Rowayton's Kirby sails into Hall of Fame
When Bruce Kirby is inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in October, the 83-year-old Rowayton resident will take to the dais in New Orleans and deliver a speech that says, well, he isn't quite sure.
"Do you have any ideas?" Kirby said and laughed.
A three-time Olympian, Kirby is best-known for creating the Laser sailboat, a small car-top dinghy that became so popular among the masses that the boat has its own competition class in the Summer Olympics. But Kirby began his career as a journalist, where concision is the mark of good writing; and he intends to craft his induction speech with the same gimlet eye he used as an editor at The Montreal Star newspaper back before designing sailboats became his full-time career.
"Obviously I want to say something earth-shattering, but I don't know what it's going to be yet. I guess acknowledging luck would be part of it. And I like the line that something good is bound to happen if you get old enough," Kirby said. "I think if you can really think of some good words and really keep it short, that's more impressive than rambling on."
Given his long, varied and distinguished career, Kirby could be forgiven for rambling on.
A native of Ottawa, Canada, Kirby was born into sailing. He and his older brother, David, learned the sport from their father, also David, and were regular members of his father's racing crews when Bruce was just six years old.
More InformationFact box
"I like to joke that I was late getting started because I was born in January and didn't get started sailing until June," Kirby said.
When he reached his teens he began racing International 14s, two-man boats named after the boat's overall length (14 feet). He'd already been dabbling in the rudiments of boat design, using wooden blocks as practice.
"I'd get a chunk of three-by-six or two-by-four. In the beginning they were pretty crude, but by the time I got into my teens I was making pretty nice sailing models," Kirby said. "But being up in Canada, in Ottawa, 800 miles from salt water, I never dreamed that I could follow yacht design as a profession."
He worked as a newspaper journalist starting in the early 1950s, first at The Ottawa Journal and later at The Montreal Star. During his time as editor of that paper's international desk, he covered such huge stories as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
Kirby sailed for Canada in the Summer Olympics in 1956, 1964 and 1968, placing eighth among 24 racers in 1956, his best Olympic finish. In 1958 he designed his first production sailboat, the Mark I International 14. Twenty-eight were ultimately made. Two years later he unveiled the Mark II, of which 85 were eventually sold. Three years after that came the Mark III, which sold 185 units. Kirby's prospects as a designer looked sanguine when he went to cover the 1964 America's Cup for The Montreal Star. In Newport, R.I., he was approached by the publisher of One-Design Yachtsman, a fledgling magazine that later became Sailing World.
"They needed an editor. They had heard that there was this guy up in Canada who was a very serious sailor and also a newspaper guy," Kirby said.
It was the perfect job for a sailing enthusiast and word-lover. "I spent 10 years as editor of that magazine," said Kirby, who moved to Rowayton with his wife, Margo, and their two daughters in the late 1960s. "(When I started), I was designing boats as an amateur. As editor of the magazine, they encouraged me to do this moonlighting. It was when I was editor of the magazine that I did the Laser."
Kirby was asked by a friend to design a small, light car-top dinghy. He created the Laser during 1969 and 1970, and rolled it out at a regatta hosted by the Playboy Club at Lake Geneva. "That was kind of neat. It was a special regatta put on for boats costing under $1,000. We thought that'd be a good place to introduce it. And it was an immediate success."
The Laser was formally introduced to the buying public at the New York Boat Show in January 1971. It sold well from the beginning, and to date has sold more than 210,000 units, far and away the best-selling design among Kirby's more than 60 sailboat creations.
"The problem was building them fast enough," Kirby said. "The boat became very international very quickly, with plants in California, Japan and Australia. Soon I was making three times as much in Laser royalties as I was getting paid by the magazine."
That precipitated his move into full-time boat design in 1975. "I kind of hated leaving the publishing game because I really did like it," he said.
Kirby enjoyed watching the Laser competition in the recent Summer Olympics, and had the added interest of rooting for Rob Crane, a Darien resident and member of the Noroton Yacht Club who competed in the competition. Crane finished 29th out of 49 participants.
Kirby still sails every Sunday out of Noroton Yacht Club in Darien, but his vessel of choice nowadays is another one of his creations -- the Sonar, a 23-foot boat that is used by sailors of all ages and skill sets, including participants in the Paralympics.
"I couldn't sail a Laser now. I'm not nearly quick enough or agile enough," he said.
He still has a hand in designing boats, though. A few years ago he designed a boat for author and friend Nathaniel Philbrick, a Nantucket resident who won the 2000 National Book Award for his maritime history "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex." And other friends and acquaintances continue to inquire about tapping his expertise.
"I may saddle up again," Kirby said.
Cameron Martin is the Sports Editor/Managing Editor of the Norwalk Citizen.