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Book Extract: Des Townson, A Sailing Legacy - The Starling

by Brian Peet 19 Mar 2020 15:49 PDT 20 March 2020
The most successful sailor to ever pass through the Starling class was two-time National Fleet Champion and Match Racing Champion Peter Burling. At time of writing he had won seven world championships, two Olympic medals and an America's Cup victory © Heather Burling

"From the first time I raced a Starling I couldn't get over how balanced and fast the boat went. The Starling rewards being sailed like a proper boat" - Peter Burling, 49er, 420, International Moth world champion, Olympic Gold and Silver medalist, and America's Cup winner.

The Starling racing dinghy is Des Townson's most significant design. In the five decades following the construction of the prototype in 1969, over 1400 have been built.

Generations of New Zealand youth have flowed through the class and the national championship trophy winners' inscriptions read like a who's who of the country's most successful racing helmsmen and women.

The humble origins of the class can be traced back to 1960 and a conversation between Jack Allen and Des Townson on the beach at Motuihe Island. Jack was discussing the need for a small sailing dinghy for his sons Steven and Philip.

Jack wanted a boat that could be sailed from the beach or towed behind the family keeler and during the discussion drew a sketch in the sand to illustrate his idea of the basic layout. With a string of small successful racing dinghies to his credit, including two 12-ft 'Q' class plywood boats and the successful plywood Dart class, Des was well equipped to resolve the issues surrounding his latest commission.

The result was the 9-ft Tui, a two-person, three-sail, fully decked, home-build plywood yacht. Jack built the first one and brother-in-law Doug Miller completed Johnnie Two for his son John.

Apart from family use, the Tui design remained largely unknown, was not promoted and would have disappeared into the annals of boating 'what-ifs' had it not been for a fortuitous on the water meeting a few years later.

Yachting acquaintances John Peet and Jack Allen were moored in the same Hauraki Gulf bay with their respective families when John saw the little Tui sailing. He arranged for his youngest son, this book's writer, to take the boat for a sail and what followed was the beginning of New Zealand's most successful home-grown, youth-training class.

Jack had by this time modified the Tui into a single sail, un-stayed rig configuration and was happily towing the dinghy behind the family keeler Tuirangi. By this time John Peet had run up against the issue of having his two eldest sons David and Graham graduate from the then Sabot/P-class progression but struggle with the adult monohull classes of the day.

In John's mind a need existed for a monotype dinghy to bridge this gap - a concern confirmed by beachside conversations with other parents at local P-class regattas.

The broken leg that halted Des's involvement in his Moonlight build had a fortunate spinoff.

While immobilised in plaster, and locked into housebound recuperation, John commissioned him to design a small racing dinghy. The parameters for the new boat were:

- Cater for boys and girls too big or too old for the P class, yet not ready for adult classes.

- Target a crew weight of approximately 8 to 11 stone (50 to 70 kg).

- Easy to handle in fresh conditions, plane readily and have a good windward performance.

- Good looking boat.

- Buoyancy of P class standard.

- Cockpit space for two boys or one adult.

- Simple construction.

- Very close restrictions so all boats would have equal potential, eg. masts from standard aluminium extrusion, sails from the same material and loft

The result was a 9-ft 6-in long, slightly stretched version of the Tui. With a wide circle of contacts in the marine industry, John set about gathering support for his youth yachting vision. Local suppliers donated plywood, timber, glue, fastenings and paint. The mast division of Fosters Ship Chandlers designed a new aluminium spar section and supplied the finished extrusion. Bouzaid Sails designed and built the fully battened sail. The proposed proof of construction concept required a teenager with limited boat-building experience to build the hull. John's 18-year-old son David constructed the prototype and this was launched at the United Services P-class regatta at Westhaven on ANZAC weekend, 1969. John then displayed Starling at boat shows and active dinghy racing clubs around the Auckland region. Teenagers were encouraged to trial the boat and offer comment. Feedback suggested the boat was a bit tender and the fully battened sail considered cumbersome and dated.

