1934 - 2008
(Thanks to Graeme Tearle for providing this article from the New Zealand Herald - 2008)
Des Townson was the creative genius behind some of the most well known classes in New Zealand sailing, including the Starling, Zephyr, Mistral and Pied Piper, with about 3,500 yachts and boats carrying the Townson name.
Mr Townson was recognised for his contribution to yachting in the Queen's Birthday Honours this year when he was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Mr Townson began his climb up the sailing ladder from P-Class to keelers after winning the Tanner Cup sailing Vanity in 1950. Three years later he had opted out of a motor body building apprenticeship and was designing boats.
The first were Pennant class 3.6m racing dinghies, Eagle, Mercury and Nimble. In 1956 came the first commercially successful Townson design, the 3.4m Zephyr. The cold-moulded ply racing dinghy caused a sensation and soon big fleets were racing in Auckland. More than 200 were built over the next 15 years.
In 1959 came the Mistral. A foot longer than the Zephyr, the new design came after a request for a similar boat with both jib and spinnaker. It was the beginning of another hugely successful class, with 89 being built.
The launch of the first Dart 3.4m sailing dinghy came in 1961. Fifty of these were built and there is still a big fleet racing out of Waiuku. That year also saw the first Townson keeler, the 7.9m cold-moulded Serene.In 1962 came one of the most successful Townson designs, the 6.7m Pied Piper.
In his book Classic New Zealand Yachts, Bill Endean describes the boat as being well ahead of its time. The Pied Piper became a favourite of youngsters who craved the independence and freedom to go sailing on their own boats rather than crewing for an older generation.
Perhaps the most outstanding feat recorded by this pretty little craft was a circumnavigation of the North Island, including a detour to Dunedin, by Murray Gilbert in Lelant in the summer of 1979. This was much to the horror of Townson, who never intended the diminutive yacht to venture outside the confines of the Hauraki Gulf.
In 1968 Townson created the Starling, to become a stepping-stone from the P-Class that dad and the kids could build themselves. Today there are more than 1200 sailing around the country.
The same year he designed Moonlight, the 32ft (9.7m) cruiser/racer that became the forerunner to the successful Townson 32. The boat was a departure, not only from his previous designs, but from the mainstream of New Zealand light displacement keelboat design like the Stewart 34 and the many John Spencer hard chine plywood yachts.
The heavier displacement Moonlight was built to perform well across a range of wind and sea conditions experienced on the Hauraki Gulf. The boat exceeded all expectations and was later to shock the racing fraternity when Peter Mulgrew skippered it to a sensational win in one of the offshore trial races to select the New Zealand team for the 1971 One Ton Cup. She stayed in contention for a place in the team until the last race, a considerable feat for a local boat not designed to the IOR rule and taking on much more expensive overseas designs, including Wai Aniwa and Young Nick.
Then came the Starlight and Twilight designs, which were followed in 1974 by Dreamtime, the first of about 100 Townson 34s. He later built a number of smaller yachts modelled on the design of Serene and the Townson 30, of which Alan Warwick's Magic Flute was the most successful.
As demand slowed for designs of full sized yachts in the late 1980's,Townson developed an interest in model yachts - creating the 1 metre Electron.