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Story by Brian Peet


Des Townson (1934-2008) was a yacht designer and boat builder responsible for a unique body of work which filled a special niche in New Zealand’s rich boating history. As an accomplished racing helmsman and teenage national 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, and a wonderful eye for the visual balance of a yacht. Not since the famous Logan family from the early colonial times has there been a New Zealand designer who so successfully transferred these individual talents into sailing creations. The fact he was self-taught and worked almost his entire career alone only intensifies the achievements of this remarkable man.

The volume of both design and boat-building work Townson achieved was amazing. In addition to his 74 individual designs, he personally constructed 24 keelboats, about 350 small boats and over 1,000 model yachts. He was a self-taught designer, structural engineer and boatbuilder from an era where specialist information and guidance were often hard to find. The result from decades of trial and error, observation and improvement were a variety of attractive, easily handled and wellperforming marine craft that provided thousands of yachting enthusiasts enormous pleasure. Just prior to his death, the award of a New Zealand Order of Merit fittingly acknowledged his significant contribution to the boating community.

This is not just a story about a yacht designer and his achievements but also covers an era of New Zealand life that has almost completely disappeared. It is about a post-World War 2 period of material shortages, import restrictions, and five-day working weeks. From a yachting perspective, this resulted in a ‘do-it-yourself’ ethic: if you wanted a boat, you built it; if you wanted a boat a little different from those currently in use, you designed it.

Sailing magazines were full of advertising for tools, equipment and supplies to help construct your dream dinghy, yacht, runabout, or launch. It was about helping other would-be builders with your time. Frequently, money did not change hands, but instead reciprocal help on the other’s project was the mutually understood currency. For many people, the friendships they built around their boating activities became their strongest and most enduring human relationships.

Sailing regattas were confined to New Zealand and very few had the financial resources to travel further. Locally designed unrestricted classes were popular, enabling amateurs to experiment with design and build innovation.

In total, over 3,700 maritime craft carry the Townson name, and for over sixty years, tens of thousands of boaties have enjoyed immeasurable pleasure from these creations.

During the decade-long research for the book, eighty people were interviewed. The common thread expressed was respect for Townson boats and admiration for their creator. Quotes from contemporary press reports and magazine articles highlight the views and values of maritime journalists from that time. Within the 334 pages are 116,000 words interspersed with 400 photos and boat plans, providing rich context to a remarkable story from a bygone era.

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