Cel­e­brat­ing an iconic dinghy By Lawrence Schäf­fler

Boating NZ - - Contents - Words by Lawrence Schaf­fler Pho­tos Sup­plied

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.face­­niver­sary.

Thanks to Brian Peet for pro­vid­ing the Ze­phyr’s his­tor­i­cal back­ground.

LEFT AND RIGHT: Zephyrs were ini­tially con­structed from kahikatea (white pine) but Des swapped over to un­treated ra­di­ata pine. CEN­TRE: The late David Cook, past Pres­i­dent of the Yachting Fed­er­a­tion, was a ma­jor in­flu­ence on the class.

ABOVE: Sixty years af­ter its in­tro­duc­tion, the Ze­phyr re­mains a pop­u­lar rac­ing dinghy. RIGHT: While tim­ber re­mains the con­struc­tion ma­te­rial, a fi­bre­glass hull has now been pro­duced.

Don Cur­rie fit­ting out the first fi­bre­glass Ze­phyr.

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