THE HISTORY OF THE ZEPHYR CLASS

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ZEPHYR CLASS

A SIXTY YEAR PHENOMENON - AND COUNTING

The Zephyr was given its name from a similarly titled gentle breeze in the Greek Islands. My boats tended to be gentle little boats, sweet in their line so I called it a Zephyr.

- Des Townson 2006

The Zephyr lines drawing was completed in April 1956, but the genesis of this creation began a number of years earlier. At that time, Des Townson was a fledgling boat designer/builder in the very early stages of his self-taught journey, having started in 1952 as an 18-year-old with a plan for an 8-foot plywood rowing dinghy. Seven more designs followed; five cold moulded dinghies and two 12-foot Pennant class yachts. He never received formal maritime design or building tuition, so his development was solely by intuition, observation and experimentation. The first Townson commercial commission was from John Peet in 1954 for a two-handed yacht to race in the newly formed 12 ft skiff ‘Q’ class. Nimble represented a marked change from common thinking of the time, being light, flat bodied and modestly canvassed. The boat was successful both locally and on a wider stage. Under the helm of Don Brooke, it became the highest scoring New Zealand boat at the inaugural 12-foot Skiff Interdominion Championship in Sydney. The Nimble hull form was the forerunner to the Zephyr.

Boat building was only a part time activity for the young Townson and after stints working as a motor-body builder, a house builder in Auckland, then industrial building at Kawerau, he returned to Auckland feeling frustrated and directionless. John and Dawn Peet encouraged him to make his full time future in the yachting world and suggested the need for a single person version of their 12-foot Nimble. The result was Atarangi, an 11-foot, two-skin, cold moulded centreboarder, the prototype for the Zephyr class.

 Atarangi was constructed using one skin of 3/32 inch kahikatea and a fore/aft skin of 5/32 inch cedar.  The boat immediately attracted attention with its launching fortuitously preceding the planned first Auckland Boat Show at Tamaki Yacht Club.  With only a week to go before the show and while sailing off Kohimarama in a fresh breeze, a portion of the starboard hull along the waterline fractured. The boat nearly sank but fortunately Des managed to get ashore, dry the hull and install two dozen ¾ x ¼ inch ribs running from keelson to gunwale. The boat was repaired and painted in time for the following weekend’s exhibition. 

The expected focus by show visitors on the much-heralded, new Graham Mander designed fibreglass X Class didn’t eventuate and instead Atarangi captured the most interest. At that time the twenty-two year old Townson was, according to Dawn Peet, “Very, very shy – exceptionally shy. He dreaded talking to strangers; all those sorts of things were too hard at that stage.”  Bill Moyes and John Peet manned the Zephyr stand on his behalf and between them, took twelve orders that weekend, effectively heralding the start of the Zephyr class. The event was subsequently reported in Sept 1956 Sea Spray magazine, “From Des Townson came the prototype single-hander, an 11-foot moulded boat with a cat rig. This boat created a lot of interest for its neat finish and simplicity as well as the appeal such a class may have among married men or those plagued with crew troubles.” 

The considerable re-engineering hurdle remained, with Des recalling, “I realised I had to build them in a different way because Atarangi had broken.  I also realised I would have to go to three skins to really make a proper job of these boats. That meant gluing the second skin to the first skin and removing the staples and cleaning it off, then gluing the third skin over it. Very, very time consuming, tedious work. Jack Logan had shown me how to cut a number of planks at one time so you cut out several boats at one time and that was a big advance.” However, the biggest production advance came from a ¼ hp motorised glue spreader Des and his father Tom developed. This enabled resorcinol glue to be automatically spread on the pre-cut veneer planks. There was absolutely no time spent spreading glue, so after stapling a plank on the boat Des could turn around and pick up the next readily glued plank. This enabled a hull to be built to deck framed stage in 39 hours, a remarkably fast production time for what was a complicated building exercise. Once production issues were resolved, Des was able to build five hulls at a time.

With enthusiastic promotion of the class by John Peet, the Tamaki Yacht Club Zephyr fleet quickly grew. John wrote articles in Sea Spray, organised fleet racing events and actively encouraged owners’ participation. Dawn Peet recalled, “John used to ring all Zephyr owners on a Friday evening and say we have racing at Tamaki tomorrow and we are really counting on you coming along. The guys could then go to their wives and say, “Johnny Peet needs me at sailing.” They then had a leave pass from home and those extra numbers provided a momentum for the expansion of the class.”

Interest in the class grew and by October of 1957, Tamaki Yacht Club was established as sponsorship of the new class. The following month Sea Spray reported, “To date 30 hulls have been delivered and many more ordered.” At the end of the 1957/58 sailing season, Zephyrs were appearing in the South Island.

