American Beauty, Pearson Vanguard 

   A     G U I D E     T O    G O O D     O L D     B O A T S                             By Tom Dove  Chesapeake Bay Magazine

American Beauty John Bildahl 2000

A lovely design coupled with bullet-proof construction make the 32-foot Pearson Vanguard a classic sailboat in the truest sense of the word. From “classic” soft drinks to “classic” music written two years ago, the c-word gets far too much dubious mileage these days. But in the case of the Pearson Vanguard, for once it’s right on the money. This is a beautiful, well built older boat, seaworthy enough to carry you around the world if you so desire and comfortable enough to easily cruise a young family or a couple around the Bay or up the coast.

The Vanguard began in 1962-63 as design No. 749 from the drawing board of the late Phil Rhodes, who knew a thing or two about nice lines and good performance. His credits include the lowly Penguin dinghy, the 1962 America’s Cup winner Weatherly and some of the most beautiful ocean racers of the century. He designed the Vanguard to the Cruising Club of America racing rule, which produced the prettiest yachts since World War II, as well as more seaworthy and  seakindly vessels than many of those emerging from factories today. The Vanguard is no exception, though I do think the large cabin windows detract from this boat’s gorgeous hull.

Pearson Yachts in Bristol, R.I., built about 400 Vanguards between 1963 and 1967.I found a number of them available, listing from about $18,000 to more than $30,000.At the low end, you get a maintained but not upgraded boat. At the upper end, you get a new diesel, Awlgrip paint and recent interior and equipment changes.

Test Sail

While this is a 32-footer, its waterline length is comparable to that of a modern 25-foot cruising boat. Waterline translates to speed and interior space, and if you are accustomed to the long, broad hulls of today, the Vanguard will seem a bit small and a tad slow. With tiller steering, it also has the typical handling qualities of that generation of boats, both positive and negative.

Our test boat was Fling, a beautifully restored 1965 Vanguard (hull No. 239) with a number of modern additions, including self-tailing winches, a roller-furling jib, a diesel engine and a bright, attractive interior. She is a head-turner.

Perfect conditions on the Severn River greeted us; the wind was 8 to 12 knots, the sky clear and the waters un-crowded. I was quickly reminded that, classic or not, full-keel boats do not turn and back with the agility of modern fin-keelers, but for its generation, this one is reasonably nimble. Backing under power is an adventure in randomness, as one never knows exactly what will happen, but going forward, the directional stability of the long keel is a boon to cruisers, and the turning circle is about two boat lengths. With the Universal diesel humming at 79 decibels, we clicked off an easy 5 knots. There is a constant pull to port, but it’s not excessive. You can keep steady pressure on the tiller and always know which way the boat will turn if you let go.

Under sail, this is a truly pleasant boat. It tracks far better than modern fin-keel craft, yet it’s responsive. Small sail changes do not make big differences, but it responds to reasonably careful trim with better speed and feel. The Vanguard has a rare combination of big-boat heft and small-boat response, and it should be well-mannered offshore in big waves as well as in choppy bays. Maybe that’s why so many voyagers choose it.    

Owner Cynthia Weber has sailed Fling since childhood, and she's proof that the boat can be single-handed by somebody of average size and strength; I took my turn sailing, but she clearly had everything under control without my help.  

By modern standards, this boat is tender, putting the rail down when whitecaps fly, but by 1960 standards, today's boats are unduly stiff.  The hull form that makes the Vanguard tender also makes it seakindly, and we moved through powerboat chop without fuss.  Several of these boats have made long ocean passages and at least one circumnavigation, so they are proven in rough water.

Weather helm develops as the angle of heel increases, and that's a sign to reduce sail.  The original roller reefing has been replaced by slab reefing on virtually all these models, and taking a reef calms things down.  Although the rig has a masthead jib, the mainsail is large.


