Pearson designer Shaw dies at age 80

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The naval architect was known for his “safe, sound, robust” boats

The naval architect was known for his “safe, sound, robust” boats

Although Carl Alberg’s designs had made Pearson Yachts hugely popular by 1964, his royalties were cutting deeply into the profits expected by corporate bosses at parent company Grumman Allied Industries, recalls Everett Pearson. So when Alberg refused a new deal with lower royalties, the door was opened for a new chief naval architect.

The man whom Pearson welcomed aboard, William H. Shaw, was a “competent individual who had all the talent, but he was a nice guy, to boot,” says Pearson. Shaw went on to replace Pearson as head of Pearson Yachts, and from 1964 until his retirement in 1991 he was responsible for designing and building thousands of cruising sailboats that drew the middle class into the sport. Shaw died Aug. 20 at his Bristol, R.I., home after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was 80.

Shaw’s designs were “conservative and above-all safe,” says Tom Hazelhurst, whose company marketed Pearson boats and who became Shaw’s friend on and off the water. “He was not one to reach out to the edges of design. I don’t think Bill would take a chance with a life or a boat or [would] design anything that was marginal.”

As a result, today’s Pearson owners are devoted to the brand, says William Lawrence, who heads the Pearson Yacht Owners Association. That devotion “came from the fact that he designed a very safe, sound, robust boat” that was “always reasonably priced and always well-made,” says Lawrence.

William Harold Shaw, a native of Providence, R.I., graduated in 1947 from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, having served in the Navy in World War II as a cadet midshipman. He met Elizabeth Thomson, a Canadian nurse studying at a Providence hospital, in 1950 at the Rhode Island Yacht Club. “He was always sort of shy,” says Beth Shaw. “He had a small sailboat that we went out on all the time.”

They married in February 1951, but by then Shaw had been called back to the Navy for the Korean War. Upon his discharge in 1952 as a lieutenant, he was hired by Sparkman & Stephens as a designer, where he was chief designer of the 12 Meter Columbia, the successful America’s Cup defender in 1958. In 1961 he moved on to Products of Asia, a company that imported yachts built in that continent. Then came the opportunity to work at Pearson Yachts.

“At the time when Bill came, [some] friends had started some industrial fiberglass work, and I was planning on leaving,” says Pearson, whose cousin Clinton Pearson, company co-founder, had been fired by Grumman. “I thought Bill would be the man to take my job.” Pearson remembers that Shaw “would listen. He was the kind of guy, when he made his comments, he could get you to listen to him,” he says.

The quality that comes to mind first for Hazelhurst is what he calls Shaw’s impish wit. “Privately, his sense of humor was off the wall,” he says.

Beth Shaw agrees, recounting a conversation she had with her husband weeks before his death, at a time when his once-fabulous memory had abandoned him. (Lawrence says Shaw could remember the size and thread type of the keel bolts used on a given boat decades after designing it.) In a time of apparent despair, Beth Shaw told her husband she “wanted to just drop dead. I said: ‘Don’t you want to, too?’ And he said, ‘I’m trying.’

“He was a very gentle man,” his widow says, “very sweet and unassuming. He accomplished a lot, but he never bragged about it. I think he loved his work at Pearson Yachts. He loved the idea of designing and then going out and sailing them and racing them.”

When it came time to evaluate a new design — he created or oversaw more than 40 sail- and powerboat designs, as well as canoes — Shaw often would ask for Hazelhurst’s help. “If he had a new boat that was ready to go in the fall boat show, he’d launch the first one in May and give it to me and say, ‘Go race the bottom off it. Tell me what you think of it, what needs to be done,’ ” Hazelhurst says. “I learned more about yacht design sitting on the weather rail of a boat … just listening to him talking about wave action and laminar flow.”

Shaw was co-founder of the Midget Ocean Racing Club, which was sparked by his Shaw 24 design, a boat “with living space that can compete,” in Hazelhurst’s view. “When he got to Pearson, he just carried that forward. When you think of how many Pearson boats are out there, my God. He worked hard to make sure that sailboats didn’t become stripped-down machines with popsicle sticks hanging down the bottom of them.”

At the same time, according to Hazelhurst, he’d say, “You want me to put all the things in the boat that are in your living room, including a fireplace, you’ve come to the wrong guy.”