Messing about in boats can be a life-long avocation

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday, October 27, 2019.

Tales of the sea abound. 

Think of The Odyssey by Homer, Melville’s Moby Dick or, more recently, the nearly two dozen novels by Patrick O’Brien such as Master and Man, depicting sea warriors during the Napoleonic Wars – and, of course, The Caine Mutiny.

These are stories of villains and heroes.  But there are also stories of ships. 

Perhaps the oldest and most familiar is Noah’s Ark. 

And let’s not forget that “In fourteen hundred ninety-two / Columbus sailed the ocean blue. / He had three ships and left from Spain; / He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain” – and those three ships were the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria

There are stories of large ships – true stories, such as the Titanic and the Edmund Fitzgerald, both of which end in tragedy, and stories in fiction such as “The Posiden Adventure”.

There are stories of warships – from submarines (depicted in films such as “Das Boot” or “Crimson Tide”) to battleships, such as Nazi Germany’s Bismarck, whose story is told in fiction, non-fiction, song and film.

But there are also stories of small boats, such as one-design sailboats, dating back to the late 19th century and the beginning of organized sailboat racing.  These include dinghies and small keel boats such as the Lightning, Comet, Thistle and the Hampton. 

There are also medium to large one-design boats such as the J/24 and the Alberg 30.

I learned much of this last week during a delightful morning’s conversation with Rolph “Towney” Townshend. Halfway through, we were joined by Joan, his wife of 36 years, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary and still consulting as a trainer in emotional intelligence. 

Joan said, “In addition to Towney’s model boats and our many mutual friends, we have five children, seven grandchildren and one great granddaughter to love.  They are a great blessing.”

Townshend, now pushing age 91, was born in Easton and spent his growing up years in Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where he built his first boat out of discarded crates. Age: eight years old. 

Like many Marylanders, Townshend’s a waterman through and through.  Not the fishing kind, but the sailing kind.  He is also a veteran in the Maryland National Guard (1948-59) where he retired as a First Lieutenant.

The Townshends now live in Severna Park, though their lovely home overlooking Round Bay is for sale as they downsize and minimize while planning a move to Heritage Harbor.

Though I’ve “known” Townshend for several years (we are both members of the Sailing Club of the Chesapeake), I discovered during a casual conversation at an SCC outing a few weeks back that Townshend, a modest man, is an abundance of knowledge, experience and achievement in life, technology and the world of boats – from building small boats to modeling, racing and cruising sailboats. 

Shoreside Townshend attended public schools in Chestertown, except for his last two years of high school when he transferred to Staunton Military Academy in Virginia (now part of Mary Baldwin University). Reason: to better prepare for continuing his education at the US Naval Academy.

However, when he learned at the USNA physical exam that he was color blind, he enrolled at Chestertown’s Washington College where he graduated in 1952.

Armed with a degree in physics, Shoreside Townshend joined the Westinghouse Corporation at its new facilities at Friendship Airport (now BWI) as a design engineer.  He retired in 1991 after 39 years and a remarkable career that included work in Europe, East Asia and the Middle East and pioneering leadership and management innovations that led to his winning the Westinghouse Order of Merit in 1982.

During his years at Westinghouse, Townshend assumed major responsibilities that included the manufacture of AWACS (the Airborne Warning And Control System) providing long-range radar surveillance and control for air defense – and key management positions such as quality and reliability assurance and manager of manufacturing operations, the assignment from which he retired.

However, Commodore Townshend, the mariner, has deeper roots and a longer history than Shoreside Townshend, the management executive and engineer. 

Townshend’s mariner’s history began when he built his first boat and continued into his teens as he raced Hampton one-design sailboats till his mid-30s. 

“By the early 1960s, we had a growing family and needed a larger boat. So, in 1964, I teamed with the late Jack Martin to bring the then-new Alberg 30 to the Chesapeake Bay.  After a few months of encouraging others to purchase the new Alberg 30, we had a fleet of 10 boats.”

That’s when Townshend sparked the formation of the Alberg 30 One-Design Association, serving twice as commodore.

When you have sailboat races, you have winners, and Townshend had stream of victories with his Alberg 30, racing with the Chesapeake Bay Yacht Racing Association as he and his crew won the CBYRA High Point Award from 1997 through 2004.

And then, in 2015, after participating in hundreds of racing events, he was invited to skipper an Alberg 30 in the Syronelle One-Design International Team Regatta, held annually on Lake Ontario, off the Toronto Islands.  Long story short: Townshend (at age 86) and his crew took home the gold.

“But wait!  That’s not all!” as they say in the TV ads.  There is yet another dimension to Townshend the seaman – and that’s his love of carving and building boat models, a passion that included work for many years as a volunteer at the Naval Academy Ship Model Gallery, repairing old ship models.

Even today, Townshend is busy building ship models for friends – most recently, for those who lost models of their vessels in the Annapolis Yacht Club fire just before Christmas in 2015 – and even for his own home, which has beautiful models of the clipper ship Baltimore Pride;  his first racing sailboat, the log canoe, Magic; and a classic Hoopers Island Draketail among others.

In his ode to boats in the Wind and the Willows, Scottish writer, Kenneth Grahame, asserts “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” 

I don’t know if Rolph Townshend would describe racing and carving boats as “messing about” but having experienced several hours listening to my new friend Towney Townshend, I think I understand better the view Kenneth Grahame intended to communicate.


  1. Debbie Elliott on October 29, 2019 at 4:49 pm

    Another great interview that I can share with a friend who loves boating!! Debbie