DES TOWNSON 1934 - 2008


Desmond Thomas Townson, yacht designer, boat builder and model maker passed away peacefully Wednesday afternoon after a long battle with cancer. Des Townson has, through his work as a yacht designer, made a considerable contribution to the yachting fraternity of New Zealand. He created a significant body of design work, resulting in boats that have given enjoyment to thousands of yachtsmen. This process was started in 1951 when he designed his first boat and to this day several thousand of his creations remain in active use throughout New Zealand

Townson was born in Auckland in 1934 and from his father developed a passion for sailing. He won the Tanner Cup, the premier teenage yachting championship in 1950 and at the age of 17 designed his first boat, a small dinghy. Over the following fifty-seven years he designed eighty-two different boats ranging from an 8ft rowing dinghy to a 72ft keel boat. His influence on New Zealand yacht design during the 1950s to 80s was as significant as that of the famous Logan family during the colonial yachting era.

During the later part of the 1950s Townson was at the forefront of the post war sailing expansion where he created a range of small dinghies, racing yachts and powerboats. Fifty years later the Zephyr and Mistral classes remain as popular as in their formative years.

During the 1960s and 70s Townson designed racing and cruising keelboats. The 32ft yacht Moonlight created a sensation in 1971, when mountaineer and explorer Peter Mulgrew campaigned the undersized boat to the upper level of One Ton Cup selection contest in Auckland, beating larger creations from the world’s best designers.

Des Townson’s most important creation was the 2.9 metre Starling yacht for teenagers, designed in 1969. Over 1300 have been built and for almost four decades thousands of youngsters have raced or recreationally sailed Starlings throughout the country. The class national championship has for many years, been the largest national yachting contest for any indigenous boat in the country and regularly attracts between 100-150 entrants.

Competition is intense and winners read like a who’s who of New Zealand yachting. It would be safe to claim the majority of the hundreds of New Zealanders involved in Americas Cup, Volvo Around the Globe Race or world sailing championships have sailed a Starling yacht at some stage of their career.

In 1987 Townson designed the radio controlled Electron model yacht. Over 1000 were built in his workshop and sold throughout the world.
The 2008 Queens Birthday Honours saw Townson recognized for his contribution to yachting with the award of a New Zealand Order of Merit.

Des Townson is survived by his wife Sue and daughter Claire.

Richard Gladwell:
I first met Des Townson when I was maybe nine years old when my father took me and my brother out to Des Townson's boatbuilding shed in Panmure. 

We were looking at the first keelboat that Des had designed and built - the Serene class - now known as a Townson 26. The shed was fairly rudimentary, dirt floor, fairly breezy, there was wood racked on the walls and in a store. A Zephyr was being cold moulded alongside the 26 footer, which was also being built upside down and diagonally planked.

Des was working pretty much by himself, and always had a very quiet  thoughtful manner of speaking. Even then I can remember hanging off every word he said. Des always explained what he was doing and why. Almost like he was continually thinking aloud.

When our hull came home, my father did what most people did in those days - put the hull on the back of the section and finished it off. You didn’t usually get a complete and painted yacht, delivered to the travel-lift from the builder, as happens now days.

Like a country doctor, Des used to make home visits to check on the progress of his creation and how it was being finished.

With all of his designs, and home-builds, Des was insistent on scribing out the shape of the distinctive cabin windows.

Always a perfectionist, my father’s gluing left him a little speechless at times. (Dad was a great one for applying plenty of glue and letting it run everywhere, Des wiped up every last dribble before it had set!).  After we launched what I think was the third keelboat to this, his first keelboat design, we enjoyed a lot of cruising and racing, watching the Townson design family slowly build. Like most designers and builders of that era, Des was always thinking of the next improvement, and what he would do for his next boat.

Next came Magic Flute (or Townson 30 - all boats were known by the name of their first launched rather than the designer surname and length that is the more recent custom). Her main attribute was that she had full headroom in the main cabin, and not sitting headroom only as in his first design.

She was also a fast gulf cruiser, as Des liked to classify his boats, designed to cope with a beat in a stiff sou’wester into a Waitemata chop. The fact that his designs were also excellent club race boats, was just a bonus, rather than a cause.

Next came the Pied Piper, designed I think for a relative, to get him onto the water in a yacht that could be built at home on a very limited budget. The 22fter looked and sailed like a big dinghy, and like all Townson designs sailed well above their length.

Then Des announced he was going to do Moonlight which again was the name of his first born 32fter. Next was a variance on the same theme, Starlight, and then he settled on the Twilight design that became the very popular Townson 32.

Of course Des, in his special way would get around his existing owners and let them know of his new design, what they thinking was, and leaving them with the idea that they might like to step up into one - and many did. 

My father was one of these, selling the Serene class and having the hull and decks built to be finished himself. Many others followed suit and it was quite rare for a Townson owner to change to another designer.

Des Townson's boats grew on you, because of their beautiful lines, particularly the distinctive sheer and proportions. Des had a great eye for design, and many an owner could spend hours ashore at some bay in the Hauraki Gulf, just gazing at his beautiful boat at anchor. They were works of art, of that there is no doubt. 

Rating rules didn’t figure in Des’ thinking at all. He never drew a line on a design that was ever a concession to a rating rule, preferring to maintain the purity of his lineage so that one of his yachts, no matter how long, would always be recognizable by anyone who knew anything about sailing as 'a Townson' . Des continued through life much as he had started, but stopped building boats in preference to focusing on design.

Latterly he moved into model yacht design and construction, with the Electron, of which Des would often have a couple sailing in a bay, with his beautiful 34fter, Talent, anchored offshore.

In the last few years he took great pride in the revival of his dinghy favorites, the Zephyr and Mistral, with the 50th anniversary of the Zephyr class at Milford being a special highlight.

Des was his usual self that weekend, full of enthusiasm, willing to talk to anyone that cared to listen, but always in his very measured words, which were gems of sailing and design wisdom.

In his later years he made a point of traveling to regattas of his designs, always mixing with the sailors, like he was just another parent. Which he was, but in a very different and special way.

Of course, Des always had that magnificent self-deprecating line that ran: 'some people say I have only ever designed one boat. They all look the same - it's just that some are longer than others!' One only had to look at a Townson to see what was meant by the art of yacht design. There can be no better tribute. This quiet, humble and modest man will be deeply missed.

15 October 2008

The ZOA is indebted to Brian Peet and Richard Gladwell for this obituary. It can be found in the Sail-World archives here