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Laser designer and Int 14 sailor pays tribute to Geoff Smale

by Bruce Kirby on 14 Apr 2011
Geoff Smale and ralph Roberts (NZL) sailing Atua Hau to victory in Cowes at the 1958 Price of Wales Cup SW

Canadian sailor and designer Bruce Kirby,better known as the designer of the highly successful Laser class was one of those who competed on the 1958 Prince of Wales Cup, along with Geoff Smale who died last weekend in a light aircraft accident.

Here he pays tribute to his old friend:

Geoff Smale was the man who put New Zealand sailors on the map and on its way to becoming the smallest country with the biggest influence on international sailing. In 1958 when the North American and European sailing communities thought of N.Z. as an island somewhere off the east coast of Australia (and weren’t even sure where Australia was) Geoff and five other Kiwis descended on Cowes with their International 14s and showed the rest of us how to get these lively thoroughbreds through the water.

The team racing that year was won by Canada, but only because both Geoff’s boat and Ian Pride’s (Ian was also lost in an flying accident many years ago) had breakdowns in the 30 knot winds of the final race. But there was no way we were faster in any wind above 10 knots, especially upwind. The following week Geoff and his outstanding shipmate Ralph Roberts, sailed away from the rest of us in the 68 boat fleet that hit the line for the 15-mile Prince of Wales race, and took back to New Zealand the most prestigious trophy in dinghy sailing at that time. And the fleet had one Olympic Gold Medal winner and at least two other Olympic sailors.

This experience in Cowes had a huge impact on my career, because I was so disturbed at being so grandly outclassed in heavy weather by the Kiwis, and Geoff in particular, that I returned to Canada and immediately designed my first boat. It was aimed directly at fresh air upwind efficiency, and in fact turned out to be pretty good in those conditions. But I never met Geoff on the race course again, although we crossed paths at many other events over the years.

The last time we were in touch perhaps illustrates more about Geoff Smale that that wonderful win off Cowes all those years ago. A very good friend from Victoria, B.C. who is now permanently in a high tech wheel chair as he fights the long battle with ALS, e-mailed me that he was going on a vacation to New Zealand. This was Dave Cook, or 'The Cooker' as he is known to his host of sailing friends. As his health has deteriorated Dave has gone from Olympic disabled sailor to radio controlled model yacht aficionado – even conceiving designs which friends help him build.


Well, it turns out that for many years Geoff Smale has been designing, building and very successfully racing model yachts at the world level. (what else?) So I tipped off Geoff that The Cooker was going to N.Z. and would like to see some of Geoff’s models. So Geoff, at the age of 86, practically adopted Dave Cook. He arranged for a wheelchair access van to pick up Dave and take him to the magnificent Smale home overlooking the ocean.

He spent an inordinate amount of time showing and explaining and demonstrating the absolute latest in sailing model development, and then he took Dave to two events, lending the stranger in the wheel chair his best IOM model to try his hand against the cream of the Kiwi model yachties.

And a month after The Cooker had left Auckland Geoff Smale - champion sailor, very successful businessman, self-taught sailmaker and technician, and about as close to a perfect human being as you will ever find, flew his hot little ultra light into the side of a mountain, in what is believed to be freak bad weather.

Bruce Kirby
Rowayton, Ct. USA

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