Cantabrian Andy Holland remembered the first two boats appearing at the Stewarts Gully Sailing Club at the top of the Waimakariri River. However, they didn’t last long, transferring to Charteris Bay Yacht Club in Lyttelton Harbour where the fleet developed. Local class stalwart, Ken Maynard, remembered the fledgling class achieving very large fleets, “… they took on like nobody’s business.” 

By early 1958, Des was operating out of his small factory in Morrin Road, Panmure. Owing to the overgrown site, it was affectionately dubbed ‘The Fennel Factory’. This was the location where a great majority of the 219 Townson-built Zephyrs were produced. In 1957, Des was selling a hull with deck beams for £48-10-0.

With the greater awareness of Zephyrs came attention from a most unexpected quarter. Christchurch sailors were pressing for plans to be made available for local construction. They didn’t recognise Des’s proprietary rights to be sole builder so he felt forced to register the Zephyr name and copyright the design. However. when Zephyr was gazetted, the Ford Motor Company spotted the name and became alarmed because the Zephyr was one of their popular car brands at that time.  Des recalled, “I was working away in the workshop in Panmure and a fellow fought his way through the fennel and into the factory. He’d been sent all the way up from Lower Hutt to check out my Zephyr. He smiled when he came in and saw my operation. He said he didn’t really think I would be a threat to the company.”  

Growth in the class was such that by the end of the 1957/58 sailing season a Zephyr Owners Association (ZOA) was formed. Len Clarke was elected foundation Chairman, with Barry Morley, Secretary. The class had reached seventy-five boats and in addition to the Auckland clusters at Tamaki, Otahuhu and Bucklands Beach, boats were appearing in Hamilton, Rotorua, Whakatane, Napier, Featherston and Christchurch.

The first class championship was held at Tamaki Yacht Club in early March 1959 and attracted thirty-nine entrants from the ninety boats launched nationwide. Sea Spray of May 1959 covered the contest in detail, reporting, “Sunday morning’s race, the final in the series, was keenly contested, any one of five being in a position to win the championship.” Eventually, after a hard fought race, Neville Thom sailing #4 Why won from Garry Linkhorn in #33 Rocket, with Al Reid #38 Fever third.

Clearly the concept and design of the Zephyr tapped into a rich vein of demand amongst the young male, yacht racing fraternity. The one-design, single manufacturer model was hugely appealing to sailor’s eager for just such a boat.      Many youngsters who would go on to become significant forces in the New Zealand boating industry cut their teeth on the Townson dinghy. One such person was architect Alan Warwick who was greatly impressed by the Zephyr and decided to purchase hull #67 from Des and complete it on the verandah of his rented villa in Herne Bay. Probably the most famous Zephyr sailor was Helmer Pedersen, a Danish immigrant who went on to win an Olympic gold medal for New Zealand in the Flying Dutchman class. He returned to the Zephyr class after the Tokyo games, bringing fellow Olympian Ron Watson to the fleet. The attraction of racing against a world-renowned yachtsman drew others into the class and his return to the Townson boat with a gold medal under his belt was quite a feather in the class’s cap.

A fundamental feature of the Zephyr class was the one design cotton sails from the same pattern held by Boyd & McMaster sail makers. This was an era where frequently the top competitors in classes were those with the greatest sail purchasing capacity. The ensuing ‘arms race’ mentality severely strained some classes. In an effort to thwart this aspect of the sport, Des made the Zephyr a leader in the one-design concept.

Initially, Zephyrs were constructed from New Zealand native kahikatea (white pine), but by the late 1950’s suitable supplies were becoming harder to procure. After approximately twenty-six boats, not all sequentially numbered, Des swapped over to untreated radiata pine. At the time, this was an unheard-of timber for use in boat building, generally only used for concrete boxing and other low-grade applications. Des’s timber selection stood the test of time, with boats from the very first production run still competing at the top of the national fleet six decades later.

Zephyrs were the first class in New Zealand to have a commercial symbol on the sail instead of the traditional class lettering system. The New Zealand Yachting Federation was far from impressed, so allocated the letter ‘J’ to the Zephyr class. Des recalled, “This young boat builder was making a little bit of a name for himself and came to their notice. But I’d already made up my mind what the insignia was going to be on the boat and I simply ignored them. You may see on some of the early regatta programmes they were listed as ‘J’ class, but no boat ever carried the letter ‘J’ that I am aware of.” 

At the end of the 1958/59 season the original cotton sail was replaced with a terylene version also made by Boyd & McMaster sailmakers. Around this time, boom vangs and imported venturis started appearing in the class, each making the boats more manageable in fresher breezes.

