Writer, raconteur, polymath, and Olympian, very few have touched the sport of sailing in all its facets as thoroughly as Bruce Kirby. Yes, he designed the Laser (on a yellowpad, not a cocktail napkin, as lore would have it). But he was also a prolific designer of a wide assortment of boats during latter half of the last century.
Bruce passed away at the age of 92 at the end of last summer. During the last two years, he was busy writing a memoir with the help of his friend and colleague Mark Smith, who was Kirby’s successor at the helm of Yacht Racing magazine, which became Sailing World. The Bruce Kirby Story: From the River to the Sea (2021, Kirby Smith Publishing, $30) is a joy to read if you want to learn about the heroics and happenstance of the America’s Cup, international yachting, even the prosaic simplicity of his beloved line of Sharpies. There is also a deep dive into Kirby’s phenom, the Laser, which now boasts more than a quarter million boats sold worldwide.
Known for his clean, quick designs, Kirby was entirely selftaught, relying on well-thumbed copy of Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design for the technicalities of righting moments, lofting, scantlings and methods of calculation. His success is all the more remarkable because he wasn’t an engineer. Kirby started out as a police reporter for the Ottawa Journal— no yacht design apprenticeships, no degrees, no mentoring, unless, much later, it came in the form of George Cuthbertson of C&C Yachts. He was a successful International 14 sailor, having cut his teeth in a wide spot of the Ottawa River, sailing gaff-rigged sloops with his dad and brother. But the International 14 gave Kirby the fire and the curiosity to try to design a better boat within the loose boundaries imposed by the class. He learned how to take lines and make changes in hull shape he thought might produce livelier performance. His boats started winning.
“My International 14 design career stretched from 1958 to 1971 and the class was not big enough worldwide to produce enough design royalty income to buy more than a few rounds of Molsons, but I enjoyed every minute of it,” Kirby writes.
The long list of Kirby designs in the back of his memoir shows the length of breadth of his accomplishments. His IOR racer Runaway, with her trademark and much-copied cutaway transom, made headlines at the 1981 Admirals Cup. Her international debut included a sparkling Fastnet first leg, only to be thwarted by light air at the finish that allowed the fleet to catch up. His 12-Meters Canada 1 and Canada 2 gave America’s Cup challengers some big worries. His San Juan quarter-tonners and half-tonners introduced many sailors to affordable offshore racing. And he played an instrumental role in keeping older sailors sailing, with his easy-tohandle, no-hiking-allowed Sonar and Ideal 18. Bruce and Mark plopped into the center of their book a delightfully rendered sidebar authored by Australian John Ayliffe about sailing one of Kirby’s Norwalk Island Sharpie designs from Melbourne to Hobart across the treacherous Bass Strait. The internally ballasted Sharpie only drew eleven inches with centerboard up, but it handled with ease the big seas and high winds that can terrify the toughest Aussie.
Kirby’s influence in nearly every inshore and offshore venue was gift wrapped by his many friendships with other legendary sailors. They are all here: Paul Elvstrom, Ted Turner, Uffa Fox, and more. He relied on his newspaper reporter’s inquisitiveness to get to know sailing’s unequaled giants. Bruce Kirby is gone now, but he takes his rightful place in this wonderful pantheon.
OTHER NOTABLE READS
Writer and experienced sailor Paul Heiney brings his journalistic talents to bear in an entertaining, and often funny travelogue documenting his voyage to Iceland in “Farewell Mr. Puffin: A Small Boat Voyage to Iceland” (2021, Adlard Coles, $17) With wit and insight, John Passmore offers a delightful twist on the pandemic escape in the widely hailed “Old Man Sailing: Some Dreams Take A Lifetime” (2021, Samara Press, $17). The book details his response to the advice for older citizens to “shield” themselves from the pandemic—fulfill a lifelong dream.
Writer Todd Duff gives pandemic escape artists a road-map out with his methodical approach to finding and refitting a sailboat in “Bargain Boats and Budget Cruising 2021, Seaworthy Press, $25).