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Eight Bells: Bruce Kirby, Creator of the Laser

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The late Bruce Kirby

The late Bruce Kirby

With 2021 drawing to a close, Laser sailors find themselves reflecting on both their class’s 50th anniversary and the passing of the man who made it all possible: Canadian designer, sailor and sailing journalist, Bruce Kirby.

Kirby, who died this past July at the age of 92, started sailing competitively at an early age and in many ways began designing of necessity in order to sail the kinds of boats he felt he needed as a member of the International 14 developmental dinghy class. In the 1960s Kirby also represented his native Canada in the Finn and Star classes in multiple Olympics and worked as a marine journalist for a publication called One Design Yachtsman, now Sailing World.

A fleet of Lasers blast off the starting line at the 2019 Hempel World Cup Series

A fleet of Lasers blast off the starting line at the 2019 Hempel World Cup Series

It was while he was working for One Design Yachtsman in 1969 that he drew “the million-dollar doodle,” a sketch bearing a remarkable resemblance to the final design of what eventually became the Laser, while discussing a possible easy-to-cartop boat with his friend Ian Bruce.

After a brief pause, the 13ft 9in dinghy (originally called the “TGIF” and then the “Weekender” before being given a name that was thankfully “more modern and cutting edge”) went into production in 1970, eventually making its debut at the New York Boat Show in early 1971, where it quickly became a sensation.

A designated Olympic class since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the boat is currently available in three iterations: the original “standard” Laser; the Laser Radial with a slightly smaller rig typically raced by women; and the Laser 4.7 with an even smaller rig for children. More than 220,000 have been produced over the years, and in 1997 it was inducted into the American Sailboat Hall of Fame, where it joined such iconic boats as the Hobie 16, Sunfish, International Optimist Dinghy and J/24.

Despite a somewhat ugly trademark dispute only recently resolved between Kirby and a number of the boat’s builders, it’s safe to say that even in this age of beach-cat racing and full-foiling monohulls, the Laser remains as popular as ever, with the boat slated to make yet another Olympic appearance in 2024.

Other Kirby designs include a pair of America’s Cup 12-Metres, Canada I and Canada II, the San Juan 24, a series of “Kirby” mid-size PHRF and MORC racers, the Ideal 18 and the 23ft Sonar, the latter purportedly one of Kirby’s favorites. If life is measured by the number of other lives we’ve touched, it would be hard to imagine a fuller life than the one led by Bruce Kirby.

October 2021

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