The Zephyr class unwittingly became a casualty of boat building economics and a battle of wills between Des and the Mistral Owners Association. By the late 1960s orders for new hulls of both designs had virtually ceased and after some challenging dealings with individuals in the Mistral class, Des chopped up the Mistral and Zephyr moulds. By his records Des had constructed 219 hulls, with the last built hull allocated number 225. Enthusiastic class supporter, Gary Linkhorn, especially ordered hulls 33,133 and out of sequence 233 over the course of his long Zephyr sailing association.

With no new hulls available and secondhand boats always in short supply, Christchurch sailors became focussed on the feasibility of re-starting Zephyr production – with or without Des’s blessing.  In the mid-1970s and without access to plans, Ken Maynard, Austin Ebert, Maurice Hines and Bill Baine reverse engineered a mould. By making a thwartship needle gauge, then progressively placing it at one foot centres over three hulls, the team established an exterior shape for each boat. The average of the three became the starting point for calculating backwards to establish frames for a replica mould. The objective was to faithfully create boats as close as possible to the Townson originals. Once the mould was finished an identical three skin kahikatea layup was utilised. Eventually nine Christchurch builders produced thirty boats, within the numbering sequence 301-331. Without original lines plans it was inevitable the hulls would end up a slightly different shape to the Townson built boats. At the time Des was dismissive of the well intentioned project. A letter remains in the Townson archives from class secretary David Brown inviting Des’s inspection and acceptance of these boats. On the top in Des’s handwriting is ‘Phoned reply 21-7-78 negative’.

Around the same time an unfortunate event became a catalyst that spurred the ZOA committee into action to try and resolve the boat shortage issue. One night during the winter of 1978 vandals broke into the storage lockers at Hamilton Yacht Club and set fire to the building. Thirty-two dinghies were destroyed, including eight irreplaceable Zephyrs. Unfortunately, Des’s old boat, #7 Wairiki was one of the eight ruined hulls.

In 1980 teenage boat builder Ian Cook became National Zephyr Champion. With a close family connection to Des through his father David, Ian was considered an ideal person to approach the prickly Des for support for a renewed hull building project. “People were trying to get boats to build. In the interim period I’d done a couple of years building Pied Pipers, first working with Ewan Guy, then doing six on my own. The ZOA committee decided that I stood the best chance of convincing Des we should build Zephyrs.” Finally realising the downside of withholding his original plans, Des agreed to assist. The Waikato branch of the Association fund raised $1000 toward the cost of a mould. Ian recalled, “The ZOA committee had a little shed in Newmarket. Des gave me the lines plan and gave me a hand to loft the boat out. He said the one thing we needed to do was get the stem straight. He was pretty adamant the only thing really wrong with the originals was the crooked stem. He was pretty annoyed at himself because of how that was.”

“He spent a lot of time teaching me how the sheer on the boat should look and how a fair line should be represented and what was wrong with the boat the guys had done down south. It’s quite evident when you look at them. It’s only a subtle difference but it makes a big difference to the appearance. Building the mould was not an easy task I can assure you. Des had great delight in telling me I hadn’t quite got it quite right.” After minor tweaking, production started.

December 1980 Sea Spray magazine reported, “The first new hull built by Ian Cook (No 234), was on display at Hamilton at Labour Weekend and aroused a great deal of interest. A firm price was not available at time of writing but just over $600 is the probable figure.”  Eventually Ian built six hulls, 234-239 before his boat building business became too busy to accommodate low financial return Zephyr construction.

By the early 1980s good spar timber was also becoming harder to obtain and the class started looking towards aluminium equivalents. At the time the very best wooden masts were made from spruce to full section size. They were light and had good bend characteristics but were much more expensive than the more common oregon masts. Top Zephyr sailors would often purchase a second boat because of a good spruce mast then swap masts and sell the less desirable combination. By April 1985 the alloy mast evaluation process was finished and the Baverstock tapered metal masts were voted class legal. Subsequently Northern Rigging took over production using a tapered tube with a riveted sail track. Masts have reverted to a one-piece tapered extrusion, produced by NZ Rigging. The move to aluminium was good for the class because it evened the performance of boats throughout the fleet.