Des redrew the design, widening the chines, flattening the keelson run, replaced the two cockpit stringers with four floor battens. Neville Thom, the loft foreman at Bouzaid Sails redesigned the mainsail. The result became Starling MK II and a building programme was commenced by members of the Glendowie Boating Club. After six completed boats were launched, the new fleet was demonstrated at the same yacht clubs having previously shown interest in the prototype.

In a two-page Sea Spray magazine report of May 1970, staff writer Ena Hutchinson summed up the salient points of the new class, 'The Starling is the latest monotype from Des Townson, already well known for his popular Zephyr and Mistral designs. Intended as an intermediate class - the next step from P class, not replacing the P - her close restrictions cater for the boy or girl without a clued up yachtie father and who would have trouble competing against a parental-tuned boat. Like all Townson designs the Starling is an attractive looking boat. Her advocates say she is responsive, easy to sail and planes readily. Cost compares favourably with P class. A boat ready to sail built from kitset, costs about $175 but the price is much lower for a completely amateur built boat. The Starling uses one-design Foster aluminium spars and Bouzaid mainsail cut from a standard pattern. Time will tell whether the one design hull, spars and sail plan will help or hinder the class growth.'

In the same article, John Peet was quoted: 'I was concerned about boys progressing from P class as so many of them are lost from sailing. I wanted to provide a boat which they could build themselves from scratch. At the same time, I was worried about introducing another class so to get honest opinions we took the prototype around the yacht clubs for criticisms. Their reactions convinced us the design could really take on.'

From the outset it was John's and Des's objective to minimise the cost of Starlings participation by making the more expensive components of the boat one-design. A single-spar section from Fosters and a single sail option from Bouzaids minimised racing costs. Hull dimensioning restricted to +/- ¼-in (6mm) from the plan was the third keystone to making these home-built boats as similar as possible. Class rules were left open regarding fixtures and fittings and wide scope allowed with foil options. This enabled freethinking sailors the option of experimentation with the less expensive parts of the boat.

In the time-honoured Kiwi do-it-yourself fashion, home-built Starling construction commenced nationwide. Post-war New Zealand intermediate and secondary school curriculums had included woodworking and metal-working classes. As a result, a useful manual skill base existed throughout the community and the prospect of home boat building posed little concern to a significant portion of the yachting fraternity. A quick glance through the Sea Spray publications of the 1960s and '70s illustrates how much advertising space was given to products of appeal to amateur boatbuilders.

Kohi Yacht Club was the first club outside Glendowie to embrace the class and commence a building programme. An initial six hulls were built by Neville Thom, Jack Fifield and Charles Eaddy in Neville's basement and taken to the Kohi clubrooms for finishing by members. Other members followed suit with more hulls constructed in home workshops. This process was repeated throughout the country.

The long-gone Westhaven marine supply company Shipbuilders Ltd supplied Starling kitsets and numerous professional and semi-professional boat builders offered completed boats ready for painting. The boats were straightforward to build, the point proved by many teenagers building their own boats at home with minimal adult assistance.

The class growth was rapid and very quickly marine publications began reporting expanding fleets around the country. The first interclub regatta was held in December 1970 at the Glendowie Boating Club attracting 35 entrants. In just over a year, 100 boats had been launched and additional fleets were establishing at French Bay, Bucklands Beach, Milford, Taikata and Weiti sailing clubs. During the 1971-2 season, Christchurch and Wellington started gaining boats. By September 1972, Sea Spray was reporting '... the class growth has been phenomenal, 350 sets of plans sold and 250 boats on the water.'

By this time, with his broken leg healed, Des Townson was returning fully to his design and boat-building business and, by necessity, the burgeoning Starling fleet affairs became of less interest. Comfortable with the focus of John Peet and fellow Glendowie Boating Club members, Des selflessly donated the design and all future royalties to the GBC. His proviso was that the club continue to manage and administer the class on behalf of the youth of New Zealand. Des Townson never sought nor received remuneration from his Starling design.

