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Eight Bells: Bruce Kirby

Published on July 19th, 2021

Sailing legend Bruce Kirby passed away July 19, 2021. He was 92 years of age.

Bruce was a newspaper man in Ottawa and Montreal before he became a yacht designer. A competitive sailor in International 14 dinghies from age 15, his focus was on making the boats faster. After being beaten in a regatta at Cowes in heavy wind, he drew the Kirby Mark I on a piece of shelf paper. It was fast upwind in a breeze. He sold 30 of the Mark I.

Untrained, Bruce began designing by observing. “I had a copy of Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design. If you can understand 50% of what’s in that book, you can design a boat. Design isn’t brain surgery. We should always pretend that it is, but it’s really not.”

Having made that modest disclaimer, he grants that designing a vessel that is compatible with two disparate elements – air and water – is, in fact, a challenge. There were seven versions of the Kirby International 14 built: 739 boats total. “It was done seat of the pants,” he had explained. “No testing. It was all empirical. Each new boat was a take-off on the old one.”

In 1964, Bruce moved to Finns and made the Canadian Olympic team. He didn’t quit his day job. By the mid-1960s, he had become editor of One Design Yachtsman (now Sailing World). He jumped into a Star boat in 1968, and again represented Canada in the Olympics.

Although globally recognized as the designer of the 13’-10” Laser Olympic sailing dinghy, of which over 215,000 have now been built, his design career includes a multitude of successful classes such as the Sonar, Kirby 25 and Ideal 18, America’s Cup Twelve Meters; production racer/cruisers like the San Juan 24 and 30; offshore racing boats such as the Admiral’s Cup 40’ Runaway; a number of innovative cruising designs; and a variety of plywood Sharpie designs for home construction.

A member of Noroton Yacht Club (Darien, CT) since 1970, Bruce has been inducted into the Canadian and US Sailing Hall of Fames and Order of Canada, the International Yacht Racing Hall of Fame, the International Laser Class Association Hall of Fame, the Canadian International Fourteen Foot Dinghy Hall of Fame, and the City of Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame.


Note: This has been updated to correct the date of passing as July 19. It had been July 18.

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