By the second half of the 1980s renewed pressure surfaced to once again have more new hulls available. The cedar core fibreglass layup option was selected on the basis of being a less expensive construction style. Under Noel May’s supervision and with Des’s blessing the Cook fully planked mould was modified and a trial cedar strip planked boat built; #251 Striptease. The mould was originally designed for three skin layup, but when used for single-skin strip construction, planking became problematic. In an effort to resolve these issues, the Christchurch mould was shipped to Auckland for comparison. Neither appeared useable, so both were destroyed and a replacement more suitable for the new style of construction was created.  Yacht designer and Zephyr sailor Brett Bakewell-White used the original Townson pencil lines drawing to supply May with offsets for stations at 12 inch centres. Because construction was different to the three-skin cold moulding technique, the hulls when removed from the mould settled into a slightly different shape to the Townson predecessors. It was also a struggle to get new cedar core boats down to weight.  After a production run of ten boats, #251-260, cedar strip planking was abandoned.

With the new millennium and approaching half a century since the class founding, many keen sailors saw the Zephyr as their ideal centreboard racing dinghy. Demand for new hulls remained unsatisfied.  Enter Rob Ebert, an ex-Christchurch sailor and long-time Zephyr enthusiast. He’d observed the past difficulties with well-meaning but problematic post-Townson production and was determined to make the fourth replica project successful. He approached Brett Bakewell-White to produce a Zephyr CAD drawing based on the original Townson plan. The advanced CAD computer faring software enabled a much more accurate replication process to unfold than had been available in the past. Experienced boatbuilder Robert Brooke built a new mould, then two hulls, faithfully replicating the three skin cold moulded Townson build specification.  Weta Man #501 became the first launched boat. Several other builders contracted by the ZOA through Horizon Boats and the Auckland Traditional Boat Building School built additional hulls.

The 50th anniversary of the Zephyr class was run at Milford Cruising Club in Jan 2006 and attracted the largest ever Zephyr national championship fleet of 84 boats. From the designer came the following words for the regatta programme:-

"When the 21st anniversary of the Zephyr class was celebrated in 1977 by the French Bay Boating Club, it was quite an historic occasion, as the life expectancy of a dinghy in 1956 was about ten years. Most Zephyrs are constructed of untreated pinus radiata, the timber blamed by the building industry for the rotting homes problem. The glue used was heavily extended with walnut shell, flour and water. Much of the styling of the Zephyr is influenced by the traditional form of North Sea fishing boats dating back to the mid 19th century. So we have a classic built of inferior timber bonded (in effect) with a flour and water paste, and of antiquated styling. That the Zephyr has remained durable and popular for 50 years is good cause for further celebration. I therefore welcome you to this significant regatta and trust you will have an enjoyable regatta.”

Television and print media covered the event and marvelled at the survival of both the class and its creator. Des Townson was obviously delighted with the spectacle and much was made of him sailing his prototype Atarangi. Of the event, he was heard to say, “I was surprised by the turnout at the regatta, for some reason, the Zephyr people seem to have a surprising amount of energy and enthusiasm.”

Following the 50th anniversary, interest continued unabated from ‘mid-life’ sailors, freshly liberated from the pressures of raising a family and seeking a revival of their youthful racing days. Facing further demand for new boats, the ZOA found after producing 29 hulls, suitable 2.2 mm radiata pine veneer became unobtainable. The decision was made to follow the Townson Mistral class and create a fibreglass hull with timber bulkheads, deck framing and centrecase; to be topped off with traditional plywood deck and timber trimmings. A plug was built by long time class stalwart Don Currie on the 500 series Robert Brooke built mould. A GRP female mould was made by fellow Zephyr sailor Greg Salthouse at Salthouse Boatbuilders. The two brought extensive experience and skill to the project, both determined to create a product that could take the class into the future with the same dedication displayed by the class’s creator in the 1950s. This hull is expected to be ready for scrutiny at the 60th class championship in April 2016 at Manly, Auckland. 

 As a consequence of the different hull builders over the period of sixty years, six distinctive Zephyr hull groups exist and all are regularly raced;  Townson #1-233, Cook #234-240, Adams #251-260, Christchurch #300-331, the Brooke #501-529 series boats and the new GRP boat.

One of the enduring aspects of the Zephyr class has been decades of unceasing, overlapping support from a wide variety of enthusiastic class participants. Many not only owned and raced the boats, but more importantly gave spare time, support and knowledge to keep the class flourishing. Over the same time span many other classes have come and gone, but from inception the Zephyr generated a participant momentum that kept it continuously functioning at a national level. Along the way, small but steady upgrades of spars, sails and equipment enabled the class to remain relevant. Modern Zephyrs, at a distance, look the same as 1956 originals, but closer inspection reveals how far they’ve evolved, making them easier to sail, while retaining the essence that originally made the boats so appealing.  Provided this participant support remains, it’s very likely the Zephyr class will continue for many more decades.


Brian Peet,
#0 "Atarangi", ​​​​​​​#8 "Radiant", #700 "Daedaleus"