The New Zealand Yachting Federation were frustratingly slow to recognise Starlings so the first-class championship at Kohi over Easter 1972 was not an endorsed event. Factions within the administration were not supportive of the new youth boat. Some stalwarts of existing classes saw a downside to bestowing national status on the new pretender. However, the first championship attracted 43 entrants and was won by Barry Thom from the host club. By this time, momentum was in the class's favour and before the next championship at Howick Sailing Club, national status was begrudgingly granted. Within five years after the first regatta, national championships regularly attracted 70 or more boats. By the mid-1990s national fleets of 100 boats were common. Another milestone occurred in 2005 at Tauranga with 152 entrants. This bulge was probably caused by the explosion in youth sailing generated from Team New Zealand's America's Cup wins in 1995 and 2000. Many sailing clubs experienced a surge in youth interest and the Starling class became the natural next step for youngsters who entered sailing through the Optimist class.

Another crossover from the adult sailing world came from the Stewart 34-class Match Racing Series. As the event grew in popularity, its public profile also grew. GBC commodore Ray Owers decided to create a Starling Match Racing Championship for class sailors. The Caltex fuel company with a similar star logo sponsored the event by providing six sails, suitably emblazoned with Caltex advertising. The first Match Racing Series was held at the Glendowie Boating Club in 1991. The event started as a stand-alone regatta focused around the upper North Island, limited by competitor proximity. As interest grew, the event was repositioned to precede the national fleet championships, enabling entries from the entire country. The country was split into 12 regions and, in most areas, selection trials were required. From modest beginnings the event has achieved steady, nationwide support and has the status of a YNZ national championship.

With the growth in the class came the recognition that Starling nationals were a major New Zealand centreboard regatta worth winning. The winner's trophy and even the second- and third-place getters' silverware were starting to read like a who's who of centreboard yachting's elite. Unfortunate but inevitable pressures started building. As is often the case, parents led the charge, searching for advantage for their teenage progeny. Whether to simply ensure their children had the best possible opportunity to reach their potential or fuelled by a unconscious, latent desire to vicariously live personal unfulfilled successes through their children, the result was the same. An unchecked 'arms race' to possess equipment faster than other competitors.

Amongst these enthusiastic parents were some would-be yacht designers keen to explore dimensional tolerances to achieve hull form variations. Theories abounded on what needed to be tweaked to make the boats go quicker. From the early 1970s, the Kiwi tinkering ethos became an aspect of the class evolution. A number of early builders went to considerable care during the framing stage, spacing bulkheads to ensure the hulls were built to maximum length, working from the concept of a longer boat being a faster boat. Others then altered bulkhead dimensions seeking shape variation. Boats #213 and 214 received the dubious distinction of being the first to be excluded from the class on the basis of deliberate hull non-compliance.

Neville Thom, the class's first measurer, was tasked with maintaining the one-design objectives enshrined in the rules. Simple templates were developed to check keelson rocker and chine locations within +/- 1/4 -in (6 mm) of the plan at bulkhead stations. Compliant boats were issued an 'A' measuring certificate, and failed boats a 'B' measuring certificate. Only 'A' certificated boats could race in a national championship. Boats issued 'B' measuring certificates were permitted to partake in all other class events.

By the late 1980s, builders started extending bow dimensioning at the waterline to achieve longer boats with finer entries in the forward sections. Some also created exaggerated 'U' shaping below the chine at the two forward bulkheads, seeking improved buoyancy and enhanced downwind performance. Chine narrowing and keelson rocker flattening was also popular. Unfortunately, the Glendowie Boating Club's measuring processes were completely inadequate to remain ahead of these building practices. The hand-held measuring templates, by their very nature, were difficult to use and inaccuracy was unavoidable. Some builders began ignoring the rule tolerances in the bow and forward topside stations, fully aware measurers had no tools to check those parts of the hull.

The result of all this tweaking was a new genre of Starling hulls with vertical stems, upright transoms and flared topsides. They looked quite different from the fleet standard. As Graham Collet, a Starling enthusiast and amateur builder, was to comment years later: 'The little changes we made to the hull were really insignificant if the skipper couldn't sail; the changes were worthless. It was really the skill of the sailor that was more important than the boat shapes.' However, when sailed by the best sailors of the time, these divergent Starlings gained an aura of invincibility and the perception grew that they were faster.

