Lifelong Love Affair

Bruce Kirby designed the laser; sailing is the passion that drove him
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The Laser is one of Kirby’s many successful designs

The Laser is one of Kirby’s many successful designs

Bruce Kirby has so many sailing stories that even after nearly 63 years of marriage, his wife, Margo, still hasn’t heard all of them.

“I’m probably the only person left who remembers listening to the America’s Cup on the radio before the war,” the 90-year-old Kirby says, describing the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s blow-by-blow coverage. “My father and brother listened to it in 1934. By 1937, when Ranger beat Endeavor, I remember distinctly listening to it.”

“I never knew that,” Margo says.

Sitting at the dining room table in the Kirbys’ home in Rowayton, Connecticut, Bruce shares how he grew up sailing in Ottawa, Canada, and started sketching and carving boats out of wood early in his life. He worked as a full-time newspaper journalist, but always drew boats on the side. In the 1950s, he found early success sailing the International 14. In the 1960s and early ’70s his successively faster designs of that restricted class drew the attention of world-class sailors.

Sailing was a constant presence in his life, and he was good at it. Kirby jumped from the International 14 into the Finn class to sail for Canada in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, where he became friendly with Paul Elvstrom, the Dane who won three consecutive Olympic golds in that class. Kirby skipped the 1960 Rome Olympics when he and Margo had their two daughters, but he returned to the Finn class at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

He did quite well in 1964, and in one heavy-air race found himself in second place and gaining on the Russian ahead of him. Kirby caught a gust and a good wave, but when the Russian broached, they collided and the Russian capsized. Kirby, believing he might have violated a rule, did the honorable thing and reported himself to the race officials. Afterward, Kirby asked Elvstrom for his opinion and he deadpanned, “If he was upside down, he couldn’t have hoisted a protest flag.”

Kirby at his home in Connecticut.

Kirby at his home in Connecticut.

In the 1968 Olympics, Kirby and Elvstrom crossed paths again. Both had switched to the Star class, but neither was racing well. “In a late race, Paul and I found ourselves in first and second place,” Kirby recalls, “and as we crossed he said, ‘What are we doing up here?’ He had a great sense of humor.”

In 1969, at the request of a Canadian friend, Kirby sketched a preliminary design for the Laser. Fifty years later, Kirby pulls the fading sketch, now known as “The Million Dollar Doodle,” out of a basement drawer. The friend had been building Kirby’s International 14s in Canada, and built a prototype of the Laser for a design competition, which it would go on to win. At the 1970 New York Boat Show, 144 Lasers sold off the floor, a record number of sales that Kirby thinks still stands today.

While Kirby continued his work as a yachting journalist, Margo answered the incoming mail from a post office box overflowing with Laser orders.

“The Laser paid for our house,” he says of the larger Rowayton waterfront home that he and Margo sold last year. Laser royalties also allowed Kirby to quit his yachting editor job in the 1970s and devote himself to full-time boat design.

For years after that, every time the phone rang, he would joke: “Answer it. It might be someone to ask me to design a 12 Metre.” And that call did come. In 1981, a Canadian lawyer named Marvin McDill rang to say that Canada should compete for the America’s Cup. Kirby designed Canada One for the 1983 Cup and turned her into the wing-keeled Canada II for the 1987 Cup. Nearly 40 years later, macular degeneration is preventing Kirby from drawing more boats, but he and Margo still laugh about answering the phone to see if someone wants him to design a 12 Metre.

In 1987’s America’s Cup Canada II did not make it out of the round-robin stages, but Kirby recalls how Canada II beat American yachtsman Dennis Conner in a light-wind duel in Fremantle, Australia. That win put Conner’s quest to regain the Cup at risk. “If he’d lost one more race, he would not have made it to the semifinals,” Kirby says with some pride. “Dennis was not happy with us.”

Fifty years after he drew it, Kirby holds “The Million Dollar Doodle” of the Laser he sketched while on the phone with his friend Ian Bruce.

Fifty years after he drew it, Kirby holds “The Million Dollar Doodle” of the Laser he sketched while on the phone with his friend Ian Bruce.

Throughout his life, Kirby designed boats, including the San Juan 24 that led to a host of other fast keelboat designs, and the Sonar, which became one of the official Paralympics sailboats. And he always sailed, for 83 of his 90 years, until he broke a vertebra last year. Into his 80s, he’d race a Laser or just reach it back and forth in a blow, sail with others on larger boats, or cruise with Margo aboard the Sharpie he designed for them to navigate out of the shallow waters near their home.

Today, he is considered one of the great yacht designers of all time. The Laser is well past the 220,000 sales mark, and all of his achievements have been widely honored, including an induction into World Sailing’s Hall of Fame in 2012.

But his love of sailing wasn’t always fully appreciated by all parties. Margo recalls how, early in their marriage, her mother asked Bruce: “When are you going to get this sailing thing out of your system?”

Happily, he never did. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.