Pearson 32 Boat Review

Launched in 1979, the Bill Shaw-designed Pearson 32 still shines among the club racers and coastal cruisers. Its draw is that it more than meets the needs of a cruising couple without sacrificing performance



The Pearson 32 was launched in 1979, 20 years after the first Carl Alberg-designed Pearson Triton captured market interest at the New York Boat Show and promoted sailing as a middle-income activity. In the early 1960s, the company’s principals, Clint and Everett Pearson, Alberg, and marketing strategist Tom Potter developed a reputation for functional, well built, cost-effective production sailboats that had widespread mass appeal. By the end of the first decade of production, the company had evolved into the dominant East Coast production-sailboat builder, and was bought out by aerospace giant Grumman. During these formative years, a new genre of sailboat was spawned, and each of the founders of the fledgling Pearson Co. made a sizable contribution to production-boat building. Before each went his own way, the original Pearson crew successfully turned a garage-based boatbuilding dream into a reality that spawned a dynasty.

Pearson 32 Sail Boat


Phase 2 of the Pearson plan came with a new owner, new designer, and new line of boats. Grumman, well capitalized from its military aircraft successes, leaped into the fray with a thick checkbook and considerable manufacturing know-how. Before they left, the Pearson cousins had recruited Bill Shaw, an 11-year veteran of the S&S design office, to be the in-house designer. He ended the Alberg era of full-keel, long-overhang sloops in favor of the fin keel, skeg, or spade rudder, and split underbody that he felt improved performance. Shaw found the Grumman era a chance to improve Pearson’s production-boat building technology, and for 27 years, he acted as the chief designer and eventually general manager of the operation.


The Design

With a clear understanding of coastal weather conditions, inshore estuaries, and the cruiser-club racer mindset of potential buyers, Shaw began a campaign of designing boats of 30-plus feet that met the needs of local sailors. Pearson became a mature manufacturing company engaged in market research that showed that although customers may read stories about passages to Tahiti, in truth, they had just enough time in the summer to get to Martha’s Vineyard and back. They belonged to yacht clubs with Wednesday night race series, and they wanted sailboats that could be raced and cruised without much fuss. The research also showed that more often than not, it was the skipper’s wife who held a pivotal vote on which boat would eventually be bought.

Shaw’s challenge became one of designing sailboats that performed well under sail in light to moderate conditions, offered accommodations that made the summer cruise more comfortable, and garnered nods of approval as the boat bobbed on a mooring in front of a club house.

The Pearson 32 embraced all of these goals, and delivered on the challenge. Its waterline footprint was wider and longer than boats of the Alberg-era. With fine forward sections and an external-ballast, lead fin keel, the 32 offered better windward performance.

For the day, it had a fairly high-aspect-ratio spade rudder that worked in conjunction with the fin keel, guaranteeing turn-on-a-dime maneuverability. Added lift from the foil shapes improved its upwind ability. With a 10-foot, 7-inch beam and fairly flat sections, the boat’s righting moment derived a big boost from form stability, and consequently, it carried sail well and showed less of a heeling tendency than earlier, lean, full-keel models.

Even with a 40-percent ballast ratio, the displacement of the boat was only 9,400 pounds, a number that when taken in context with 474 square feet of working sail area added up to decent light-air sailing ability. In short, Bill Shaw had looked closely at what New England sailors and those on Long Island Sound and the Chesapeake Bay were doing with their boats and designed the Pearson 32 to be the cruiser-racer that they were looking for.

In the years to come, other manufacturers would build competitors in this size range that were faster, but each of these iterations seemed to eat away at the cruising side of the compromise. The Pearson 32 was intentionally a 60/40 cruiser-racer, a boat that was easy to sail solo, luxurious for a couple, and quite user-friendly for a young family on a two-week summer cruise. It had some wood trim, but the extruded alloy toe rail, fiberglass coamings, and nonskid gelcoat decks were an effort to lessen maintenance through the use of more durable trim and finishes.

Another Shaw trait, seen on this design, was a sensible balance between the competing influence of accommodations and hull and deck configuration. Conceived first as a sailboat rather than a sailing houseboat, the relationship between side-deck space, cabin-house shape, and cockpit size achieved a harmony that works well underway and at anchor. Extremes were avoided, and the logic of the fin keel and spade rudder underbody proved its value. The era of canoe body hulls and independent foils did improve performance, but also made running aground a bit more of a concern. A hefty well-reinforced keel stub provided a rugged garboard seam for the lead-ballast keel of the P32, and lessened worries about running aground.

There’s been an ongoing debate about the Alberg era versus the Shaw era in the Pearson dynasty, and neither group seems to accept the validity of the others’ claims. Alberg’s boats had an aesthetic appeal, a lovely shear line, a kind motion off the wind, and their tough hulls were built as thick as a plank. Shaw brought more modern design and construction ideas to Pearson, and his boats definitely sailed faster. They were lighter, the foils added more lift, and if getting from here to there a half-knot faster is important, the Shaw design definitely trumped its predecessor.


