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Interview with Bruce Kirby – the designer of the Laser - Part One

by Rob Kothe Sail-World.com on 11 Nov 2009
Laser Worlds 2008 - Tom Slingsby C & C Images
Canadian Bruce Kirby designed the Laser in 1969, in collaboration with industrial designer and boat builder Ian Bruce. 50 years on the numbers of Lasers built is closing on 200,000.

Now 80 years old, Ottawa born Bruce Kirby lives in Connecticut as he has for all of those 50 years, and we did this in-depth interview with him to discover the real story about the Laser – what was the design brief, was it really drawn as a 'first sketch' on a table napkin in a restaurant?

Bruce Kirby. ‘I started sailing regularly as a crew with my father when I was six years old. I sailed before that, but my brother was a little older than I was and he and I were regular crew racing with my dad when I was six and my brother was eight. It’s been a while.

'I raced the International 14s from the time I was a young teenager and that’s a development class; you can design within a measurement rule. Because I’d done this model yacht carving sort of stuff for years I thought, damn it all I’d really like to try to design myself an International 14.

'Another friend and I took a bunch of measurements off several known 14s, boats that we knew the capabilities of, to get an idea of what these things looked like on paper, because if you see something in three dimensions there’s no way to do calculations on them and so on.

'We sketched up three or four well known International 14s and he actually designed his boat before I designed mine.

'Funnily enough his and mine were quite different from each other, but that was my Mark One 14 and it did pretty well; we won regattas.

'A couple of years later one of my owners said ‘look, if you want to design a Mark Two version I’ll buy the first one.’ So I did my Mark Two three years later after the Mark One, and it took off from there.

'I was working against guys like Ian Proctor and Uffa Fox in the very early days and Englishmen started buying my boats. The legendary Stuart Morris won his last Prince of Wales in one of my boats.


'After completing my education in my home town Ottawa, I worked for the Ottawa Journal for six years and then I worked for the Montreal Star for eight years as an editor. I started there in 1956, the year I sailed a Finn in the Melbourne Olympics and again in Tokyo in 1964 (switching to the Star Class in the 1968 Mexico Olympics)

'In 1965, One Design and Offshore Yachtsman (which is now called Sailing World) in Chicago offered me a job at about twice the pay that I was getting at the Montreal Star so off we went to Chicago for four years, before we relocated to Connecticut.

'I kept designing dinghies while I worked for the magazine and it wasn’t until 1975 that I felt confident in leaving the magazine to go full time into yacht design.

'I don’t have formal naval design training. There are some damned good books and from the time I was a little kid, I used to carve models and sail them.

'I’ve got one sitting in front of me (beside the Laser sketch) that I made when I was 14 years old which is still one of my favourite hull shapes.

'We used to race them up in Ottawa, so I’ve been conscious of hydrodynamics in a very amateur way for a very long time.

'Then I got hold of a book called Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design and that’s the bible, even for professionals.

'I understood about half of it when I was using it but it teaches you all the essentials. I don’t claim to be a naval architect; I claim to be a yacht designer. It’s treated me well.

'The Laser started with a phone conversation in 1969. I was here in Connecticut and Ian Bruce called me from Montreal. He was an industrial designer before he was a boat builder and he had a contract to do a bunch of products for an Outdoor Equipment Company, and one of the things they wanted was a car topper sail boat.

'So he called me and said ‘how about doing a car top sail boat for these people?’ He’d warned me that it might never happen and they might not go ahead with it.'

In part 2 of this interview you will discover more about the car topper, then what happened at the Playboy Club and how the Weekender became the Laser.

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