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Laser designer has a new boat for ‘kiddies’

Bruce Kirby says the Pixel is for young sailors who might otherwise choose a Blue Jay

More than 30 years after introducing the hot-selling Laser sailboat, designer Bruce Kirby has unveiled a new small sailboat design, the 13-foot, 6-inch Pixel.

The Pixel is light, quick, nimble and easy to right after capsizing. The boat is intended to appeal to the intermediate sailors and is particularly ideal for junior sailors, according to the designer.

“We want to attract the post-Opti, pre-Laser kids,” says Kirby, 75, a sailor and former journalist who has designed more than 60 boats.

Kirby and his business partner, Wes Oliver, both residents of Rowayton, Conn., are marketing the new sailboat to area yacht clubs and sailing organizations. Four Pixels have been built to date by a manufacturer in China that typically builds rowing sculls.

Kirby says the idea for the Pixel came about almost by chance. Kirby was walking with Oliver when they started talking about youth sailing. Oliver, who had recently purchased a Blue Jay for his 14-year-old son, asked Kirby about designing an alternative. Designed by Drake Sparkman in 1947, the Blue Jay has helped legions of sailors hone their skills. But the boat is perceived by some young sailors as outdated, according to Oliver. He also noticed that the boat was tedious to right during capsize drills.

“I always thought it was a good little boat,” Kirby says of the Blue Jays. But he agreed to go to the drawing boards to come up with a contemporary sailboat of similar size that offers safety and stability, but is fun to sail.

“It’s a fine line you’re drawing,” says Kirby. “You mustn’t frighten the kiddies but you want to give them a decent ride.”

The Pixel is sleek and modern, with an open transom and a carbon fiber mast. “It’s about as cool as a boat can be,” says Kirby. The boat has a stepped inner hull so sailors can adjust the sails without climbing out of the boat, and the boat is stable enough that even an adult can walk around the mast, says Kirby. “Stability is the big thing,” he adds.

Oliver and Kirby have recruited several area sailors to test the boat, and so far it has handled well, they say. “The first thing I noticed about the Pixel was that it accelerated quickly in not a lot of breeze,” says Oliver. “It’s also very forgiving.”

The Pixel is the same length as the Blue Jay but weighs about 185 pounds less and, with 100 square feet of sail, has a larger sail area. Kirby says he doesn’t think the new boat should replace the Blue Jay fleet, but says it can complement existing Blue Jay programs.

Kirby chose the name Pixel because it is a modern word that kids understand. Pixels are the small units that make up an image displayed on a video screen or digital picture. The Pixel sailboat will sell for about $6,000, and will be on the market in the spring.

Kirby’s design career began in the early 1970s. A former newspaper reporter from Canada, Kirby was editor of One Design Yachtsman, (now Sailing World), when a friend asked for his help in designing a “car-top” sailboat. Years earlier, while working at the Montreal Star newspaper and racing International 14 Class sailboats (a developmental skiff with relatively few class rules), Kirby designed his own boat. “Before I got my boat, four people ordered the same design,” says Kirby.

The Laser wasn’t immediately built, but in 1970 the small sailboat debuted at the America’s Teacup Regatta, sponsored by Sailing World magazine, and then was sold at the New York Boat Show. Kirby says 144 boats sold at the show, and since then more than 180,000 have been sold.

“We didn’t know we had the tiger by the tail,” says Kirby, who grew up sailing on Montreal-area lakes. “I’d like to repeat that success.”

The first Laser, sail number 0 because they forgot to stamp a hull number on it, is on display at the Mystic Maritime Museum in Mystic, Conn.

Other Kirby designs would follow, including the Laser Radial (same hull as a Laser but with slightly different mast), Sonar, Ideal 18, the San Juan 24 and two America’s Cup 12-Meters (Canada I and II).

The Laser has been an Olympic class boat since 1996, and in 2008 the Laser Radial will be the women’s single-handed boat, replacing the Europe dinghy. Kirby is obviously pleased that his design was selected, but he adds that the selection of the Radial will likely draw more Asian sailors to the event, since he says the boat is more readily available in Asia than in Europe.

When not designing, Kirby, who moved to the Rowayton section of Norwalk 30 years ago, cruises his Night Wind 35. Kirby says his real competitive days of sailing are behind him.

“When there were more boats ahead of me than behind me, I quit racing,” he says.