On a slate-gray day in September, 89-year-old Bruce Kirby leans against the pinstriped first-mate’s seat of Lulu as it motors in slow circles on Long Island Sound. Just outside the elegantly varnished cockpit, a fleet of small sailboats races by, its formation loose and shifting. Kirby follows the boats through a pair of binoculars. One, Jack, belongs to him; he’d be out there competing if it weren’t for his ailing back. But all of the boats are Kirby’s design.
Known as Sonars, Kirby drew their shape in 1979 with a day just like this in mind. The Noroton Yacht Club, Kirby’s home port in the suburban town of Darien, Connecticut, wanted a craft for its members to race—something nimble and fast, but also sturdy and well-behaved. The Sonar is a “one-design boat,” meaning its specifications and equipment are governed by strict rules to ensure that competing in one is a test of skill, not money. Sailing remains a sport of the wealthy, and left unchecked, they can take things to extremes. The superyachts of the America’s Cup have nine-figure R&D budgets, and crews who wear crash helmets and body armor to protect themselves at new limits of speed and performance. In contrast, a used Sonar can be had for under $10,000, and is stable enough that it’s been used by Paralympians since the 2000 games. Out on the sound that afternoon, 37 boats are vying for the Sonar North American Championship, with a few former Olympians among the skippers. The whole event is buoyed by Kirby’s presence.
Kirby is a world-class sailor and Olympian himself—he represented Canada in ’56, ’64, and ’68—but he is most famous as the designer of a slew of boats known for their swiftness, and also their clarity and simplicity. The epitome of his ethos was a blockbuster, one that defined his career and the course of sailing more broadly: the single-person racing dinghy known as the Laser.
Back on land, Kirby looks on as the competitors come off the water, windblown and skipping toward the toilets. A collision left one Sonar with a dinner-plate-size hole in its stern, and Kirby leans in for a closer look. The regatta’s press person asks him to do it again for the camera. During the awards ceremony, organizers call Kirby up to the stage for pictures with the winners, and the photographer makes everyone take off their shades, “except the rock star; he can leave his on.” The teasing is apt; among sailors, there are few bigger celebrities than Bruce Kirby. He comes by their affection honestly. His boats are a blast. “Who wants to design a slow boat?” Kirby likes to ask. “Or own one, for that matter.”
The wheel was a Neolithic invention. It appeared on the scene 5,000 or so years ago, part of a suite of advancements in agriculture. Sailboats came earlier. Australia was settled at least 50,000 years ago, and the first humans didn’t arrive on the continent by foot. Three thousand years ago, Odysseus himself was “sailing the winedark sea for ports of call on alien shores.” Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic, by sail, in 1492—marking the start of several hundred eventful years of wind-powered global travel. Only in the past 200 years have the steamship, internal-combustion engine, and jetliner erased the sailing ship’s primacy as a means of transportation. Sailboats themselves, however, have held on, not as necessity but as sport.
No surprise then that in 1969, when Bruce Kirby got a call from his friend, the Montreal-based industrial designer Ian Bruce, about drafting a new sailboat, the brief was for a piece of recreational equipment—a “car-topper” to go along with a line of outdoor gear (tents, cots, camping chairs) for the Hudson’s Bay Company retail chain. “I didn’t even know what a car-topper was,” Kirby recalls. The craft had to be easy to transport and rig in order to make it as painless as possible to get out on the water.
The dinghy wasn’t the first boat Kirby had dreamed up, but he wasn’t designing them full time. He was working as an editor at a sailing magazine, living (like now) on the Connecticut shore. As a designer, he was self-taught, nicking a copy of Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design, originally published in 1904, from a family friend and understanding, he estimates, about a third of it. But Kirby had “three-dimensional eyeballs,” as he describes it; he had no trouble envisioning the shape of a hull. And as a world-class racer of small boats, he knew what a fast one should feel like.
Kirby sketched on ruled paper as they talked. When they hung up, he brought it to his 7-foot drawing board and began to tinker. He knew he had to “get the numbers right.” His first consideration was what’s known as the prismatic coefficient, which defines the shape of the vessel. 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 made by its length, beam (or width), and draft (its depth). Most sailboats have a coefficient between 0.5 and 0.6, meaning about half that volume. If the prismatic coefficient is too high—if the boat is too fat—it will be slow, especially in light wind. But if the coefficient is too low—if the boat is too skinny—it will slice through the waves rather than ride up on top of them, or “plane.” A sailboat that planes well is fast, but more important, it’s fun. High up out of the water, wind and sail become more than the sum of their parts. Kirby settled on 0.55, a just-right number to make a well-balanced boat: fast but stable, neither too tippy nor too tubby.
But only if the sailor worked for it. Dinghies depend on “live ballast,” i.e., a person leaning, or “hiking,” out over the side. A big sail makes a boat zip, if its sailor can keep it flat. Basic physics says that their ability to do so depends on their weight, which of course varies from person to person. So, Kirby had a second number to choose: the ratio of sail size to the hull’s displacement, which depends on the weight of the boat plus its human. Kirby dialed in his dinghy to perform best with 180 pounds of flesh—in his words, “a good-size guy working like hell to go fast.” The decision was in part selfish; it described Kirby 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 against selling a boat at all, Kirby told Bruce to hold on to the design: “I put a little more oomph in the boat than you asked for. It’s going to be a pretty hot little boat if we ever have a chance to build it.”