On Deck

The Pearson 32’s conventional cabin profile and narrow but adequate side decks lead to an aft cockpit protected by sizable coamings and a deep self-draining cockpit well. The sloop’s user-friendly deck layout came standard with an Edson wheel and a mainsheet traveler set at the forward end of the companionway hatch, just aft of a short bridge deck. This arrangement allows the mainsail trimmer to remain separated from the helmsman and jib trimmer when racing, but by the same token, it causes a short-handed crew to have jobs to do at either end of the cockpit. Because it’s a relatively small cockpit, this separation of mainsheet and helm isn’t as problematic as it would be aboard a larger vessel.

But there is another concern with this mainsheet arrangement that does need to be addressed: the danger of an unintentional jibe. If it occurs just as a groggy crew member makes his or her way up the companionway ladder and onto the deck, it can result in injury or even a crew-overboard incident.

Shaw always sailed and owned the boats he designed, and having been schooled by the dean of deck layout, Rod Stephens, he clearly understood the importance of optimum line leads and the efficient location of winches, tracks, and other deck hardware.

By the time the Pearson 32 was being designed and manufactured, there were enough predecessors afloat for the Pearson team to have worked out a simple and efficient sense of sail handling. Halyards were handled at the mast with the mainsail cleated in traditional fashion to the starboard side, and the jib to port. A deck-mounted winch was provided to tension the luff of the headsail, and when reliable roller furling systems stole the show, the P32 was a natural candidate for the headsail makeover.

The inboard shrouds improve the sheeting angle but cause those moving forward and aft to take an outboard route. The lifelines and the grab point provided by the shrouds themselves make it a safe enough transition for those going forward. There are handholds on the cabin house both forward and aft of the shrouds. The original gelcoat nonskid is good, and when the time comes to renew the nonskid, it can be done easily with epoxy primer and LPU top coat laden with a nonskid additive or through the use of new single-part paint products.



The four-step stainless tube and teak companionway ladder leads below to a cabin with 6 feet of head room, which seems large for a 32-footer. Immediately to port is the nav-station and to starboard is the galley. As an option, Pearson offered a quarter berth on the port side aft of the nav-station, which added a berth but eliminated the spacious port-side cockpit locker. Many of the 113 Pearson 32s built came with a two-burner alcohol stove, but there’s enough room in the in-line galley for a three-burner, gimballed stove with oven, plus a sink on one side and an ice box on the other. Serious cruisers can easily convert the ice box into a refrigerator. This small but utilitarian galley is usable at anchor and underway, another good test of a functional sailboat.

Forward of the partial bulkhead that separates the galley and nav-station from the rest of the main saloon are two settee berths and a table that folds up against the main bulkhead. The two settees are good sea berths and allow for comfortable meal time seating. A small forepeak V-berth and compact but functional head make up the accommodations forward of the mast. The sloop’s relatively wide beam (10 feet, 7 inches) contributes to the spacious feel in the main cabin. The bunks are a little short, and those over 6 feet, 3 inches will find themselves resisting the desire stretch out.

Shaw was careful to balance the performance needs with nice accommodations. During this era in the Pearson evolution, there was a feeling that efficiency under sail was a valuable part of cruising and that club racers were really cruising boats with newer sails and an efficient underbody.



Access to the engine is good, thanks to its location immediately under the companionway ladder. Two wooden engine bed stringers provide support for mount brackets and the original Yanmar 18 horsepower (2GM) can be easily replaced with a newer model or several other engine options. There’s room for a water heater in the bottom of the cockpit locker to port (non quarter-berth models), and a battery stowage box is located in the starboard locker. Even though the systems aboard this boat were intentionally kept simple, there is pressure water in the head and galley. With the addition of a slightly larger alternator, an owner can easily add a small evaporator-type sealed compressor refrigeration system, rounding out this boat’s credentials as a very capable summer cruiser.



The Pearson 32 is absolutely fun to sail. It’s small enough to easily singlehand, yet large enough for a couple or young family to summer cruise. With a 208-square-foot mainsail set up with a simple slab-reefing system, and a roller-furling, 120-percent genoa, the 8- to 20-knot wind range is covered. Top this two-sail inventory off with a reaching asymmetrical spinnaker for light-air fun and functional cruising, and a small working jib to replace the furling genoa during breezy spring and fall conditions, and you’re set to go sailing rather than motoring from one harbor to the next. The advantage to cruising a boat with light-air efficiency lies in the enjoyment of making good progress, even when 10 to 12 knots and shifty is the status quo.



A 5½-foot draft qualifies the P32 as a shoal water-capable cruiser that’s just right for coastal cruising and exploring the estuaries along the East Coast. But with this 32-footer, the shoal draft stats also come with an efficient foil shape and external lead ballast, providing enough lift and lateral plane to enhance sailing ability both on and off the wind. Add to the mix a respectable sail area-displacement ratio of 17, and it’s clear that this Pearson is more than an oversized pocket cruiser. Envisioned originally as both a club racer and a family cruiser, the boat lives up to both expectations. For those who prefer spending time sailing when they go cruising, it’s a boat worth a very close look, especially with current prices ranging from $18,000 to $30,000.


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.


  1. Hi Darrell, I’ve come across a 1978 Pearson 31-1. On paper its very similar to the P-32 except its 9 inches shorter. I’ve read your excellent review on the P-32 and wondered if performance wise they are similar or if the P31 has certain deficiencies (besides the funky rear of the cockpit). I notice they were in production at the same time. I haven’t been able to find a good review on the P-31 and they were not in production very long.

    Thank You,
    Guy Lovejoy


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