Everett Pearson: Fiberglass Pioneer, Boatbuilding Legend

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Everett Pearson was a fiberglass boatbuilding pioneer who co-founded Pearson Yachts and helped to launch the J/Boats sailboat brand. Pearson died Dec. 24, 2017, at the Hope Hospice Center in Providence, Rhode Island. He was 84.

Born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1955 at Brown University, where he was captain of the football team. He and a cousin, Clinton Pearson, had a long history in business by then, having delivered groceries, sold Christmas trees and more during their younger entrepreneurial years. By the late 1950s, they were building fiberglass dinghies in a garage at a time when wooden hulls still ruled the day.

The pair got their official start in the boating business in 1959, after being approached to build a Carl Alberg design that would become known as the Triton 28. Everett Pearson borrowed $3,000 from a friend of his mother’s who owned a funeral home in Providence. “We took that money and paid $600 to get the boat into the New York Boat Show,” Pearson says in the 1999 book Heart of Glass: Fiberglass Boats and the Men Who Built Them.

Show-goers loved what they saw. On the strength of that show’s purchase orders — for 17 hulls — Pearson Yachts went public as a company a few months later, having turned the $3,000 loan into about $170,000 worth of revenue. The cousins bought the old Herreshoff yard in Bristol, Rhode Island, to start production. Cruising World magazine estimated sales for that year at $750,000 to $1 million, with virtually all of it based on the sheer volume of orders, as the Triton 28 sold to consumers for just $9,700.

By 1968, when the boat’s production run ceased, more than 700 Triton 28s had been built. Pearson Yachts turned out other sail- and powerboat models, too, including the Electra, the Alberg 35 and a 38-foot William Tripp Jr. sloop called the Invicta, which became the first production fiberglass sailboat to win the Newport-Bermuda Race, in 1964.

Pearson left his eponymous company after Grumman Allied Industries bought a controlling interest, but he continued working in fiberglass, building everything from windmill blades to flagpoles as the co-founder, with Neil Tillotson, of Tillotson-Pearson Inc. In 1977, Pearson changed the world of yachting again. As an owner of Tillotson-Pearson, he acquired the U.S. building rights to the Rod Johnstone design that would become the J/24, helping to launch the J/Boats brand.

“He went all in on things he believed in, that he was enthused about, and that was really helpful,” Bob Johnstone, Rod’s brother, says. “My brother Rod, all he had was a design, and I had a marketing plan and $20,000. It was Everett who had the production facilities. He stepped in and invested in the tooling and the startup costs to get those boats going. That was really the most important factor.”

The J/24 hit the market at a time when baby boomers — raised on Hobie Cats, Sunfish and Lasers — were looking for a bigger yet affordable option for taking their young families out sailing. Rod Johnstone had built the first hull as his own boat, and Pearson drove to Johnstone’s home in Stonington, Connecticut, to see it. Pearson instantly knew, Bob Johnstone recalls, that a boat combining performance and comfort would appeal to the masses. “On Long Island Sound, there really wasn’t a boat at the time where you could go out in your street clothes and have some fun,” Johnstone says.

Pearson was instrumental in the success of the J/24, producing six boats a day in two plants.

Pearson was instrumental in the success of the J/24, producing six boats a day in two plants.

Rod Johnstone was an ad salesman for Soundings back then, and he made sure the J/24 was promoted in the magazine. Orders followed. Just one year later, in 1978, the company was building dozens of J/24 hulls every week. “He was building a total of six J/24s a day in two plants, in order to keep up with orders,” Johnstone says. “The success, the marketing success of those boats that he was building, was facilitated by the fact that he could make them and he could make them efficiently. We were able to hold the price on the J/24 under $10,000 for the first couple of years because with the increased volume, you could spread the overhead of the operation, the expenses beyond the direct labor and materials that went into building the boat.”

Pearson was so focused on his work, Johnstone says, that it could be hard to get his attention for other reasons. “One of the amusing policies he had was that when people tried to call him on the phone, he wouldn’t answer until they called him three times,” he says. “That meant it was important enough for him to take the call.”

Tillotson-Pearson (known today as TPI Composites) also built Freedom sailboats, Rampage fishing boats, Lagoon catamarans, Sundeer sailboats and Alerion Express sailboats. Pearson was among the first to embrace the Seemann Composites Resin Infusion Molding Process, using it on the J/80; today, SCRIMP has been or is still used by the U.S. Naval Warfare Center, the Army, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and others.

Pearson’s knowledge of fiberglass construction also extended beyond boats. He worked in commercial applications and founded Pearson Pilings, which builds fiberglass pilings for home docks, marinas and more. In 1986, he founded SwimEx, producing therapy pools.

The American Composites Manufacturers Association honored Pearson with its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001, at a time when he still felt the fire to invent and achieve. “I’ve never gotten up any day where I dreaded going to work,” Pearson told Boat Digest magazine in 2007. “I’m waking up at 4:30 thinking about what I’m going to do.”

An avid sailor, Pearson was a member of the New York Yacht Club, and his fans around the world loved to race the boats he helped to create. Of 26 boats in the American Sailboat Hall of Fame, he was instrumental in building five of them: the Triton, Ensign, J/24, J/35 and Freedom 40. “That’s pretty extraordinary,” Johnstone says. “When you think about the number of boats that those represent, and the impact he’s had on people, on families sailing those boats, it’s extraordinary.”

Pearson also earned a few accolades on the racecourse himself. “We went out a couple of times,” Johnstone says. “One of my favorite times was at Antigua Race Week. We won absolutely everything. There’s a picture of us at a table with about 50 trophies.”

Pearson is survived by his wife of 62 years, Virginia Bourne Pearson, as well as three children and eight grandchildren.

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue.