It can be safely said that no individual had a greater impact on the modern sport of sailing than Bruce Kirby. Known and respected worldwide as the designer of the ubiquitous Laser that now numbers over 250,000, and is an Olympic Class in two configurations, Kirby had a yacht design career that spanned over forty years, with feet firmly planted in his native Canada and his adopted United States. He was a successful journalist, sailor and designer, and a good friend to anyone who had the pleasure to know him.
Born in Ottawa, Bruce learned to sail out of the Britannia Yacht Club on Lac Deschênes. He quickly gravitated to the highly competitive International Fourteen Foot Dinghy along with his older brother David, attending regattas in Montreal and Toronto in the early 1950s. It was at a Canadian Dinghy Association (CDA) Regatta at RCYC in 1951 where he first met a young George Cuthbertson when Cuthbertson was the RCYC club measurer. Their lives and careers would continue to be intertwined, culminating with both being named Honourary Curators of the 2014 New Age of Sail Exhibit at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston, and both being the first official inductees to the Canadian Sailing Hall of Fame the same year.
It was during the 1958 Int’l 14 Team Racing in England that Bruce started to envision a new Int’l 14 design that would be able to match the New Zealanders upwind. Returning to Canada he immediately laid down the lines of what would become the Kirby I. Trained in journalism, Bruce by his own admission was “not good at math”, and did not even own a planimeter to measure the sectional areas, relying on counting the squares on the graph paper on which he did the drawings. Built in fiberglass in Montreal, the Kirby I achieved its goal of being consistently the first boat to the weather mark, but was quickly passed by other 14s on the planning reach. The Kirby II soon followed with a much better all-around performance. By then the British were making the transition to Kirby designs and it was the cold molded McCutheon built Kirby III that took the International 14 world by storm, especially in the talented hands of fellow RStLYC sailor Ian Bruce. Ian, sailing his cold molded Kirby III Tief Up, won the renowned Prince of Wales trophy in England in 1967, and remarkably again in 1968 with the reintroduction of the trapeze to the class. Upon his return to Canada Ian used the hull of T’ief Up to take off a mold to put the Kirby III into fiberglass production in Montreal with a new company he founded called Performance Sailcraft Inc. (PSI). Keep in mind that 1967 and 1968 were the years that George Cuthbertson and Red Jacket were tearing up the SORC. Bruce even sailed a number of Cuthbertson designs in SORC, including winning his division in the 1968 Nassau Cup aboard the Cuthbertson & Cassian designed Corvette Elektra with George Cuthbertson, George, Hinterhoeller, and Ian Morch in the crew! Those three would go on to create C&C Yachts with Erich Bruckmann the following year. Kirby would later go on to helm the C&C 35 Red Head and the C&C 61 Sorcery in later SORCs.
What would become the Laser started in 1969 when Ian Bruce phoned Kirby, who was then living in Chicago as editor of One-Design Yachtsman, to talk about a small car topping sailboat being considered as part of a line of leisure products by the Canadian Department store chain The Hudson Bay Company. The department store dropped the idea, but then One-Design Yachtsman initiated the “America’s Teacup” regatta at the Playboy club in Geneva, WI, to feature new “off the beach” sailing designs. The little dinghy was finally designed and hastily built and driven to Wisconsin, picking up Hans Fogh and the sail along the way. The little boat had some teething problems and didn’t win the regatta, but people took notice, encouraging PSI to put the little boat that they now called the Laser into production. The Laser made its debut at the 1971 New York Boat Show where they sold a record 144 boats right out of the box! The Laser was tooled by PSI at the same time as the Kirby V Int’l 14, the first of the “modern” 14s designed for the trapeze, which was also a great success, almost turning the Canadian 14 fleet into a One-Design class. (Pictured left: Bruce Kirby’s Laser #1 on display at the New Age of Sail Exhibit at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston in 2014. On loan from Mystic Seaport Museum.)
