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Des Townson: in the vanguard of the post-war sailing boom. Photo/Supplied

Des Townson's remarkable sailing legacy

Kiwi boat designer Des Townson created the craft that got Pedersen, Coutts and Burling up to speed.

Wander through your nearest marina (if they’ll let you in) these days and you’re as likely to be overwhelmed by the scent of money as salt-air adventure.

Yet as recently as the 1970s and 80s, the pathway for many families to our coastal waters was through the backyard, where they built their own boat. Far from the electronic brains of modern America’s Cup boats, New Zealand’s sailing ascent was built on a DIY mentality, from pint-sized sailing dinghies to cruising boats with a variable turn of speed.

In the vanguard of this post-war sailing boom, equipped with a revolutionary material called plywood, were designers such as Des Townson. A teenage P class champion who continued to race competitively, Townson was driven to build and design boats. Though he died in 2008, his legacy is bobbing around the coast in now-classic keelers in the 28- to 36-foot range, “boy racer” Pied Pipers and sailing dinghies, such as the Starling, Zephyr and Mistral, which were stepping stones for Olympic champions including Helmer Pedersen, Russell Coutts and Peter Burling. For family friend and veteran sailor Brian Peet, telling Townson’s story has clearly been a labour of love.

Townson not only designed fast, comfortable boats, but also had an eye for aesthetics – “the sweeping sheer, elegant bow and curvaceous sections” would become his signature. Most remarkably, he had no formal training. Displacement and the “arithmetic of boat design” were challenges met by trial and error. But by the age of 21, he had three successful racing yachts to his name and it wasn’t long before Townson designs, and many who sailed in them, were making an international mark.

Was he a waterborne version of The World’s Fastest Indian’s Burt Munro? Certainly, Townson emerged in an era when young men knew fewer barriers, and he was an egalitarian who cared little for appearances, but he was a more complex character than Munro – intense, socially awkward and a “grumpy bastard” when working.

The author’s close links to Townson’s family and friends ensure deep insights but produce a vessel weighed down in places by too much ballast. But the pictures make up for it and Peet’s is a worthy record of both a figurehead in New Zealand sailing and an era that time and tide have largely left behind.

DES TOWNSON: A SAILING LEGACY, by Brian Peet (Mary Egan Publishing, $80)

This article was first published in the November 2, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.