Well done, Carl!


Good Buddy glides through a serene Essex Harbor. Wind and waves? She likes those, too, as I recently discovered. Photo by Tom Belcher

Frequent readers of this magazine know I bought my “big” boat, a 1966 Pearson Commander, four years ago for $750. They also know, thanks to this space, that most of the sailing I do is here in Essex Harbor on the Connecticut River, where the boat lives on a mooring in the summer. It’s not that I wouldn’t rather be sailing on Long Island Sound; I just rarely have the time for the two-hour round trip. And, besides, I really enjoy our late-afternoon harbor cruises.

So, in short, I have a beater boat that rarely leaves the river. Which, given the boat’s fairly distinguished pedigree, sometimes seems a shame. Good Buddy – I believe she was named by the Sea Scouts who owned her before me – was built as a daysailer, but she’s capable of so much more. In the ’90s a guy named Zoltan Gyurko sailed one nearly around the world, and the Commander was reportedly designer Carl Alberg’s favorite boat. When you think of the amazing designs that came off Alberg’s board over the years, that’s pretty heady stuff.

I recently wrote a feature-length “review” of the Pearson Commander for “Practical Sailor” magazine. They maintain an extensive archive of old boats, and asked me to write a review of the Commander after realizing they didn’t have one.

During the writing process I was in touch with a gentleman who used to own one in San Francisco. Something Commander owners always say regarding these fairly heavy, full-keeled boats is that they “like a blow,” and this fellow said as much, claiming he was always the last one to reef on windy San Francisco Bay. Based on Good Buddy’s performance in Essex Harbor I’ve always suspected as much, but never knew first-hand.

Until now.

Several weeks ago my buddy, Tom, and I took all five of our kids, aged seven to 13, out to Long Island Sound. The marine forecast said 10-15, with possible gusts to 25. It’s a habit of mine when visiting the Sound to subtract five knots across the board, so I realistically expected 5-10, with gusts to 20. Maybe. Theoretically, a walk in the park for Good Buddy.

Except we tore down the river under sail in what was easily a steady 15-knot breeze. Once in the Sound, after the sun disappeared and the sky became ominously gray, with pockets of rain visible on the horizon, the wind jumped to a steady 20-25, with gusts of at least 30. That is, it became quite nautical. Eventually, seas built to six feet. Tom was cool as a cucumber, but I was recalling all the boat’s known weak points I’d just researched for the “Practical Sailor” article as we power-reached toward Long Island. Twice we surfed down overtaking waves. Stodgy old Good Buddy, surfing? Oh, God, I thought, please let the poorly designed backstay tabbing hold this time. I’ve got a v-berth full of kids!

Ah, yes, about those kids. Up in the pointy end they were having the time of their lives, like they were on an amusement park ride. At one point, though, my son yelled, “Lily’s breathing under water!” which immediately had me demanding clarification. All it meant was that a portlight was briefly under water. I cracked the main, wishing I’d had the good sense to reef before leaving the river.

We tacked. Good Buddy was occasionally overpowered, but she bucked her way into the oncoming swell as advertised: as though on rails, with little weather helm. The boat’s low freeboard saw to it that we got wet, but, then again, we were already soaked from being out in the rain. What a fine machine Alberg created, I thought, as this time Noah yelled, “Abby’s gonna puke!”

Of course. It had gotten so quiet down there. Two of them were ill. Brought topside in their lifejackets, they soon recovered.

There’s always another hurdle while sailing, of course. Ours was that the outboard, so reliable for years, wouldn’t start at the mouth of the river. On our third attempt we were finally able to beat in between the breakwaters against a strong outgoing tide, and five short tacks later we’d cleared the inner lighthouse. After pinching for what seemed like an eternity, we could finally ease sheets. A police boat shadowed us all the way in, unsure as to our intentions. Heck, I wasn’t sure myself.

The story ends with a running motor on flat water, and two stiff jiggers of rum (for the adults) to assuage frayed nerves. A happy ending, I’d say.

Those of you who subscribe to “Practical Sailor,” look for my review.

Every claim I make there, apparently, is true.