For a short period it appeared the unchecked hull tweaking would result in the class evolving in a fashion at odds with John Peet's 1969 commissioning objectives. All existing boats faced obsolescence. Clearly, a new set of more detailed measuring methods and jigs would be needed to preserve the class.

Ray Owers, the GBC's Starling chairman co-opted Graham Collett, John Clinton and this book's writer to help resolve these dilemmas. Des Townson assisted with template design advice. A bow template was created to encompass the forward half of the boat starting from the cockpit bulkhead. When trialled on a range of boats it became immediately obvious that bow profile tolerances had been completely disregarded during recent builds; in some cases by up to 50 mm. Once the full-frame, three-dimension hull jig was completed it proved a number of these newer boats also had chine and topside compliance issues. Unfortunately, GBC measurers had already certified some of these aberrant boats using the old templates.

As with so many things in life, those who perceived they had the most to lose made the most noise. Convinced their boats had a speed advantage from hull shape difference and because they held 'A' measuring certificates, they believed it was their right to maintain status quo. This was despite not complying with the longstanding, unchanged rule tolerances.

Lawyers were co-opted and intense lobbying to officials at the New Zealand Yachting Federation began. Internal politics meant support for the class administration from the national body was slow coming and at one point it was suggested by a senior NZYF officer the GBC design ownership might be ignored and class management confiscated by the Federation. Even within GBC, fortitude to face this onslaught was lacking from the inexperienced Commodore and some of his mainly cruising-oriented flag officers.

In June 1994, Des Townson penned an accurate, succinct summation of the situation for the class newsletter. 'The purpose of a one-design class is to minimise the possibility of some boats being faster than others causing obsolescence and subsequent increased costs to the class as a whole. Superior performance is to be gained only from sailing and tuning skills.

'The manipulation of the dimensions and working to the tolerance rather than the median by some owners and builders suggests that either they do not yet understand the one-design concept or would choose to be successful by exploiting the honesty of those who do.'

Fortunately, a NZYF Appeals Panel comprising Federation Chairman David Cook and advisors Andy Knowles and John Clinton shared similar thoughts. Kohi Yacht Club Commodore Graeme Cooksley had formally requested the Federation force an alternative measuring interpretation on the GBC. After deliberation the application was denied and the Townson-designed and Peet-built measuring jigs were ratified, ensuring a further quarter century of stable class expansion.

In 1994 Hood Sails ceased trading, so the licence to produce Starling sails transferred to North Sails. Under the management of John Clinton and his 'One Design' brand based at Bayswater, the sail was redesigned, becoming slightly fuller and upgraded to a more modern sail cloth. At time of writing Derek Scott manages production from the North Sails loft in Glenfield. Throughout their respective stewardships, a strict quality-control ethos and continuation of the single-sail concept has been maintained. The obvious outcome is a minimisation of sail costs relative to open classes.

In 1996 the very personable and capable Tony Wallace became GBC Commodore and a fresh page unfolded in the Starling history. Being aware of the decline in manual skill levels, available spare time and diminishing home workshop prevalence, Tony recognised the need for a glass re-enforced plastic (GRP) Starling from a single source. Fortuitously, one builder of competitive wood Starlings concurred. Keith Elliott reflected, 'We were doing the GRP Optis and I thought a GRP Starling made sense.' His company produced high-quality, locally built fibreglass Optimists under the Dinghy Workshop (DWR) brand.

Before fibreglass, Starlings could become a reality, the class rules required changing via a ballot of owners. With a 66.6 per cent threshold, the task was no small exercise, especially for such a contentious issue. Tony Wallace supported by Stuart Mackey, Trevor Burnnand and Ross McClew embarked on an incredibly time-consuming lobbying campaign, phoning every registered owner of the 1200 listed Starlings throughout New Zealand, garnering support for an upcoming GRP rule ballot. Through a combination of logical argument and persistent, friendly lobbying the end result was a successful ballot.