The wide side decks are a joy.  One can move forward with security, and grabrails on the cabin top provide good handholds.  Offshore, a good deck is a matter of life and death.

Halyards typically lead to the base of the mast on vessels of this vintage father than aft to the cockpit, an arrangement I prefer for simplicity and reliability.  It keeps the rope spaghetti out of the cockpit and reduces friction in the system.

The cockpit is spacious for two and comfortable for four.  The tiller does take up space while sailing, but can be folded back out of the way at cocktail time.  A number of owners have fitted wheel steering to their boats to gain space while under way and to add leverage to deal with the weather helm when the wind picks up.  This modification requires structural changes, including extending the rudder tube and reinforcing its top, and the clearances under the cockpit sole are minimal.  It can be a do-it-yourself project if you are handy with tools, and the expense would not be much more than the cost of materials.  The best source for details on this change is the Edson International site on the Internet at; they will send a data sheet for the boat that covers all the detail and includes up-to-date prices.

CABIN John Bildahl 2000

The boats came with two interior versions, and it appears that about equal numbers of each were built.  The dinette version, added in 1964, has a table to port with the galley opposite along the entire starboard side.  The table lowers to create a gigantic berth in the main saloon.  Two quarterberths are aft.  In the original plan, settees port and starboard pull out to form what Ally McBeal might consider a double on either side, and the galley stretches across the boat at the companionway.

In both layouts, the forward cabin has a V-berth and the head compartment extends across the width of the boat.  The V-berth is not the usual "pizza oven" that's difficult to climb into but is reasonably low and has a deep cutout in the center to ease access.  There's a folding sink in the head to conserve space.  Pearson must have sold a number of boats to tall skippers; in a time when many cruisers did not have standing headroom, the Vanguard had over six-and-a-half feet of it.

A vessel of this era benefits tremendously from an interior update.  Refinish the bulkheads, add some teak trim, build in some cabinets and perhaps a teak-and-holly sole, install new cushions with modern fabrics and contours-the change is dramatic.  On Fling, Weber converted one quarterberth to a storage area, which includes shelving for a sound system and a small chart table with an integral lift top for access to a trash can.  She also installed a small hatch overhead in the main saloon and rebuilt the forward hatch opening to accommodate a modern Bomar hatch-both upgrades which improve ventilation and light below.

You may also want to consider a wiring upgrade, since the Vanguard's wiring is well out of date, especially on the AC side.  To rewire the entire boat to American Boat and Yacht Council standards would probably cost about $4,000, though if you chose to eliminate the AC side, you could rewire the boat's main DC distribution for probably half that price.

You could easily put $5,000 to $15,000 into interior upgrades, but since these boats are appreciating in value with time, it could pay off.


This hull is truly classic in lines, with a pronounced sweep to the sheer, a cutaway underbody and long keel, with an aperture between the keel and rudder for the propeller.  For its time, it was beamy; for today it's narrow.  The 6-foot-6-inch draft is a welcome feature on the Chesapeake and in the Bahamas.

The original engine was a 30-hp Atomic Four, which some sailors hate and others love; put me into the latter category. If you must have a diesel, the change will cost about $8,000 if you do it yourself or $12,000 to $13,000 if you have a boatyard do it.  you'll recoup about half that cost when you go to sell the boat.  Although there are many Atomic Four "drop-in" replacement diesels, take careful measurements because the engine space is extremely tight. 


Having the prop in an aperture is a performance disaster, but it does protect the screw from underwater hazards, including errant crab and lobster pot lines.  The drag from a fixed three-blade prop will be significant but the thrust will be greater, so you must choose between sailing performance and powering ability.  Align a two-blade prop with the keel, and the drag is much lower under sail.  Don Moyer has discovered that a 13-inch diameter, 5-inch pitch prop often works well with an Atomic Four in this sort of installation.  A better but much more expensive installation is a feathering three-blade prop, but be sure it will fit in the aperture.