Kirby’s success as a designer of 14s had already prompted Clark Boats in Washington State to put the Kirby IV into production in fiberglass. In 1973, with the increasing popularity of the new IOR racing, they asked Kirby to design a new Quarter Tonner for fiberglass production. At this point in his career, Kirby had never designed a keel boat or a boat to a design formula as complex as IOR. So, turning to his friend George Cuthbertson for advice on things like ballast, stability, and righting moment, Kirby produced the drawings for the remarkably successful San Juan 24 of which over 1200 were built. The San Juan 24 would generate more IOR certificates than any boat built. The 24 was soon followed by the 30. Kirby was always proud of the fact that the San Juan 24 predated Doug Peterson’s Gambare and Ron Holland’s Eygthene, initiating the classic IOR shape of wide beam and pinched ends.
However, it was the success of the Laser and the royalties that it generated that allowed Bruce to quit the media business and become a full time yacht designer. He and his wife Margo left Chicago and bought waterfront property in Rowayton, CT, where he established his design office in the basement overlooking the Five Mile River as it flowed into Long Island Sound. It was there that he produced a number of iconic one-design classes including the 23’ Sonar for his Noroton Yacht Club, the Ideal 18 built by Ontario Yachts, and the Kirby 25 and 30 built by Mirage Yachts. His involvement with IOR did not stop with the San Juans, designing the custom 40’ Runaway which was a member of the three boat 1981 Canadian Admiral’s Cup team along with Bob Herron’s C&C Custom 45’ Amazing Grace (on which I sailed), and John Newton’s Peterson designed Pachena.
It was in 1982 when Canadian Marvin McDill called from Calgary to ask Kirby to design a Canadian 12 Metre to challenge for the 1983 America’s Cup in Newport, Rhode Island. Teaming with C&C Alumnus Steve Killing to handle the more technical side of the project, Canada I was quickly built in aluminum and proved very competitive. However, like all the competitors of 1983 she was bested by Australia II and Ben Lexcen’s revolutionary wing keel. Kirby designed his own wing keel for his 8-Metre design Octavia which won the 8 Metre worlds. When asked about his approach to that wing keel, he replied in typical Kirby fashion, “I just took a wild eyed swing at it!” The lessons learned from Octavia were applied to the modifications that produced Canada II for the challenge in Perth Australia, the last year that 12 Metres were used in the America’s Cup.
His prowess as a 14 sailor led to Kirby competing in three Olympic Games on behalf of Canada, the 1956 Melbourne games and the 1964 Tokyo in the Finn, the 1968 Mexico City in the Star. It was undoubtedly his experience with the freestanding bendy rig in the Finn that influenced his rig for the Laser. (Pictured right: Kirby at the helm of C&C 61 #1 Sorcery (JohnKelly Cuthbertson).)
Bruce resisted the temptation to add staff as his design business grew, preferring to work alone and relying on the computer expertise of University of Michigan Naval Architecture graduate Paul Fuchs to transform his hand drawings to digitalized format.
Kirby continued to design well into his 80s, primarily restricted to commissions that interested him, such as a custom one-off cruising boat for author Nathaniel Philbrick and a new junior sailing boat called the Pixel. He was recognized for his contributions to sailing many times, being inducted into the Canadian Fourteen Foot Dinghy Hall of Fame, American National Sailing Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Sailing Hall of Fame. Along with Ian Bruce, Kirby was also inducted into the Order of Canada, the highest honour available to a Canadian citizen. In recognition of Bruce Kirby and fellow CSHOF inductee Ian Bruce, the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston will be adding the 1965 McCutheon built Kirby III Windborne to the museum’s collections. Windborne, a sister to T’ief-Up, was donated by Steve Sewel of the RStLYC, her original and only owner for the past 56 years.
Kirby’s later years were marred by continued legal and trademark struggles with successive builders of the Laser, but despite that he remained upbeat and optimistic in any conversations we had, recognizing that he was “lucky to hit things when they were happening!” Bruce is survived by Margo his wife of 65 years and by two daughters, Kelly Kirby and Janice Duffy, and two granddaughters.
Bruce often referred to his original sketch done on yellow legal pad when talking to Ian Bruce on the phone as his “Million Dollar Doddle”, but it is obvious that everything that he had achieved in sailing and in dinghy design up to that point was leading directly to that doodle. It was perfectly timed to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding sailboat market, and he was the perfect person to make that creation.Bruce Kirby was a good friend. His quiet self-deprecating sense of humour and innate self-confidence will be sourly missed. He embodied everything positive about being Canadian.