Bruce Kirby, the man who designed the world’s most famous drift, the Laser, has passed away at the age of 92. Born in Canada, a multifaceted sailor and nautical journalist with an important career between Olympics (on the Finn, in 1956 and 1964), America’s Cup, and Admiral’s Cup, he revolutionized the sailing world starting in 1971 with, precisely, the Laser: 4.2 meters in length (3.81 at the waterline) by 1.39 in beam. The 7.06 sq. m. sail for the Standard version, which becomes 5.76 for the Radial and 4.70 for the 4.7. The Laser of Great Champions: Robert Scheidt, Tom Slingsby, Ben Ainslie, Paul Goodison just to name a few.
HOW THE LASER WAS BORN FROM THE PENCIL OF BRUCE KIRBY
The story of the Laser deserves to be told: it is a fascinating story of an ingenious boat born of chance. Here it is.
In 1969, Bruce Kirby received a call from his friend, Montreal industrial designer Ian Bruce, to design a new sailboat. The assignment was to match it with a new line of leisure equipment that could be carried on the roof of a car-a “car-topper”-to be paired with a line of outdoor equipment (tents, cribs, cribs, camping chairs) for the Hudson’s Bay Company retail chain. “I didn’t even know what car-topper was,” Kirby recalls. The boat had to be easy to transport and set up to make it as easy as possible to put on the water.
It was not the first boat Kirby had designed, but that was not his trade. He worked as an editor of a sailing magazine, living on the Connecticut coast. As a designer, he was self-taught, having learned the rudiments of design thanks to a copy of Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design, originally published in 1904, from a family friend and understanding, in his estimation, about one-third of it. But Kirby had “three-dimensional eyeballs,” as he describes it; he had no trouble imagining the shape of a hull. And as a world-class helmsman of small boats, he knew what could be done again.
Kirby drew in a ruled notebook as they talked. When they finished, she took him to her drawing table and began tinkering. He knew he had to “get the numbers right.” His first consideration was the so-called prismatic coefficient, which defines the shape of the craft. Is it a tub or a knife? Or, in the language of yacht design, is the hull “full” or “fine”? A rectangular barge has a prismatic coefficient of 1 because its hull entirely fills the prism formed by its length, width and draft (depth).
Most sailboats have a coefficient between 0.5 and 0.6, which means about half that volume. If the prismatic coefficient is too high, if the boat is too fat, it will be slow, especially in light winds. But if the coefficient is too low if the boat is too lean, it will cut the waves rather than climb them. A sailboat that glides well is fast, but more importantly, it is fun. Above, out of the water, the wind and sail become more than the sum of their parts. Kirby opted for the prismatic coefficient of 0.55, a barely good number to make a well-balanced boat: fast but stable, neither too full nor too fine.
But now comes the fun part. Drifts depend on “live ballast,” that is, a person leaning, or protruding, over the windward side. A large area sail only works if the sailor can keep the boat flat. Basic physics says that their ability to do so depends on their weight, which obviously varies from person to person. Thus, Kirby had a second number to choose from: the ratio of sail size to hull volume, which depends on the weight of the boat plus that of its helmsman. Kirby decided that for his drift the best performance should be achieved with 80 pounds of meat-in his words, “a good-sized guy working like hell to go faster.” The decision was partly selfish; Kirby described at the time.
Within a couple of weeks, Kirby had a sketch for Bruce. “He was in a bit of a hurry,” Kirby says. When Hudson’s Bay decided not to sell a boat at all, Kirby told Bruce not to give up on the project.
The opportunity came soon enough. In October 1970, Kirby’s magazine planned a promotional regatta for sailboats costing less than $1,000 to be held at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Kirby and Bruce built a prototype of the “rooftop boat” and rigged it for the first time on race day. They placed second. The curvature of the mast did not match the shape of the sail, so that night they adjusted the sail by reducing excess fat and won the next day’s race. The small boat was fast, with a low profile that kept the sailors close to the water. Spectators tried to buy it directly from the beach.
Back home, the friends began working on a second prototype. They devised the ultimate detachable mast without shrouds, so they could play with different sail sizes with ease. By December, it was ready for final testing. Taking outings on Lake Saint-Louis near Montreal, they decided to move the tree forward a few inches. At the end of the cold weekend, they decided that their little 4-meter drift was ready for market. All he needed was a name. At a celebratory dinner, a friend-a student at McGill University-suggested that it should be something young and international. “Why don’t you name it after ‘Laser,'” he said. And so it was.
Ian Bruce had a small boatyard, so they decided that Ian would manufacture the boat, while Kirby would receive royalties for the project. Bruce priced it at $695. At the New York Boat Show the following month, they took orders for 144 lasers. “We didn’t know what the hell was going on,” Kirby recalls. It was 1971.
As expected, the Laser was cheap and easy to transport, rig, and bring to a dock. “From a technological point of view, it’s a very simple boat, a great boat for learning to sail fast.”, says Scott MacLeod, a Noroton Yacht Club sailor who twice won the North American collegiate Singlehanded Championship in a Laser-1983 and 1985-and placed seventh at the Worlds. Today the Laser is the most widely used boat in the world; 220,000 have been built.
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