Keith Elliot built a male plug and Warkworth company, Roseware Industries, under guidance of owner and yachting enthusiast Arnold Nicholls, built the two-piece moulds. He also designed the lay-up, internal structure and built the first hull. Starling #2000 was launched toward the end of summer, 2000. As with many new concepts, acceptance was a somewhat mixed, with pockets of opposition surprisingly hostile. Two decades later, Tony Wallace maintained a clear recollection of a specially convened meeting at the KYC clubrooms where the attending GBC committee were metaphorically torn apart by the host club's members' hostility to GPR Starlings.

Despite the opposition, fibreglass Starlings were a concept well overdue and much needed by the sailing fraternity. Under their DWR, then Sail One brands, Keith and Kathie Elliot marketed a new 'sail-away', convenient GRP Starling package. Over the next six years Keith produced 54 of these boats, proving beyond doubt the desirability of low-maintenance hulls from a single mould were what parents wanted. They were well-priced, off-the-shelf-boats that performed well but sadly never won a National Championship. The Elliotts' vision and support of the class from their small business provided yet another pivotal step in the Starling history.

By the early 2000s, for a variety of reasons, demand for Sail One boats had slowed to a trickle with top sailors preferring wood Starlings. Unfortunately, professionally built 'sail-away' boats were costing in excess of $12,000, making this option unaffordable for most families. Cheap, imported Splash and Laser 4.7 classes were selling for $7000 and it was obvious the Starling class was facing significant pressure from these less-expensive alternatives. In response, this book's writer and Des Townson approached the world-renowned Mackay Boats to consider producing new GRP hulls.

Reflecting on their decision to build Starlings, David Mackay recalled: 'It seemed like a nice little project, a good sweet little boat to build to add to our range.' Younger brother Owen who was more involved with day-to-day production issues reflected: 'Initially it was with some reluctance we took the project on because we were concentrating on Olympic-class boats.

But to have the opportunity to be involved with such an iconic NZ boat and to be involved with the youth coming through who were ultimately going to be sailing our senior boats was, from a business strategic point, a good thing to be doing. It's fair to say that a number of our top Olympic yachtsmen and women came through the Starling and learnt their ropes in that class. All of that added to the logical reason as to why we did have some involvement.'

In 2008 Mackay Boats took over the Starling building licence and in conjunction with Des Townson and John Clinton, settled on a computer-assisted design (CAD) shape utilising current hull shape norms within the existing class rules. Des was adamant the sweet line of his design was to be maintained and chunky moulding details associated with conventional GRP production were to be minimised. The deck to hull overlaps were tapered at the bow and stern, softening the overhang appearance.

Des provided a template for the deck-mounted coamings. Southern Spars of whom John Clinton was an employee facilitated the design work. Fortunately, the company's CEO David Glen was an ex Starling, Mistral and Pied Piper sailor, so supported this Townson heritage project.

Instead of building a conventional hull as a plug, technology had moved forward, enabling the Clinton CAD drawing to be fed into a computer-controlled router. This then automatically cut a solid, medium-density fibreboard (MDF) slab to within 0.02 mm of the drawing, resulting in a level of accuracy unobtainable from traditional construction methods. After painting and polishing, a hull mould was constructed. The same process was repeated for the deck mould.

Of the boat's laminate, Owen Mackay reflected: 'They are a foam sandwich construction. After the gel coat, the lay-up is first an outer skin, which is allowed to cure, followed by a foam core being vacuum bagged into place and followed by an inner tie laminate or inner skin. The same process applies for the deck. Once the two components are complete and cured in the mould, the deck is de-moulded. A little bit of internal framework is added up the front of the hull. The deck then gets attached to the hull while it's still in the mould, holding it stiff and rigid to fully cure off. At every stage of the construction process a weighed amount of resin is used for each task. It's all about having good quality control procedures in place throughout the construction. They come out within a 500-gram tolerance for the end boat.

'The hull construction prior to fit-out takes 45 hours. We could have done them a whole heap quicker but they would have been a lemon in terms of their weight performance. To build it quicker you throw materials at it that aren't light. You wouldn't be doing them with foam sandwich; you'd use a core mat material which soaks up resin. You achieve stiffness but would struggle with the whole weight issue. So we had to use materials that gave us that right weight combination, but they require a little extra in terms of man hours.

