Bruce Kirby: On the Ottawa River

Published on November 2nd, 2021

Bruce Kirby has earned a significant place in sailing history, as a yacht designer, three-time Olympian and honored sportsman who has reshaped the sport of sailing. His story is now captured in the book, The Bruce Kirby Story: From the River to the Sea.

Beginning in Ottawa, Canada and progressing to the world stage, the memoir weaves through a remarkable life of adventure, artistry, powerful storms, nasty business, sweet success, memorable characters and family. Here is an excerpt:


Racing the family gaff-rigged sloop on the Ottawa River in the 1940s
Some of my earliest memories of sailboat racing involve sound and smell. Going to windward the crew of Velvet had to keep their heads below deck when not working, so between tacks we lived with the splash of the bow wave and the wonderful odors of manila line, cedar and oak.

Velvet had a bad habit, and the best way to explain it is to describe the final minutes of a race that took place after we had sold her to friends at our sailing club and were competing against her in Kelpie.

It was an evening race and the wind was dying towards the windward finish off the club. We had been ahead in Kelpie, but as the breeze got softer our old boat, sailed by the new owners, was gaining on each tack.

Because she was much lighter and accelerated faster we had not been covering her tack for tack, and as we approached the line on port, with the wind now down to a whisper, she began to tack onto starboard three or four lengths away, off our lee bow, and she appeared to have us. David and I were telling the skipper we wouldn’t be able to make it across Velvet’s bow, but Pop stayed on course and said, “We’ll be OK, watch what happens when she comes out of the tack.”

Velvet filled away on starboard, but instead of aiming at our bow and forcing us to tack away or make a huge dip around her stern that would have meant another tack to the line, she kept right on turning off to port and did a complete circle to leeward. Then David and I remembered that there was something about the design that made her fall away from the wind if she slowed below a certain speed.

In extremely light air, as long as she kept moving she was fine, but that last tack had dropped her below the magic number and she spun off to leeward. Pop had identified the critical circumstances even though he wasn’t at her helm, and the old Velvet didn’t let him down. We won the race, and Velvet recovered the necessary steerage way in time to finish second.

For more information on the book, click here.

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