CLASS DISTINCTION


This article by Ena Hutchinson is from Sea Spray circa 2002

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With mass produced stock boats providing the backbone of racing fleets it’s interesting to recall that when Des Townson introduced his Zephyr design in 1956 he met with strong resistance. His one-builder operation was considered to be a commercial monopoly and unthinkable in those “do it yourself” days.

To protect his interests and prevent stray Zephyrs appearing, Townson registered the name Zephyr. This move alarmed the Ford Motor Company sufficiently to dispatch a man from Wellington to check him out. “He pushed his way through the fennel,” says Townson, “and found my small boatshed, smiled and went on his way”

Other opposition in the early days came from the NZ Moth class. Moths were usually built fairly cheaply in backyards by there owners and they were not too impressed by a monotype with such dreadful commercial connotations. But eventually these feelings were overcome and the two classes became friendly rivals, holding challenge races from time to time.

In drawing up the Zephyr, Townson anticipated the trend to one-design hulls and sails from just a single source. “After the hassles of P Class measurement,” says Des “it made good sense to have a one-design boat built by one person so there was no argument, and a monotype so there was no crew problems. I wanted a pretty little boat which would be reasonably fast, although speed was not the most important factor.

“I put the first Zephyr in a boat show at Tamaki Yacht Club which was held to promote the new X Class design, but the little Zephyr upstaged it completely. I took a dozen orders from the show and my boat building venture was underway."

I was probably the first to commercially build centerboard yachts and survive, but it was not the beginnings of commercial genius. Peter Mulgrew once said I was difficult to deal with because I was not "profit motivated”

Between 1956 and 1975, when he destroyed the moulds, Townson built 219 Zephyrs, usually to the hull and deck beams stage with the owners finishing them off from there. The hulls were initially built of untreated radiate pine to Des meticulous standards. Jack Logan was his mentor for the cold moulded system he used. Using room temperature glue and a home-made glue spreader, he devised a high-tech process to get the heat quickly through to the glue line by revving up the temperature of two old electric blankets which were laid over the hull.

The arrival of the Laser depleted the Zephyr fleet as owners traded their wooden boats and serious but social sailing for an easy-care, international class offering intense competition. But today the Zephyr is regaining numbers as people see the advantages of competitive club racing in a good social atmosphere.

The Zephyr has a solid following in Auckland, Hamilton and Christchurch and many current skippers have returned to the class many times through the years. The first fleet was in Auckland at Tamaki Yacht Club, but now the class sails on the Manukau at French Bay and Waiuku. Because of a form of myopia common among Aucklanders it's sometimes hard to believe a class exists if it's not visible on the Waitemata. It would be good to see the Zephyr back at Tamaki and racing alongside the Mistral, which Townson spawned from the Zephyr design.

Owners' association president, Murray Sargisson has been associated with the class for many years and has probably won more nationals than anyone else. Another long-time enthusiast, former NZYF president John Faire, would be his closest rival.

"The Zephyr is a friendly class," says Sargisson, "and there's a great sharing of knowledge. The way Des set it up in the early days was quite brilliant. At contests there are no measurements of hulls or sails so there's never anything contentious, you just get out there and sail. And yet it's not a pure one-design as there is a degree of flexibility. If you're not going well you can do things to try to get the boat going faster. There's a reasonable tolerance on the mast, allowing sufficient variation to suit the individual skipper, an adjustable central traveller and kicking strap."

Another advantage is that you don't have to be an athletic heavy to enjoy sailing a Zephyr. The ideal crew weight ranges from 60 to 75kg and the age range is anywhere between 15 and 70 years, although they appear to be particularly popular with the 30s-40s set.

A Zephyr eccentricity has been to cling steadfastly to wooden masts. Only this April did the owners' association finally vote to allow the option of alloy spars and Cunningham eyes. There were some impassioned pleas from the South Island for things to remain the same but, apart from the convenience of alloy, there was also a feeling that the timber spars dated the class and possibly deterred newcomers. Not everyone was in favour of Cunningham eyes either. The Boyd and McMaster sail pattern has stayed the same through the years, helping keep costs down.

The class has always been firmly established on the lake at Hamilton but recently the most growth has been in Christchurch, where large fleets race on the estuary from Mt Pleasant and Christchurch Yacht Clubs. The Zephyr is well suited to the wilder weather and traditional inclinations of the South Islanders, who have been enthusiastic enough to en sure the class's continuation by taking a mould off an existing boat.

Ian Franklin is building them using the vacuum bag method, a process he believes hasn't been used before for cold-moulded wooden boats. It makes a very tight hull with perfect bonding between layers, eliminating staples (Townson used 44,000) per hull) and allows wider planks to be used. There is little fairing to be done once the vacuum bag is removed.

A mould has also been produced in Auckland by Ian Cook under Townson's supervision. The mould is owned by the class association and a new boat has just been taken off it. If you're thinking about getting back into centreboard yachting, the Zephyr would be worth considering. The class is well organized by an active owners' association and the members enjoy friendly club racing in very pretty boats.