The chance came soon enough. In October 1970, Kirby’s magazine planned a promotional regatta for sailboats that cost less than $1,000, to be held at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Kirby and Bruce built a prototype of the car-topper and rigged it for the first time the day of the race. They came in second place. The bend of the mast didn’t match the shape of the sail, so they recut the cloth that night and won the next day’s contest. The little boat was fast and looked it, with a low profile that kept sailors close to the water. Spectators tried to buy it right off the beach.
Back home, the friends began work on a second prototype, mailing plans back and forth across the border. They built it with an adjustable mast so they could play with different configurations. By December, it was ready for final testing. Doing laps on Lake Saint-Louis near Montreal, they moved the mast forward a few inches, cut its height, and took a foot off the end of the boom, looking for just the right feel. By the end of the cold weekend, they decided their hot little dinghy—13 feet, 10½ inches long—was ready for market. All it needed was a name. At a celebratory dinner, a sailing friend—a McGill University student—suggested it should be something youthful and international. “Why don’t you call it something like ‘Laser’?” he asked.
Ian Bruce had a small boatbuilding shop, and the men decided that he would manufacture the dinghy, while Kirby would receive royalties for the design. Bruce priced it at $695. At the New York Boat Show the next month, they collected orders for 144 Lasers. “We didn’t know what the hell was happening,” Kirby recalls.
There were societal factors at play. Postwar prosperity and the construction of new highways led to a boom in second-home ownership in the 1960s and ’70s. Many of those new residences were along lakes and reservoirs, and there were more of those too: Between 1933 and 1968, the Tennessee Valley Authority created more than 10,000 miles of new shoreline, while the Bureau of Land Management created 200 reservoirs. A new swath of the middle class could afford a lake house and, apparently, were ready for an inexpensive sailboat to go with it.
As intended, the Laser was cheap and easy to transport, rig, and bang into a dock. “From a technology standpoint, it’s a very simple boat, and just a great, great boat to learn how to sail fast,” says Scott MacLeod, a sailor at the Noroton Yacht Club who twice won the North American collegiate Singlehanded Championship in a Laser—1983 and 1985—and topped out at seventh place in the Worlds.
Laser sailors first organized themselves into an international class in 1974, codifying Kirby’s design into strictly defined specs, and setting the craft on a path toward the Olympics, where it debuted in Atlanta in 1996. In the ’80s, the introduction of a smaller sail, known as the Radial, allowed lighter sailors to be competitive in heavy winds, and became the standard for women’s Laser racing. The sport of sailing is said to be in perpetual decline, but Laser racing has persisted. The 2018 Laser Masters World Championships, held in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, had 302 entries from 25 countries. (The apogee was the 1980 Laser Worlds, in Kingston, Ontario, a legendary event with 350 entries.) But there are also thousands of smaller weekend regattas, held everywhere from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, New York, to the Victoria Nyanza Sailing Club in Kampala, Uganda.
All told, more than 220,000 Lasers have been built by licensed manufacturers on five continents. (Ian Bruce sold his boatbuilding business in the 1980s. He died in 2016.) With the exception of alternative rigs with smaller sails, like the Radial, the Laser has hardly changed. There have been slight upgrades, each one documented and approved in a “construction manual” maintained by the International Laser Class Association, a kind of worldwide club of Laser sailors. Each Laser factory is audited for conformity.
“Because it’s such a one-design boat, it really comes down to the sailor,” says Sarah Douglas, a contender for the Canadian 2020 Olympic sailing team who recently came in sixth at the Laser Worlds. “It’s not equipment differences or sail differences; it comes down to what the sailor is able to do out on the water,” she says. “At the end of the day, you can’t blame your boat. It’s just you. It is all you.”
For decades, Kirby and his wife, Margo, lived in a house on Connecticut’s little Five Mile River, just upstream from where it empties into Long Island Sound. It had a deepwater dock out the back, and Kirby’s Laser—sail number 0—was laid out on the lawn. (It’s now at the Mystic Seaport Museum.) But recently they moved a few blocks away, to a more modest Colonial with a two-car garage. There are still moving boxes to unpack, yet the walls are already hung with old photos of Kirby sailing his designs, and boat models known as half hulls mounted on plaques. The Laser gets pride of place. Next to the front door, there’s a framed action shot of the “hot little boat” at its best: in the sail position known as a reach, with spray skirting off the bow as if it had a jet engine underneath.
The Laser’s simplicity makes it something like the platonic ideal of a sailboat, like a child’s drawing with a line and a triangle—but enabled by the postwar innovations of fiberglass (for its hull), aluminum (for its mast), and Dacron (for its sail). It is the sort of definitive and lasting design that comes around only rarely, such as the iPhone or five-pocket bluejeans. Except bluejeans and iPhones are constantly being tweaked, evolving along with human taste or ingenuity. Each change widens the aperture of possibility. The object does a new thing, looks a new way, or serves a new purpose.
But a Laser is a sailboat. It moves by the power of the wind along the surface of the water, a function that hasn’t changed in millennia. Granted, Lasers rarely go anywhere, except in circles. They satisfy a basic human desire for speed and competition, each high on the hierarchy of pleasures. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that among innumerable variations of small sailboats over all time, the precise design of the Laser has ridden up on the wave of history, and stayed there, for 50 years—and counting.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 Transportation issue of Popular Science.