volume for stowing cruising supplies. They also suggest a boat that is not particularly fast, corroborated by owner comments that are discussed under “Performance.”

The typical cruiser/racer will have a fairly shoal keel, as does the 303, which draws just 4′ 4″. This is great for cruising the Chesapeake Bay’s back rivers, Florida Bay and the Bahamas, but unnecessarily shallow for just about anywhere else. A deep keelwould improve windward performance noticeably.

The 303’s length/beam ratio (2.77 using LOA) is quite low. This gives the boat a lot of room inside, and helps provide initial stability so the boat won’t feel tender. At the same time, it is not the best proportion for ultimate stability or ease of handling in severe conditions. U.S. Sailing’s glossary of terms in its IMS Profile booklet, says values range from “2.5 (short, wide) to 5.0 (long, narrow). High length/beam ratios mean lower wave making for a given displacement/length ratio and better controllability for given ratios for sail area/displacement and sail area/wetted surface.”

Unlike many later Pearsons, the 303 does have a skeg-mounted rudder, which tends to decrease then stalling angle, and, mounted far aft as it is, the skeg also adds a bit to lateral plane, which should help directional stability. Skegs also permit an added bearing support to the rudder, and may help protect the rudder in a collision with an underwater object.

Our conclusion is that the Pearson 303 is a big 30-footer, intended for safe coastal cruising. She admirably succeeds in doing what she was designed to do. The only risk accrues to those who mistake her for something she is not—an offshore, passage-making boat.


The hull of the 303, again differing from many later models, is uncored. Weight was not a concern, and, if keeping a scorecard, we’d give the 303 a point or two for its solid fiberglass hull. Lead ballast is internal, so there are no keel bolts to worry about.

The propeller shaft is molded into the hull. And, as previously mentioned, the rudder is hung on a skeg. While this rudder won’t be as efficient as a balanced spade rudder, it has its advantages, especially for cruising. One thing that might have been done differently would have been locating the lower rudder bearing maybe 6″ or more above the bottom of the skeg, so if the skeg grounds or hits an object, there is less likelihood of disabling the rudder. An emergency tiller was provided.

End-grain balsa was used in the deck. We’re not exactly sure how the hull/deck joint was fastened, but Pearson had given up through-bolting on many 1970s models, so we assume the 303’s hull and deck were fastened with self-tapping screws. This method saves time, and while perfectly satisfactory for the its coastal purpose, it detracts somewhat from overall quality.

Pearson generally did a good job with details, such as backing plates for hardware, installing bronze sea cocks, and choosing quality materials for pulpits, stanchions and the like.

The cabin sole is a one-piece fiberglass molding bonded to the hull. A teak and holly overlay hides it. We like the fact that the berths are not part of this molding, rather built up of plywood, which as we have said many times, is a better acoustic and thermal insulator, and is easier to modify. The teak bulkheads are bonded to the hull, but not, we assume, to the deck, as the one-piece fiberglass overhead must be bonded to the deck before the deck is lowered onto the hull and bulkheads. Some early brochure photos show what appear to be stainless angle braces securing the bulkheads to the deck, intended to prevent working. The head is a fiberglass molding, which is appropriate considering that water from the sink, toilet and shower is a danger to plywood.

We received several complaints about leaks, citing the bedding compound used in portlights and deck hardware—time consuming, but not difficult to fix.

The interior has an attractive amount of oiled teak to highlight the high-pressure laminates used on cabinet facings. Stowage is pretty good for a 30-footer, with three drawers in the galley, a bureau in the forecabin, and stowage behind the settee seatbacks. The hanging locker is short and small, however. The quarter berth was advertised as a double, but as one owner put it, “No way!”

The high freeboard and generous beam make for a lot of space in the cabins. Headroom is 6′ 3″. Freshwater capacity is 38 gallons.

All things considered, construction of the Pearson 303 is above average. That has always been Pearson’s reputation, and we see nothing in the 303 to alter that perception.


The 303 has a keel-stepped mast, which is a nice feature and something that Bill Shaw must have felt strongly about. The mainsail has near end-boom sheeting to a traveler mounting across the cockpit bridgedeck. It won’t be easy to reach from behind the pedestal, but the jib sheets are, as the winches are mounted just forward of the wheel.

While most owners praise the 303’s balance, stability and seakindliness, most are honest about its speed. “Definitely not a racer,” said the owner of a 1984 model. Upwind performance is especially marked down, and this is no doubt due at least in part to the boat’s high freeboard, wide beam and shoal keel. But few owners feel it is a significant problem. Offwind performance is rated more highly.

Pearson 303 Diagram

Typical PHRF ratings from fleets around the country range from 171 to 192, with most in the mid-180s. This is a bit slower than the popular 1970s vintage Pearson 30 at 180, a Cal 30-2 at 174, and a C&C 30 at 168.

Auxiliary propulsion is furnished by a Yanmar 2GMF 13-hp. diesel. Tankage is 22 gallons in an aluminum tank under the cockpit. This would seem on the small side, and a number of owners said so. Others rate boat speed and maneuverability under power as acceptable. One owner said he switched from the standard two-blade prop to a 15 x 11 three-blade prop, making 6.5 knots at 2,000 rpm. Another owner who was critical of the engine size, said he makes 5.5 knots at 2,500 rpm.


The Pearson 303 is a good looking boat, especially considering its high freeboard and wide beam. Bill Shaw did a good job integrating all the elements to avoid a boxy-look. One owner said, “Looks like it needs another 10 feet, but that’s a trade-off for roominess and livability.”

While it’s easy to overlook the Pearson 303 as another member of a fleet that looks depressingly similar and lacking in pizzazz, the 303 is a wholesome family cruiser with a workable, traditional interior, acceptable performance and above average construction. Hey, what’s not to like?

The BUC Research Used Boat Price Guide lists average retail low and high of the 1983 models at $35,300 to $39,100. 1986 models come in at $42,900 to $47,600. A check of asking prices in the classifieds of Soundings corroborates these numbers, but given the state of the used boat market, we’d want to pay no more than the low $30s for a Pearson 303 of any vintage.


Darrell Nicholson, editor of Practical Sailor, grew up boating on Miami’s Biscayne Bay on everything from prams to Morgan ketches. Two years out of Emory University, after a brief stint as a sportswriter, he set out from Miami aboard a 60-year-old wooden William Atkin ketch named Tosca. For 10 years, he and writer-photographer Theresa Gibbons explored the Caribbean, crossed the Pacific, and cruised Southeast Asia aboard Tosca, working along the way as journalists and documenting their adventures for various travel and sailing publications, including Cruising World, Sail, Sailing, Cruising Helmsman, and Sailing World. Upon his return to land life, Darrell became the associate editor, then senior editor at Cruising World magazine, where he worked for five years. Before taking on the editor’s position at Practical Sailor, Darrell was the editor of Offshore magazine, a boating-lifestyle magazine serving the New England area. Darrell has won multiple awards from Boating Writer’s International, including the Monk Farnham award for editorial excellence. He holds a U.S. Coast Guard 100-ton Master license and has worked as a harbor pilot and skippered a variety of commercial charter boats.


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