'It does take a lot more workmanship hours to create something a little bit special. I reckon we are looking at a 20 per cent increase in labour just to achieve the better quality. We could have produced a boat that was quite quick and easy to knock out, but it would not have done justice to the boat. It wouldn't have been competitive with a well-built wooden boat. Those were the factors in deciding how we were going to go about building this thing. It's all very well to have what were considered to be the best possible design within the tolerances, but for a polyester boat that incurs a certain amount of shrinkage when it comes out of the mould, we also had to factor in additional tolerances to allow for that.'

'We are proud to be involved with the Starling, but doing the boat was more of a nostalgic decision - it wasn't a business decision.'

The prototype was launched at Manly Beach, Whangaparaoa, on May 30, 2008, then immediately shipped to Korea for the national boat show. The Mackay brothers believed the burgeoning youth sailing scene in that country was an ideal opportunity for the GRP Starling. Despite favourable reports from young Korean sailors, their yachting administrators proved to be more comfortable following existing trends rather than becoming market leaders. They decided Korean interests were best suited to using an established international class and because the Starling lacked world-wide status, was unsuitable.

After Korea, the boat was shipped to Mackay's agent in England. That country didn't have a boat quite like the Starling, but it did have a number of poorer-quality, cheaper, 'almost-as-good' options. Once again, the lack of worldwide profile meant the Starling faced a considerable hurdle to even get a toe in the door. At time of writing, expansion offshore remains as problematic as it's ever been.

Fortunately, the local market accepted the Mackay boat immediately. With a launching cost in 2009 of about $8100, these boats were a refreshing alternative to the almost 50 per cent more expensive professionally built wood versions. Sail numbering started from #2100 and from the beginning the first boats were competitive. However, it took two seasons for one to win a national championship, demonstrating good timber boats in equally skilled sailors' hands were as fast as their fibreglass cousins.

With the decline in amateur woodworking skills and the shortage of spare time, fewer parents are choosing to build boats. Eighty Mackay hulls have been constructed during the first 10 years of production, representing a tenfold advantage over the same period for home-based wood production.

In parallel with the development of the Mackay Starling was a failed attempt to introduce carbon masts. The existing untapered alloy section was designed in 1969 as a low-cost solution to the issue of unbridled, expensive mast development that had been a feature of the P class. The one-extrusion, one-supplier model seemed a logical answer and overall it has been most successful for the Starling. However, the Fosters F4 section always was a fragile set-up and in extreme conditions, prone to bending downwind following rapid deacceleration during boat nosediving. A lower check stay was introduced in the 1980s and, if tensioned correctly, largely resolved the bending issues.

From time to time windy regattas resulted in bent masts and calls for improvement. The adoption of carbon masts in the P class was used as an example by parents pushing for change. In response, this author embarked on a development programme with John Clinton and Matthew Smith at Southern Spars to achieve a similar-weight, similar-bend replication of the alloy section.

It was hoped a seamless spar transition similar to the GRP hull upgrade might be achievable. After the MK II version and regatta race testing, a rule change ballot failed to achieve the required 66.6 per cent support. The heavier sailors loved the mast but those at the other end of the weight range found it at bit too powerful. A slightly softer Mk III version was trialled on the Match Racing fleet and sailor feedback was again mixed, with similar feedback to the MKII masts. At time of writing pressure from within the class for change has all but evaporated.

Towards the end of the 2000s first decade, a sequence of fortunate events unfolded that had significant impact on the health and security of the class. Long-serving, highly respected and recently retired Yachting NZ staff member Richard Brown decided to reconstitute the long defunct Starling Class Association (SCA).

He recalled, 'The P class had almost disappeared, lost significant support and it looked to me, judging by the numbers of boats that were going to nationals, the Starling was likely to follow suit, probably for much the same reasons, in that it wasn't an international class. I felt that the class itself was worthy and it needed support.'

