Volvo Ocean Race - Puma's Jerry Kirby showing no signs of stopping
by Riath Al-Samarrai on 4 May 2009
It's around midday on Friday and the mist is making its way across the rich suburbs of Newport, Rhode Island. Through the grey it's hard to see from one end of a gigantic striped lawn to the other, tougher still to fully make out the mansions obscured on the far side. We're looking for Jerry Kirby.
Jerry Kirby grinding onboard PUMA Ocean Racing in the Southern Ocean, on leg 5 of the Volvo Ocean Race, from Qingdao to Rio de Janeiro Rick Deppe/PUMA Ocean Racing/Volvo Ocean Race © http://www.volvooceanrace.org
Our car pulls up at the crossroads where Webster Street dissects Bellevue Avenue. Some of the enormous buildings here are five stories high and more, with upwards of 30 rooms, the surrounding grounds usually covering several acres. One stunning property is undergoing some kind of work. A sign on one of the wood panelled walls reads 'Kirby Perkins Construction', but the house is empty.
We drive further down the street. It's the kind of place mere millionaires might find too expensive, though the moniker 'Millionaires' Row' is applied to this and several other streets in Newport. There are tens of these stately manor-like buildings, many dating back to the 19th century and earlier when barons of industry thrived in the absence of an income tax. In today's world many of the properties are worth well in excess of $10 million.
Rock Cliff is among the grandest, facing out to the ocean on one side. We conclude our trip up the driveway just as Jerry is coming round from the back garden.
'What d'ya reckon?' he laughs as we approach.
He is wearing a black t-shirt with a Kirby Perkins Construction logo on the chest and dusty work boots. Jerry has worked on more than 60% of these lavish properties and is the man the millionaires turn to. 'I love working on these old buildings,' he adds before explaining the structural difficulties of sea-facing doors.
'It's crazy isn't it?' he says looking at the enormous mansion ahead of him. 'What am I doing here?'
Welcome to the other life of Jerry Kirby: part-time sailor chosen for some of the world's best boats; part-time CEO chosen to work on some of the world's best homes.
It's not a scenario that was easily reached.
The Kirby family history in Newport runs five generations deep, but they were not from the upper crust. His father, who served in Korea, worked in insurance and had seven children, while his grandfather, a veteran of the Second World War, ran tug boats off Newport. 'We weren't quite blue collar,' Jerry says. 'We were around the middle class, but not rich.'
When he started in sailing, it was not straightforward for him to get a ride. 'It was a very Corinthian sport then, with affluent people, guys who had their clubs,' he says. 'A lot of guys around here, you know the kind, they'd ask ‘what does your father do for a living?' You were a boat captain or a friend of the owner if you wanted to go sailing.
'You had to break into that circle. It was tough.' He showed up repeatedly until people let him work on the boats. They eventually relented and he excelled.
He had contributed to a winning America's Cup team by 14, won it again in 1992 and has been involved in five others. This is his third attempt at the Volvo Ocean Race and, at 53, is still asked by the world's leading skippers to be their bowman. 'Man, I just love being on these boats,' he says. 'I'll stick around until some one tells me my old ass isn't up to it any more. I'll always be keen though.'
'Enthusiasm' is not a term that does justice to Jerry, one of the oldest men to survive at this level of the sport yet often likened to a big kid.
Tales about him have become legendary in sailing circles, like the one about him jumping off Newport Bridge, a 10-storie drop, to join a race. And there's the time in the 1999 America's Cup when his boat, Young America, cracked in half and the crew jumped in the water. He and Dave Tank ignored the orders for him to abandon ship and they saved the boat. He is often labelled as a daredevil, and just last week went motocross racing with his two 'knucklehead' sons, one of whom is a reserve for PUMA, the other a motocross champion.
His other passion is ice hockey - he went to college in New York in 1974 on a scholarship, eventually emerging in 1980 with a degree in English after getting bored of engineering and then pre-law - and his tackles are said to be pretty heavy. He sometimes plays down the 'crazy' suggestion, but today admits he has 'some strange wiring, maybe I don't have the self preservation button, but hey, I'm happy'.
It's a key part of his personality. 'You can't underestimate the power of being positive,' he says. 'Every time you think a negative thought you should put it in a negative jar, if you think positive put one in the positive jar. You want to get to the end of the day and make sure your positive jar has more in it. I tell that to all the guys that work for me. That applies to work, Volvo, sports, relationships. I love what I'm doing.'
It's one reason people in both spheres of his work love him. 'He's just a great, amazingly talented sailor and a great person to have on a boat,' says long-time friend and current skipper Ken Read. 'It's hard in a race like this where you are all stuck in the same space doing a very stressful thing. It's easy to get down on the situation, but Jerry just lifts people around him. I love the guy.'
It's a similar story at his day job. 'Jerry, he's just impossible not to like,' says Anthony, a sub-contractor who has known him for eight years. 'He just comes up and talks to the guys, tells stories, is always being positive. I only heard about the sailing he does a few years ago, but, yeah, it makes sense when you meet the guy. He's great to work with, he likes thing done right.'
It's a running theme in his life.
'My dad was like ‘work hard and it will all work out'. Man, he was a hard worker,' Jerry says. 'You look up ‘tough' in the dictionary and there was a picture of him.'
This morning Jerry was up at 0430 for a 90-minute gym session. 'This old body needs some help if it's going to get on one of those boats,' he says.
Like in sailing, getting started in construction wasn't easy. 'I started with a truck and some tools.' He learnt fast, being dropped in at the deep end when a construction head on a big job was sacked and Jerry, a carpenter at the time, ended up managing 250 people. 'It was like an MBA in project management,' he says. 'My thing is that you have to do a job well. I ended up doing all the stuff, bank requisitions, the lot. I made a tonne of mistakes, but it's like in sailing, you can make mistakes but if you repeat them too often you won't be around long.'
He obviously did not make many. Now Jerry and his brother-in-law, Tom Perkins, run a construction company that employs more than 90 people. It was upwards of 130 but the recession didn't slip by unnoticed. 'Devastated to do that,' Jerry says, shaking his head.
He says no job is 'too big or small', but it is the upper end of the scale that shows how their company is regarded by the well-heeled. 'Bite off more than you can chew,' the company motto goes. 'And chew like hell.' Their reputation for quality is shown by the list of mansions he has worked on.
He gets in his car and takes us on a tour, switching talk between neo-classical buildings and the 'insane thrill' of putting your body through a round-the-world race.
We don't pass the property he worked on for Oscar-winning actor Nicolas Cage, but there are plenty of others. One was previously occupied by a man who died onboard the Titanic, another is worth $40 million. They have all commissioned Jerry large and small jobs and he just laughs. 'It's crazy,' he says. 'How did this all happen?'
He continues to juggle the two jobs, meaning he has missed a few legs in this race.
'I can't make Tom do all the work,' he laughs. 'But I don't want to disappear off the radar, I've got more miles left to go!'
In this race, his competitive nature has taken a bit of a bruising as Ericsson 4 has streaked away to a big lead, but Jerry, typically, is having a great time.