THE ZEPHYR TURNS 60
Celebrating an iconic dinghy By Lawrence Schäffler
The Zephyr sailing dinghy celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and in a move symbolic of its enduring popularity a new fibreglass version of the hull will be unveiled at the 2016 national sailing championship.
Designed by Des Townson, the 11ft 10in Zephyr (3.6m) first appeared in 1956. It became one of the largest and most successful wooden dinghy sailing classes in New Zealand and today numbers more than 400 boats, with new hulls being launched every year.
This year’s national championship – to be held 21-24 April at the Manly Sailing Club on Auckland’s Whangaparaoa Peninsula – is the perfect backdrop for celebrating the Zephyr’s legacy. More than 60 entries are expected and they include many of New Zealand’s top-level sailors – among them current champion Grant Beck and former champions Tim Snedden and Murray Sargisson.
They will have some stiff competition from the likes of Mark Thomas, Andy Knowles, Greg Salthouse, Greg Wright, Phil Williams, current Auckland champion Steve Pyatt and three-times women’s champion Carla Holgate.
The Zephyr’s plans were completed in April 1956 but the seeds for the creation began a number of years earlier. At that time Des Townson was a fledgling boat designer/builder in the very early stages of his self-taught journey.
His first commercial commission in 1954 was from John Peet for a two-handed yacht to race in the newly-formed 12-foot skiff Q class. Nimble represented a marked change from common thinking of the time, being light, flat-bodied and modestly canvassed.
John’s son Brian says the boat was successful locally and on a wider stage. “Under the helm of Don Brooke she became the highest scoring New Zealand boat at the inaugural 12-foot Skiff Interdominion Championship in Sydney, and her hull form became the forerunner to the Zephyr.
“My parents encouraged Des to make his full-time future in the yachting world and suggested the need for a single person version of their Nimble. The result was Atarangi, an 11-foot, two-skin, cold-moulded centreboarder – the prototype for the Zephyr.”
The boat was exhibited at the first Auckland Boat Show where Des received 12 orders over the weekend, effectively heralding the start of the Zephyr class. The September 1956 issue of Sea Spray magazine recorded the event: “From Des Townson came the prototype single-hander, an 11-foot moulded boat with a cat rig. This boat created a lot of interest for its neat finish and simplicity as well as the appeal such a class may have among married men or those plagued with crew troubles.” By 1957 Des was selling a hull with deck beams for £48-10-0. The growing awareness of the Zephyr drew attention from an unexpected quarter. When Des registered the Zephyr design it caused great consternation at the Ford Motor Company as the Zephyr was one of its popular models.
As Des recalled it: “I was working away in the workshop in Panmure and a fellow fought his way through the fennel and into the factory. He’d been sent all the way up from Lower Hutt to check out my Zephyr. He smiled when he came in and saw my operation. He said he didn’t really think I would be a threat to the company.”
Growth in the class was meteoric. By the end of the 1957-58 sailing season a Zephyr Owners’ Association (ZOA) was formed. The class had reached 75 boats and in addition to the Auckland clusters at Tamaki, Otahuhu and Bucklands Beach, boats were appearing in Hamilton, Rotorua, Whakatane, Napier, Featherston and Christchurch. The first class championship – held at Tamaki Yacht Club in March 1959 – attracted 39 entrants.
Brain Peet says many youngsters who would go on to become
significant forces in the New Zealand boating industry cut their teeth on the Zephyr. One such person was designer Alan Warwick who purchased hull #67 from Des and completed it on the verandah of his rented villa in Herne Bay.
Perhaps the most famous Zephyr sailor was Helmer Pedersen, a Danish immigrant who went on to win an Olympic gold medal for New Zealand in the Flying Dutchman class. He returned to the Zephyr class after the Tokyo games, bringing fellow Olympian Ron Watson to the fleet. The attraction of racing against a world- renowned yachtsman drew others into the class and his return to the Townson boat with a gold medal under his belt was quite a feather in the class’ cap.
Initially, Zephyrs were constructed from kahikatea (white pine) but by the late 1950s suitable supplies were becoming harder to procure. After approximately 26 boats Des swapped over to untreated radiata pine. At the time this was an unheard-of timber
for boat building – it was typically used for concrete boxing and other low-grade applications. Des’ timber selection stood the test of time, with boats from the very first production run still competing at the top of the national fleet six decades later.
At the end of the 1958-59 season the original cotton sail was replaced with a terylene version, also made by Boyd & Mcmaster sailmakers. Around this time boom vangs and imported venturis started appearing in the class, each making the boats more manageable in fresher breezes.
At the turn of the century and some 50 years after its introduction, many sailors still viewed the Zephyr as the ideal centreboard racing dinghy. But demand for new hulls remained unsatisfied. Enter Rob Ebert, an ex-christchurch sailor and long-time Zephyr enthusiast.
He’d observed the past difficulties with some well-meaning but problematic post-townson production and was determined to make the new replica project successful. He approached designer Brett Bakewell-white to produce a Zephyr CAD drawing based on the original Townson plan.
The advanced software produced a far more accurate replica than had been available in the past. Boatbuilder Robert Brooke built a new mould, then a number of hulls, faithfully replicating a three-skin, cold-moulded Townson specification.
The 50th anniversary of the Zephyr class was run at Milford Cruising Club in 2006 and attracted the largest-ever Zephyr national championship fleet of 84 boats. From the designer came the following words for the regatta programme:
“When the 21st anniversary of the Zephyr class was celebrated in 1977 by the French Bay Boating Club, it was quite an historic occasion, as the life expectancy of a dinghy in 1956 was about ten years. Most Zephyrs are constructed of untreated pinus radiata, the timber blamed by the building industry for the rotting homes problem. The glue used was heavily extended with walnut shell, flour and water. Much of the styling of the Zephyr is influenced by the traditional form of North Sea fishing boats dating back to the mid 19th century. So we have a classic built of inferior timber bonded (in effect) with a flour and water paste, and of antiquated styling. That the Zephyr has remained durable and popular for 50 years is good cause for further celebration. I therefore welcome you to this significant regatta and trust you will have an enjoyable regatta.”
A commemorative programme and an e-book are being prepared to mark the history and 60th birthday of the class. Anyone interested in receiving updates and information can follow the event on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/zephyranniversary.
Thanks to Brian Peet for providing the Zephyr’s historical background.