Sailing with Superman

It’s November 9, 1999, and you’re sailing aboard USA-53, Young America, in the second round robin of the Louis Vuitton Cup. Conditions are a little breezy, maybe 18-20 knots of air with fairly large seas off Auckland, New Zealand. The boat seems capable and the crew is 100-percent dialed-in. But then a curious thing happens: In the midst of a tack, while pushed up by the

It’s November 9, 1999, and you’re sailing aboard USA-53, Young America, in the second round robin of the Louis Vuitton Cup. Conditions are a little breezy, maybe 18-20 knots of air with fairly large seas off Auckland, New Zealand. The boat seems capable and the crew is 100-percent dialed-in. But then a curious thing happens: In the midst of a tack, while pushed up by the seas, USA-53 breaks. Mercifully, the boom jams into a section of the cockpit and acts like a brace, preventing the boat from going fully taco-ed, but the damage is done and the command is given. Abandon ship. You leap, as does everyone around you, and madly tread water as you wait for the boat to sink. But, miraculously, it doesn’t go down. You rub the confusion from your eyes and look again: there’s someone by the mast, battling to get the sails down. Alone.

Later, you find out that dropping sail and reducing the boat-breaking loads they were producing was the only thing that kept the boat from sinking. But who stayed behind to make the save?

Meet Jerry Kirby, part man, part machine, and 100% big kid. Share a watch with him and you’ll be laughing so hard your gut hurts. Join him in the gym and he’ll burn you off fast. Paddle out to a surf break and you'll find him ripping it up like a fiend. Find yourself looking at a spinnaker peel at 0300 in 35+ knots of air, and there are precious few individuals that you’d rather see emerging from the companionway than Kirby. Or, find yourself clinking cocktail glasses at a high-class function and Kirby, in perfect-gentleman mode, will be the life of the party — just ask actress Salma Hayek. Kirby rescued her at the christening party for Puma’s new Volvo Open 70, il mostro, when her first few swings with the bubbly bottle weren’t so hot. And that’s not even to mention the snowboarding, ice hockey, or any of his other high-adrenaline pursuits.

You’re imaging a self-absorbed egotist, perhaps, but you’re dead wrong. Meet Jerry Kirby at a regatta and he’s one of the most approachable “rock stars” imaginable, taking time to ask about your own sailing and adventures, rather than “boring” you with his own tales of glory. Kirby, 52 and married, has two sons, both of whom are also strong athletes. His older son, Rome, 19, is a stand-out bowman in his own right, regularly crewing on big-name maxi boats around Newport, and Puma chose him to serve as an alternate for this year’s Volvo. The younger son is into motorcross, another of Jerry’s interests. The work hard/play hard theme runs strong.

In sailing, as in most sports, there are those who do, and those who talk. Kirby falls in the former camp, having sailed in six America’s Cup’s, two Whitbread/Volvo’s, at least a dozen Bermuda Races, and six or seven Transpacs, just to reel off a few events. But unlike many other “doers” who tend to get salty – perhaps crotchety – with age, or bitter with experience, Kirby loves sailing with a rare intensity and passion. Never a bad word or complaint, instead just a can-do attitude and God help the man standing between Kirby and his task. He’ll be polite, but given what he has to work with—6’ and 180 pounds, with a grueling gym schedule—not necessarily gentle.

Now, when plenty of the sailors of his generation are content to go day racing, or they're keen to swap the carbon fiber for a comfortable cruiser, Kirby is preparing for his third Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), this time as Puma’s bowman and medic. I caught up with Jerry less than two weeks before il mostro and Team Puma were timed to leave the comforts of Newport, RI for their transatlantic delivery to the start of the 2008/2009 Volvo Ocean Race. I wanted to learn how a bowman’s role has changed with the advent of A-sails and sprits, and why he’s subjecting himself to the sheer punishment that only the VOR can serve up.

How many Whitbread/Volvo’s have you done so far?
This will be my third. I did the entire ‘97/’98 with Chessie Racing, and I did five of the legs on Pirates in the last Volvo.

How has the bowman’s job changed on around-the-world races since you’ve been participating?
I think it’s been changing since the 1960’s. Before, with the Volvo 60’s, you sailed with a crew of 12, so there was room for a few specialists. On the new Volvo 70’s, we sail with 10, so the bowman needs to have great all-around skills. With the Volvo 70’s, you’ll have four guys on deck at any time, and maybe you’re flying a kite, a main, and one or two staysails, so you need to also be able to trim and drive, of course, and do everything else in the rotation. But these days it also helps if you know medical skills, mechanical skills, rigging, and boatbuilding. This need has increased.