The builder's original brochures said the water and fuel tanks were made of Monel alloy, which is good for a couple of lifetimes.  You can't get that kind of quality in a production boat today, and not all Vanguard buyers got it either.  Some report that their tanks were black iron, which will be due for replacement by now.

The gelcoat on any boat this age is probably permanently dulled, although it still functions as a protective layer if it's intact.  For better appearance, you can get a polyurethane paint job (Awlgrip is the best known brand), which will cost between $3,500 and $4,000 for the hull, depending on the gelcoat's condition.  For the deck, look to spend between $200 and $250 per foot to recoat in a polyurethane.  you can't do that yourself without a lot of specialized expertise, and a brush-on job won't do this beautiful craft justice.

If you intend to restore the boat completely, consider having  the original deck hardware re-chromed, rather then buying new.  Much of it is irreplaceable since the original manufacturer is out of business, and what's on the shelf today is not nearly of the same quality.


Like most fiberglass boats of the time, The Vanguard's hull looks like it was carved out of a solid chunk of material, but the actual lay-up schedule was alternating layers of 1.5-ounce fiberglass mat and 24-ounce woven roving--lots of it.  All structural members and bulkheads were bonded in place before the hull left the mold, ensuring that the boat would hold its shape.  It's thick, heavy and probably everlasting.

The lay-up is neat, although unfinished in hidden areas, and there is plywood coring in the deck and cockpit sole.  Some owners report water intrusion in these cores, which necessitates extensive surgery.  If you're shopping, be sure to get a thorough survey to turn up any such places.  If the boat is originally rigged, a careful survey of the rig and mast step is a necessity, as the mast steps were built of steel and in some cases have rusted.  This could cause the mast to compress the deck and main bulkhead.  Fling's was replaced with an identical mast step built of stainless steel.

The only other problem areas to watch for seem to be hairline cracks in the tiller head fitting, possible water seepage into the keel, and loose deck fittings.  That's a mighty short list for a boat that's more than 30 years old.


Not surprisingly for a boat of this quality and vintage, owners are avid and communicative.  The Vanguard website at is outstanding, with links to other related places and an excellent section on the Atomic Four.  A Pearson Vanguard list server is online.  Sign up for this free forum at (webmaster's note--The Vanguard website is now located at

The Vanguardian, a well written and informative newletter of the Pearson Vanguard Association (with over 100 members), is available from Connie Hoover (email (webmasters note--Connies email address is now

"Practical" and "sailing" don't normally belong together in the same paragraph, but the Pearson Vanguard is an exception.  Do you want to cruise the coast in a responsive boat now but know that you could chuck your job and cross an ocean tomorrow?  This boat is a practical solution to that sailing situation.  It isn't a dockside condo, it's a real sailboat.  It isn't especially fast, but it feels good under way, and what's a knot or so when you're already where you want to be?  It isn't the cheapest used boat on the market, but compared to the cost of a such versatile vessel new, it's a bargain.  It won't cruise with six adults, but it will be a safe home for two and a perfect platform for raising kids.

That's not a bad set of tradeoffs.  I could be convinced to call the Vanguard a classic.

Pearson Vanguard

Manufacturer     Pearson Yachts, Bristol, R.I.
(out of business)
Designer            Philip Rhodes
Production        1963-1967
LOA                 32'6"       LWL 22'4"
Beam                9'3"         Draft 4'6"
Displacement    10,300 lb
Fuel                   21 gal     Water 48 gal
Sail Area            470 sq ft (100% foretriangle)
Displacement/Length ratio 413(heavy); Sail
Area/Displacement ratio: 15.8 (moderaletly low)
Ballast/Displacement ratio:0.41 (moderate); US
Sail Screening Value: 1.7 (below 2.0 recom-
mended for offshore sailing); Comfort Value: 32
(moderately high)

Chesapeake Bay Magazine March 2000    photographs John Bildahl 2000          used with permission

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