CLASSIC BOAT - 2000
AT CLOSE QUARTERS
This interview with Des Townson was published in Classic Boat, May 2000 ( Click here Re-published here courtesy of Classic Boat.
He’s rated among the top dozen yacht designers in New Zealand, yet 15 years ago he abandoned it all to build model yachts. Nic Compton finds out why....
DES IS BUSY. He's got a backlog of orders for his model yachts and he'd really rather be getting on with that than talking to me. Besides, he's never been a great self-publicist, and speaking his mind has got him into trouble before. He has strong views about things, you see, and doesn't suffer fools (or journos) gladly.
At one time one of New Zealand's top yacht designers with a promising career ahead of him designing racing and cruising yachts, Des chucked it all in because he didn't like the games he was required to play to keep his affluent clients and the press happy. Meeting him in his work apron and protective goggles, his workshop strewn with bits of models in the basement of his modest house on the outskirts of Auckland, it's hard to believe that thousands of boats have been built to Des's designs and many are credited as producing some of the country's top sailors.
So why did he give it all up? And why is he more content churning out countless glassfibre models rather than giving the world the benefit of his clearly very active and sharp mind?
Like many self-taught designers, Des got into it as a hobby. He trained first as a car body builder then worked as a carpenter at one of the logging mills in the North Island. From an early age, however, he has been around boats. His father owned the local mullet boat Nomad, and he claims to have a memory from the age of two of seeing the Aramoana, one of the last of Logan's designs, being built. It was while he was out sailing on Nomad that crewmember Harry Gillard pointed out Rawene (see p26) and told Des that if he looked carefully the boat would smile. And to the young Desmond, she certainly did that day.
"Every young guy in those days wanted to be a vacht designer," he says -a comment indicative of much of New Zealand, whose population boasts the highest proportion of boat-owners anywhere in the world. He started designing and building dinghies, first the 12ft (3.7m) Nimble, which went on to become the basis for the Mistral class, then the 12ft (3.7m) Eagle, which he built cold-moulded. But it was the 11ft (3;4m) Zephyr class that, when he was 22, launched his boatbuilding career proper. Over the next 15 years 219 Zephyrs were built -every, one of them by Des himself. "I decided then that I would only design what I built and only build what I designed, because of the aesthetic value. But I've always had low energy, so there's a limit to what I was able to do. On the other hand I do have 'stickability', or the bloody-mindedness to focus on what I wanted to do."
This dilemma goes to the heart of Des the designer as well as Des the man: on the one hand modest and self- effacing, on the other complete conviction and an almost arrogant self-belief. "It is the arrogance of artists, and particularly young artists. You think you're original, but you're not original at all. Neither are you isolated as an individual. You're very much the product of what affected you earlier in life and what's happening around you at the time…And yet I was, still am, a very timid person by nature."
By then Des had created the Starling class, the biggest single class in New Zealand, with some 1,200 boats launched, and on which most of the country's top sailors first tested their mettle. But it was an unpleasant experience with a second hand cruising yacht with leaky garboards that finally made up his mind to design his first keelerboat. Serene, which went on to become a notorious 'giant-killer' and established Des on the inter- national racing scene, was the result.
"I spent a lot of time trying to make Serene look good -I actually had it on a small drawing board that sat in the back of the car and when I was driving anywhere I could look at the drawing through the rear vision mirror and assess it... You wouldn't do that today!"
Eighty boats were built to the square-bilged design, and it was scaled down to produce the successful 22ft (6.7m) Pied Piper class, aimed more at single-handed racing rather than couples cruising. It became known as the 'party boat', and soon no bay would be complete without a raft-up of Pied Pipers having a "most tremendous party".
The round-bilged Townson 30 followed and then Moonlight, the original Townson 32, which brought international acclaim when Des "unwittingly" sold her to a high-profile media personality, the mountaineer Peter Mulgrew. He took the boat into the One- Ton Cup trials, where she went on to beat some of the top boats by some of the top designers in the business. For Des, it was a mixed blessing.
"There she was, a picnic boat that I had designed, defeating the world's best. It enhanced my reputation, but I was very dubious. I felt she had gained recognition for the wrong reasons. It was all over the top. She looked pretty and was a delight to sail, but she was not a breakthrough design. But to succeed you have to have the 'ear' of the press...," By then the Townson name had become a marketable commodity, all part of the commercial hype which would eventually turn Des away from design work.
Starlight and Twilight followed, with 70 of the latter being built. All these boats followed a similar ethos, with strong sheers, relatively high bows and cutaway forefoots with fin keels and skeg rudders. A distinctive feature is the beautifully faired-in cabin top, rising amidships to give good visibility from the saloon, then flowing back into the cockpit coamings.
As we sift through the pile of plans, I find it hard to distinguish the "gulf cruiser" from the "fast cruiser" from the "Townson 34", but Des is disarmingly frank: "Some people say I only ever designed one boat, and that they're all variations on the same theme." And I have to agree there is a strong family resemblance.
Most of these boats were built in wood, but Des made an exception with the Townson 34, which he allowed to be built in glassfibre. He was never completely satisfied with the outcome. "I felt they'd got it wrong, that they'd missed the point. They bought something from me which they didn't use, and that was the styling." Others obviously didn't feel that way, and 17 were built, including one which completed a circumnavigation. Almost despite himself, Des's star continued to rise.
Then, it all came to an end. "I did well designing boats I liked, but when people asked me to incorporate their own requirements, it didn't come together so well," he says. "That was a commercial mistake on my part."
"One day a small boy came to my workshop and start trying to put together two half-models to make a boat. So I showed him how to make a proper model yacht. I found I was so happy in the work- shop, rather than leaning on a drawing board dealing with rich clients and feeling out of my depth." The best way to use this new- found passion, he decided, was to make a 35in (889mm) GRP model class called the Electron. Some IS years on, he is still clearly absorbed by it all. "I'm sure of the product and I know what I'm doing. It's what I'm best at: repeating a successful product."
After many years of living on his own, in his fifties Des married Sue and had a daughter, on whom he evidently dotes on, Success has in many ways come easy to Des, but he himself has not found success easy to deal with. And that is clearly a lesson he'd like to pass on to his daughter. "I've always been a worrier," he says. "It doesn't make for a particularly happy life. If I could wish one thing for my daughter it's that she doesn't turn out a worrier like me."
By now I'm feeling distinctly edgy and wondering how many models' worth of time I've used up. At the same time I'm more than ever convinced that what I've gained and what readers might gain by reading about Des is worth infinitely more than one person getting their expensive toy on time. And, besides, Des is on a roll. He opines about the lookalike glitterati "tribe", the "humbug" of presents and the "Maorisation" of New Zealand, and much more besides. Contentious and opinionated -and also utterly charming. He's nobody's fool.
Additional research by Sandra Gorter
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