Bruce Kirby, journalist, three-time Olympian and designer of the Laser dinghy, has died at the age of 92.
Bruce Kirby is best remembered as the designer for the Laser single-handed dinghy, now known as the ILCA. He was born in Ottawa, Canada in 1929 and began his journalism career in newspapers before writing for, and later becoming editor of One-Design Yachtsman (now Sailing World magazine).
He began sailing at the age of six with his father and brother, and moved on to the International 14 class in his teens. Winning the world championship twice in this class in 1958 and 1961. He also represented Canada in three Olympic regattas sailing the Finn in 1956 and 1964, and a Star keelboat in 1968.
Kirby had no formal education in boat design and used the fairly modest skills he had developed in model boat carving to create his first International 14, which he called the Mark One. Kirby reminisced about his first design, “it did pretty well; we won regattas.”
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Kirby is famously quoted on his introduction to yacht design as saying: “I had a copy of Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design. If you can understand 50% of what’s in that book, you can design a boat. Design isn’t brain surgery. We should always pretend that it is, but it’s really not.”
Kirby’s most famous design, the Laser, was created in 1970. The story of the Laser’s creation has become a little embellished over time with claims that it was designed on the back of an envelope or even a dinner napkin.
The embellishment is only slight however; Kirby did do the first rough draft while on the phone with his business partner Ian Bruce and it really is just a doodle on a notepad.
The original concept was as simple as ‘we need a car topper’ from Ian Bruce, and history was born. Ian Bruce jokingly referred to Kirby’s sketch as “the million dollar doodle.”
The Laser went on to sell over 220,000 boats, becoming the world’s most popular one-design. Its high performance, combined with Kirby’s simple lines and rig, made the Laser a ubiquitous part of millions of sailors’ journeys and honed the skills of many future champions. That simple sketch managed to capture the essence of dinghy sailing: fast, fun, physical, and very rewarding.
Today it remains an Olympic class, and has been so for seven Games, while the smaller rigged Laser Radial is also the women’s singlehanded Olympic dinghy class.
It has been the proving ground of many of the most talented sailors in the sport, including Ben Ainslie, Robert Scheidt, Tom Slingsby, Glenn Bourke, Carolijn Brouwer and Marit Bouwmeester.
Beyond the Laser, Bruce Kirby designed many yachts, including the Sonar (a former Paralympic keelboat and his personal favourite of all designs), the Apollo, Kirby 23 and Kirby 25 to name a few.
He also designed two America’s Cup 12-Metre yachts, Canada in 1983 and Canada II in 1987, and was part of the committee that created the IACC boats which superseded the Twelves. Kirby remained a life-long fan of the America’s Cup, claiming he was “probably the only person left who remembers listening to the America’s Cup on the radio before the war.”
Kirby spent the last 50 years living in Connecticut with his wife Margo, where they raised two daughters.
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