The story of the former olympian who designed the world's most beloved boat
In 1970, Bruce Kirby created the perfect single-person sailboat. What made the Laser so unbeatable?
On a slate-gray day in September, 89-year-old Bruce Kirby leans against the pinstriped first-mate’s seat of Lulu as it motors in slow circles on Long Island Sound. Just outside the elegantly varnished cockpit, a fleet of small sailboats races by, its formation loose and shifting. Kirby follows the boats through a pair of binoculars. One, Jack, belongs to him; he’d be out there competing if it weren’t for his ailing back. But all of the boats are Kirby’s design.
Known as Sonars, Kirby drew their shape in 1979 with a day just like this in mind. The Noroton Yacht Club, Kirby’s home port in the suburban town of Darien, Connecticut, wanted a craft for its members to race—something nimble and fast, but also sturdy and well-behaved. The Sonar is a “one-design boat,” meaning its specifications and equipment are governed by strict rules to ensure that competing in one is a test of skill, not money. Sailing remains a sport of the wealthy, and left unchecked, they can take things to extremes. The superyachts of the America’s Cup have nine-figure R&D budgets, and crews who wear crash helmets and body armor to protect themselves at new limits of speed and performance. In contrast, a used Sonar can be had for under $10,000, and is stable enough that it’s been used by Paralympians since the 2000 games. Out on the sound that afternoon, 37 boats are vying for the Sonar North American Championship, with a few former Olympians among the skippers. The whole event is buoyed by Kirby’s presence.
Kirby is a world-class sailor and Olympian himself—he represented Canada in ’56, ’64, and ’68—but he is most famous as the designer of a slew of boats known for their swiftness, and also their clarity and simplicity. The epitome of his ethos was a blockbuster, one that defined his career and the course of sailing more broadly: the single- person racing dinghy known as the Laser.
Back on land, Kirby looks on as the competitors come off the water, windblown and skipping toward the toilets. A collision left one Sonar with a dinner-plate-size hole in its stern, and Kirby leans in for a closer look. The regatta’s press person asks him to do it again for the camera. During the awards ceremony, organizers call Kirby up to the stage for pictures with the winners, and the photographer makes everyone take off their shades, “except the rock star; he can leave his on.” The teasing is apt; among sailors, there are few bigger celebrities than Bruce Kirby. He comes by their affection honestly. His boats are a blast. “Who wants to design a slow boat?” Kirby likes to ask. “Or own one, for that matter.”
The wheel was a Neolithic invention. It appeared on the scene 5,000 or so years ago, part of a suite of advancements in agriculture. Sailboats came earlier. Australia was settled at least 50,000 years ago, and the first humans didn’t arrive on the continent by foot. Three thousand years ago, Odysseus himself was “sailing the winedark sea for ports of call on alien shores.” Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic, by sail, in 1492—marking the start of several hundred eventful years of wind-powered global travel. Only in the past 200 years have the steamship, internal- combustion engine, and jetliner erased the sailing ship’s primacy as a means of transportation. Sailboats themselves, however, have held on, not as necessity but as sport.
No surprise then that in 1969, when Bruce Kirby got a call from his friend, the Montreal-based industrial designer Ian Bruce, about drafting a new sailboat, the brief was for a piece of recreational equipment—a “car-topper” to go along with a line of outdoor gear (tents, cots, camping chairs) for the Hudson’s Bay Company retail chain. “I didn’t even know what a car-topper was,” Kirby recalls. The craft had to be easy to transport and rig in order to make it as painless as possible to get out on the water.
The dinghy wasn’t the first boat Kirby had dreamed up, but he wasn’t designing them full time. He was working as an editor at a sailing magazine, living (like now) on the Connecticut shore. As a designer, he was self-taught, nicking a copy of Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design, originally published in 1904, from a family friend and understanding, he estimates, about a third of it. But Kirby had “three-dimensional eyeballs,” as he describes it; he had no trouble envisioning the shape of a hull. And as a world-class racer of small boats, he knew what a fast one should feel like.
Kirby sketched on ruled paper as they talked. When they hung up, he brought it to his 7-foot drawing board and began to tinker. He knew he had to “get the numbers right.” His first consideration was what’s known as the prismatic coefficient, which defines the shape of the vessel. Is it a tub or a knife? Or, in the language of yacht design, is the hull “full” or “fine”? A rectangular barge has a prismatic coefficient of 1 because its hull entirely fills the prism made by its length, beam (or width), and draft (its depth). Most sailboats have a coefficient between 0.5 and 0.6, meaning about half that volume. If the prismatic coefficient is too high—if the boat is too fat—it will be slow, especially in light wind. But if the coefficient is too low—if the boat is too skinny—it will slice through the waves rather than ride up on top of them, or “plane.” A sailboat that planes well is fast, but more important, it’s fun. High up out of the water, wind and sail become more than the sum of their parts. Kirby settled on 0.55, a just-right number to make a well-balanced boat: fast but stable, neither too tippy nor too tubby.
But only if the sailor worked for it. Dinghies depend on “live ballast,” i.e., a person leaning, or “hiking,” out over the side. A big sail makes a boat zip, if its sailor can keep it flat. Basic physics says that their ability to do so depends on their weight, which of course varies from person to person. So, Kirby had a second number to choose: the ratio of sail size to the hull’s displacement, which depends on the weight of the boat plus its human. Kirby dialed in his dinghy to perform best with 180 pounds of flesh—in his words, “a good-size guy working like hell to go fast.” The decision was in part selfish; it described Kirby at the time.
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