Can you tell me about what it was like to handle the bow on the older Volvo 60’s?
Ten years ago sailing on the Volvo 60’s was really intense and dangerous. There were no halyard locks, so the bowman had to go up the rig each time we set a kite and attach a strop between the rig and the head of the kite. Then, the halyard could be eased a bit so that all the load was on the strop. Then, we’d have to go up to remove the strop for a takedown. This process was dangerous and a lot of guys got hurt. It’s how Curtis Blewett almost got killed in the Southern Ocean.

On Chessie, we had a problem with the headfoil, so every time we raised a headsail we had to go up the rig and attach a shackle, which kept the foil from coming apart. Ricky Deppe and I split 330 trips up the rig on one leg – that’s 160 trips each. It kills the crew having to hoist you up there, so it was hard for everybody. Plus, you had poles that you had to deal with.

So do you prefer A-sails and halyard locks to S-sails and strops?
Yes – 100 percent! The progression to halyard locks was smart. It was just a matter of time until somebody got killed.

But the velocity of the new boats hasn’t made it any safer. If you’re up front and the bow gets stuffed [into a wave], you’d better be clipped on. The new boats are so much faster – they are ten times as dynamic, so the danger has shifted from a high-wire act with the pole to a situation where everybody on deck is in a dangerous spot, especially during sail changes. If you’re [doing a headsail change and] you’re the last guy in the line, you’re in the most dangerous position as there’s no headstay or pulpit to hold onto if the bow gets stuffed. With the new boats, when you’re working it’s dangerous for all players; the boats are that powerful.

Are there aspects of sailing with S-sails that you miss?
No, I really don’t miss those sails. You use a pole on sails that help you go deep, but if you pole-on, you’re sailing deep and slow. Without a pole on, you sail higher and faster. I love speed! It’s the progression of the sport, and of the sails.

What do you think about VO70’s as a class? Are they as exciting as advertised?
This is the best class that’s come along in ages – they are an amazing design. I can’t say enough good things about the design. They are 100-percent as exciting as advertised. They exceed the hype.

What are your thoughts on the new course? How do you think it will affect your job?
It’s funny you should ask about that – we’re just in the middle of taking a weather course. I think the new course will produce some extreme choices and hardships that the old course didn’t have. By the time we get to Rio, we’ll have a better spin on things.

Route wise, there are a million choices, especially on the leg from Qingdao to Rio – for instance, you could sail close to Hawaii and only cross a small section of the doldrums, or you could go further south. Plus, there will be really extreme conditions near China, as we’ll be sailing there in the dead of winter. And there’s not a lot of good weather data. I think you’ll see a lot of different strategies going on.

[As far as my job,] there will be a lot of sail changes. We’re in for a lot more days of sailing, and a lot of physical work for the whole crew.

Why are you doing another VOR, when you could be taking things a bit easier? Also, what does your wife have to say about it?
[Laughs] If you don’t love this race, you stay home! It’s too hard. There are guys who love the Volvo, and there’s everybody else. When the race ends, you’re physically and mentally spent; 100-percent shot.

[As for my wife] I figure that she’s put up with me this long… She’s really good about it. But I’m not sure she could handle having both Rome and me out there at once.

This race is really hard on the families. It’s a lot of stress. Everybody jacks up their life-insurance policies, and everybody is only one wave from being in the brine. And if you go into the brine, it’s basically a death sentence. Everybody knows: stay clipped on.

What aspects of the race are you the least looking forward to? Maybe a particular leg that sounds especially foreboding?
The food, and the lack of sleep! You push hard in your training to get used to suffering again. It’s all hard work, quite a bit of suffering, but you take it one watch at a time and push as hard as you can.

What aspect are you the most excited about?
The first time we get that thing [il mostro] over 40 knots! Also, I want to get back into the Southern Ocean. It’s a great place to sail.

Do you think this will be your last Volvo? What is your wife saying about it?
It’s a pro sport, so I don’t think that I’ll get to make that decision. You either get the call or you don’t. By next June I might be feeling differently, but if I felt great and I get the call, there’s a good chance that I’d go.

Can you tell me about the time that you jumped off the Newport Bridge?

[Laughs] Well, it was back in the ‘70’s in Newport, so there were less people in town. I was probably 19 or 20 years old, and I was running late for a race. The boat was down by Rose Island, so I had my girlfriend drop me off on the bridge. I climbed down as far as I could, and when the boat got close, I let go. It was probably about 100 feet – it wasn’t from the center of the bridge span [but off to the Newport side]. I don’t have a death wish – I just wanted to get to the race!

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Posted: August 14, 2008



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