The GBC owned the design, registered boats, administered rules and arranged measuring. Race planning during the season was primarily through local clubs with oversight for the national championship from Yachting NZ (YNZ). It was a bit disorganised and functioned poorly. Richard commented, 'The class was like a headless chook, so an owners' association along the lines of the NZ Optimist Association seemed like a good move.'

As a first step, in 2009 he organised a scoping meeting which then lead to the SCA formalisation, followed soon after by incorporated society status and tax-free recognition by IRD. The SCA was then able to schedule the season's racing and raise funds to support class betterment and growth. YNZ relinquished its nationals management functions and the racing side of the class became autonomous.

One of Richard's initiatives was creation of a Traveller Series whereby results from a range of major and mini regattas at different venues in the upper North Island contributed to a points tally. The Traveller Series Trophy was awarded to the points leader at the end of the season. Uptake from sailors was immediate and within a season the new series was cemented in place and continued every subsequent year with a solid enthusiastic following.

Another change came from parents similarly concerned by declining participation. From the peak of 154 in 2005, nationals entries steadily dropped until 2011 when only 91 sailors turned up for the class championship. Many classes would be ecstatic with the latter figure, but for Starlings this was a 'canary in the mine' type warning. A group of Murray's Bay members due to host the next nationals successfully lobbied for a return to an end-of-season time slot. They believed the Easter and/or April school holidays was a more practical time than January for the nationals. December school exams and the Christmas 'silly season' significantly impacted sailor availability. The change of time slot was profound with 144 boats attending the 2012 nationals. The match racing nationals took over the January slot. The Starling class regained relevancy for the duration of the entire sailing season.

Under Richard Brown's stewardship the decline was reversed and the class became very well organised. In 2018 Richard reflected, 'We've identified regattas we recommend people go to and that in turn has led to well-attended regattas at some of the lesser-well-known venues, which has seen an increase in boats at those venues. Bay of Islands and Maraetai Beach Boating Club are two examples, so the Traveller Series has been a key part to the increase in numbers over that time.'

So why has the Starling been so successful in New Zealand over the last four decades? When researching Townson's legacy, it was interesting how many adult sailors, without prompting, waxed lyrically about the fun they had in their younger years sailing Starlings. After migrating from the P class or Optimist, the Townson boat was a breath of fresh air with its lively performance and vice-less handling. With plenty of sail on a light hull, the Starling's power to weight ratio is superior to most other dinghies of a similar size. Upwind it has almost the same speed as the 11-ft (3.35 m) Zephyr. Downwind it planes readily, becoming an exhilarating sail, especially once the slightest wave conditions develop.

For the fitter sailors, upwind performance is directly related to effort expended. Hard hiking in a breeze is rewarded with boat speed improvement and helming enjoyment. Neither the P class nor the Optimist provided a total upwind and downwind sailing package. Both boats have points of sail where the experience is difficult and unpleasant, ensuring a significant proportion of participants flee to other sporting endeavours.

Unlike many modern 'popped out plastic' single-builder, closed-rules classes, Starling rules permit the inquisitive to experiment with tuning options. While hull shape, spars and sail supply are one-design, sufficient scope remains for sailors to vary mast rake position, investigate a variety of sail battens, and try a range of foil shapes and positional settings. All impact boat speed and each vary through the racing wind range. This type of tweaking results in learnings that if carried to senior classes becomes invaluable. The Starling remains one of the few junior classes that allows experimentation in the non-expensive areas of performance.

With national championships regularly exceeding 100 boat fleets, the Starling is the last junior class New Zealand teenagers will be involved in where the acquisition of big fleet racing skills becomes critical for achieving success.

John Clinton, sailmaker, spar maker, boat builder and international coach, made the astute observation: 'I'm embarrassed that worldwide we make kids sail in such terrible boats. In New Zealand's case it's the Optimist and the P class. The Starling is their first boat that's a beautiful boat to sail. Suddenly you see kids' faces light up when they jump out of an Optimist or P class and get into a Starling. It's like the boats you sail later, a perfectly balanced, nice boat to sail. It's got all the controls you can change for different body weights. It's also a beautiful boat to build, a really nice shaped hull.'

