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Des Townson

Impact of Des Townson shines through in new book

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It's hard to comprehend in this day and age of digital technology and exacting science that one of New Zealand's greatest boat designers was self-taught.

Des Townson was a visionary and his body of work was extensive. In addition to his 74 individual designs, he also constructed 24 keelboats, about 350 small boats and more than 1000 model yachts.

Townson's influence can still be seen around yacht clubs and harbours today in the likes of the Starling, Zephyr, Mistral and Pied Piper and many champion emerged sailing a Townson design.

His life and accomplishments are the subject of a new book by Brian Peet - Des Townson: A Sailing Legacy. It's a thorough publication - 343 pages bound in hard book - with hundreds of colourful photos, designs and clippings.

Peet is uniquely positioned to write about Townson, given his family connection - Peet's father John commissioned Townson to design boats for him and also offered great encouragement in the early years - and Brian was often found in Townson's company as a youngster and later in life cruising the Hauraki Gulf together.

It is a fascinating account, particularly in the formative years, and Peet's own observations and analysis shines through. This is his second book, following on from The Seuffert Legacy, a biography of New Zealand’s most famous colonial cabinet-maker, Anton Seuffert.

"Des Townson was a yacht designer and boatbuilder responsible for a unique body of work, which filled a special niche in New Zealand’s rich boating history," Peet said. "As an accomplished racing yachtsman, a teenage Tanner Cup winner and Mistral class champion, Des brought a once-in-a-generation set of skills to his creative art. He possessed an intuitive feel for a boat, an analytical mind, a phenomenal memory, a dogged drive and a wonderful eye for the visual balance of a yacht."

It was an eye that was entirely self-taught. Townson was a keen sailor as a youngster in the 1940s - he won the 1950 Tanner Cup - and his interest in building model boats soon extended to much larger versions. He was clearly fascinated by the process, as one tale by Dave Marks illustrates. 

"He would come in after school, wouldn't say anything, just come in and stand there, didn't sit down, just stood watching what I was doing, sometimes for a couple of hours," Marks recalled. "He did this each day for a couple of years. He was a pretty quiet guy who didn't ever say very much. I lent him a book, Elements of Yacht Design by Normal Skene. He never did any formal training for boat design. He just learned it himself."

Townson was fortunate to be surrounded by people who believed in him. He was extremely shy ("he dreaded talking to strangers," Dawn Peet said) so John Peet and Bill Moyes manned Townson's stand at the inaugural Auckland Boat Show when the Zephyr was first displayed. Twelve orders were taken that weekend, effectively heralding the start of the Zephyr class.

Townson is probably best known for the Starling and many future champions including Peter Burling, Russell Coutts and Dan Slater cut their teeth in the beautiful dinghy. It had humble origins - chatting during family cruising expeditions eventually prompted John Peet to commission Townson to design a boat suitable for youngster between the P-Class and adult dinghies - and remains as relevant today as it was when it emerged in the early 1970s.

Brian Peet expertly guides the reader through the development of the class, including various hurdles, the story of how Mackay Boats took over the building licence and its importance to the success of this country as a sailing powerhouse.

There are many anecdotes which bring Des Townson: A Sailing Legacy to life. Townson clearly embodies the No 8 wire spirit that much of New Zealand was built on and it's a spirit well worth celebrating.