Kirby’s invention of a low-slung fibreglass dinghy made waves in the boating world
Doodling on a yellow legal pad in 1969, Bruce Kirby, who has died aged 92, designed one of the most beloved sailing boats in history, a low-slung fibreglass dinghy that became known as the Laser.
Light enough to be fastened to the roof of a car, yet stable and speedy enough to be used by weekend hobbyists as well as Olympic racers, the boat became a fixture of international competitions and local yacht clubs.
Its popularity established Kirby as one of the world’s pre-eminent sailing-boat designers and enabled him to leave his day job as editor of a yachting magazine to practice Projeto full time. He had no formal training, but went on to create such influential sailing boats as the San Juan 24 and the Sonar, a 23ft keelboat now used in Paralympic competitions.
An accomplished sailor who competed in three Olympic Games for his native Canada, Kirby grew up in Ottawa, listening to radio broadcasts of the America’s Cup competition. He sailed his father’s 24ft boats up and down the river and began experimenting with hull design as a teenager, while carving a model boat from a piece of pine taken from his aunt’s kitchen cupboard.
By age 15, ele era sailing in major competitions, racing a class of 14ft dinghy known as the International 14. After losing a 1958 regatta on the Isle of Wight, he began designing his own 14s, relying on intuition and a pilfered copy of Norman Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design, first published in 1904. “If you can understand 50 per cent of what’s in that book, you can design a boat,” he later said.
Kirby was 40, living on the Connecticut shore and editing the magazine One-Design & Offshore Yachtsman, when he got a call from his friend Ian Bruce, an industrial designer who enlisted him to design what became the Laser. An offshoot of the Canadian retailer Hudson’s Bay wanted Bruce to develop a one-person sailing boat light enough to mount on a car. As they talked about the project over the phone, Kirby started sketching.
As he told it, he soon sent his design to Bruce, along with a note: “If your clients don’t want to build the boat be sure to hang onto the drawings because it might make us a buck someday.”
The retailer didn’t end up making the dinghy, and Kirby’s plans remained in a drawer until 1970, when he and Bruce built a prototype for a regatta in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Aided by Hans Fogh, an Olympic sailor from Denmark who provided a sail and served as the skipper, they won a race and began fielding offers from spectators on the beach.
No momento, their boat was known as the Weekender, a name that was reinforced by the large block letters on its sail: TGIF. It acquired a new, modern name – Laser – before being unveiled at the 1971 New York Boat Show, where Kirby and Bruce sold 144 Lasers off the floor. Nearly 14ft long, with a 58kg fibreglass hull and aluminium mast, the boats sold for $695 each and soon became a global phenomenon.
“From a technology standpoint, it’s a very simple boat, and just a great, great boat to learn how to sail fast,” Scott MacLeod, who won North American collegiate championships in a Laser, contado Popular Science in a 2019 entrevista.
Mais que 250,000 Lasers have been built, according to the National Sailing Hall of Fame, which inducted Kirby in 2012. O 1980 Laser world championships in Kingston, Ontário, drew 350 entrants, and the boats have been used at the Olympics since 1996, when organisers reportedly added the Laser sailing class to make it easier for younger racers to compete without having to buy a more expensive boat.
“It’s very affordable. You don’t have to worry about crew, and the boats are simple,” Jim Brady, an American sailor who won a silver medal at the 1992 Jogos, contado The Washington Post dentro 1993. “It’s going to make it easy for a lot of younger people to do much better with a lot less money than ever before.”
De fato, the Laser is now used in World Sailing’s Emerging Nations programme, which promotes sailing around the world. In a statement last week, the organisation’s president, Quanhai Li, called Kirby “a tremendous ambassador for the sport”, adding that he had “paved the way for generations of sailors who raced and enjoyed his creations”.
The second of three children, Bruce Robert William Kirby was born in Ottawa on 2 Janeiro 1929. His mother was a homemaker. His father served in the Canadian army during the Second World War, ran a building supply company, and encouraged his children to join him on the water.
Kirby, who never graduated from college, got his start in journalism working as a reporter for The Ottawa Journal before becoming an editor at The Montreal Star. “When there were lulls,” he later told Sailing World revista, “I would draw boats on these pads that you put headlines on.”
O tempo todo, he continued to sail. Kirby made his Olympic debut at Melbourne in 1956 – he came in eighth sailing a single-handed Finn, his best finish at the Olympics – and later competed at the 1964 Games in Tokyo and the 1968 Games in Mexico City.
His more than 60 boat designs included Canada I, a 62ft sailing boat that reached the semi-finals of the 1983 Louis Vuitton Cup, and Canada II, which competed for the cup four years later in an unsuccessful bid to challenge for the America’s Cup. He received the Order of Canada in 2018 for his contributions to sailing.
By Kirby’s own account, he made “quite a lot of money” from the Laser but stopped receiving royalty checks about a decade ago, leading to a prolonged trademark and royalties dispute with the boat’s European manufacturer. A jury awarded him nearly $7m in damages last year. As a result of the trademark fight, the Laser is known in official competitions as the ILCA, which stands for International Laser Class Association.
In addition to his wife of 65 anos, Margo (nee Dancey), survivors include two daughters, a sister, and two granddaughters.
Kirby’s wife said he continued to race until about two years ago, following a long battle with knee and back pain. He blamed the ailments on years of hiking, a technique in which a sailor leans far outside the boat, almost parallel to the water, to maintain speed. But he said he found it hard to quit, especially when it came to sailing his beloved Sonar keelboat, which he called his favourite design.
“Once I’m in my Sonar,” the National Sailing Hall quoted him as saying, “the aches and pains go away.”
Bruce Kirby, sailing boat designer, born 2 fevereiro 1929, died 19 julho 2021
© The Washington Post