When asked in 2014 to comment on the role the boat has played in New Zealand sailing, David Mackay, a Flying Dutchman Olympic representative said, 'The Starling has been New Zealand's best-kept secret. It is responsible for producing some bloody good sailors. Why is it that New Zealand's had the best single-handed male record at Youth World Championships? We've twice as many medallists of any other country. Our youth single handers must be developing quicker or learning more or doing something different. When you look at what all the other countries are sailing, the difference is probably the Starling. The Starling is suited to the body weight of youths and that's really critical to learn your skill as a sailor. A lot of other countries are throwing their Optimist kids into Laser 4.7s; they may as well be throwing them in a keelboat for two or three years. They are not developing their feel and that could be a big reason why when our kids get to youth level, they've got the jump.'

Some names on the Starling nationals trophy (date bracketed) have risen to the pinnacle of the sport internationally:

  • Sir Russell Coutts (1978). Olympic, World and Americas Cup Champion: 'The Starling is a fantastic intermediate boat to develop the sailing and tuning skills needed to progress at high level to other classes. I'm sure as a result of winning the Starling Nationals in 1978, this provided me additional confidence to compete in world youth regattas and challenge myself in international competition.'

  • Dan Slater (1991). World Youth Champion, three times Olympic representative in 49er, Star and Finn class and America's Cup competitor: 'The Starling taught me a whole range of skills before moving to the Laser. The Starling offers everything a youth boat should. Sailors who sailed other classes were a long way behind those who had sailed the Starling. I have done lots of coaching around the world and no country produces sailors with the ability of NZ sailors at the 16-17-year age group. While the rest of the world tried innovative one-design classes, Kiwis continue to succeed. Long live the Starling.'

  • Peter Burling (2005 & 2006). World 420, 49er and International Moth Champion, Olympic Gold and Silver medallist and America's Cup Champion: 'From the first time I raced a Starling having just turned 13 and only 50 kg, I couldn't get over how balanced and how fast the boat went. The Starling rewards being sailed like a proper boat because of the lightweight hull relative to the sailor's weight. It is very responsive to kinetics and teaches great techniques for future use. I won the nationals weighing a relatively light 57 kg. My second national title was won at 67 kg. I used the same hull, standard mast and at one of the Nationals, a four-year-old sail.'

    The Starling was created in the 1960s to fill a gap that existed between the P class and either the Zephyr, Moth or OK Dinghy adult classes. At the beginning of the 21st century a similar gap exists between the Optimist and Laser classes. The commissioning parameters for the Starling remain relevant and Des Townson's interpretation of these requirements have stood the test of time. The Starling is a boat designed by a New Zealander for New Zealand's weather conditions. It remains a superb example of a product perfectly created for an obvious market niche by a skilled designer and experienced racing helmsman.

    Des Townson - A Sailing Legacy can be purchased for NZ$80 via or email

    Des Townson was a champion yachtsman turned self-taught New Zealand designer. He was one of a cadre of top designers, builders and sailors including Jim Young, Bruce Farr, Laurie Davidson, John Spencer, Paul Whiting and Ron Holland who came from a similar background.

    Des Townson stood apart because he never designed to a rating rule, but instead created of a series of designs that were renowned for their beautiful lines, unique style, and delightful sailing characteristics. He had a very dry, self-deprecating sense of humour claiming that he only ever worked for two years of his life. Another line was that people claimed he only ever designed one boat.

    Longtime family friend, Brian Peet has written and compiled the tribute to Townson's designs, life and legacy, the result is a book that is as beautiful as one of Townson's yachts.

    The full chapter extract above describes the Starling, one of New Zealand's best-known sailing dinghies. The Starling is probably the first dinghy in which a young sailor senses the feel of a responsive racing yacht. Many of New Zealand's top sailors have grown up with the Starling and have gone on to win the America's Cup, Olympic Gold medals, the Volvo Ocean Race and many World Championships.

    For more of the Des Townson legacy and some outstanding images or the other fine yachts that Des designed click on the link below.

    Des Townson - A Sailing Legacy can be purchased for NZ$80 via or email

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