Canadian/American sailor and designer Bruce Kirby passed away July 19, 2021 at age 92. Kirby was best known as the designer of the Laser sailing dinghy. Well north of 200,000 of the 13-foot, 10-inch Lasers have been manufactured. Kirby famously drew out the idea for the Laser on a sheet of loose-leaf paper in 1970 while talking on the phone to a boatbuilding friend, Ian Bruce. Kirby kept the sketch and it later became known as “the million dollar doodle.”
Born in Ottawa, Kirby worked on newspapers in his home town and Montreal and was an avid dinghy racer, competing in the International 14 class. After reportedly losing a race at Cowes in England, Kirby, who had no formal training as a yacht designer, drew his own plan for an International 14 that he called the Kirby Mark 1. He is said to have sold 30 of his Kirby Mark 1 designs early on. The boats went to sell a total of 739. Kirby is quoted as saying, “I had a copy of Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design. If you can understand 50% of what’s in that book, you can design a boat. Design isn’t brain surgery. We should always pretend that it is, but it’s really not.”
After years spent sailing International 14’s, Kirby switched to the Finn class and won a place on the Canadian Olympic team. In 1956, Bruce moved to the Finn class and made the Canadian Olympic team that year and in 1964. He switched again to the Star class in 1968 and once more sailed for Canada in the Olympics.
Other successful boats that Kirby designed include the Sonar, Kirby 25 and Ideal 18, America’s Cup Twelve Meters; San Juan 24 and 30. He designed offshore racing boats like the 40-foot Admiral’s Cup contender Runaway, various cruising designs, and plywood Sharpie boats for DYI builders.
Kirby was widely acknowledged by the sailing world for his contributions to the sport. He was inducted into both the Canadian and US Sailing Hall of Fame, the World Sailing Hall of Fame, the International Yacht Racing Hall of Fame, the International Laser Class Association Hall of Fame, the Canadian International Fourteen Foot Dinghy Hall of Fame, and the City of Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame. He was also awarded the Order of Canada, the nation’s second highest civilian award.
Kathryn Anne (Kathy) Dyer, a long-serving judge on international race committees and juries, died on December 13, 2021 in Hamilton, Ontario. She was 66. Dyer was well known as an international judge in the sail racing world. She was active for decades at the Royal Hamilton Yacht Club and has been cited as a mentor and instructor to many women in international sail racing.
South African-born sailor and yacht designer Rodger Martin died on May 14, 2021 in Boston. He was 73. In addition to his design work, Martin was also a writer and wrote several articles for Ocean Navigator and other outlets. He was born in Johannesburg in 1948. He worked for a mining company and also as a photographer and second unit cameraman in the South African film industry. Always passionate about sailing, he frequently left South Africa to crew on racing boats worldwide. Martin reportedly drew boat designs and made models long before he finally decided to become a yacht designer. He came to the US and enrolled in the Westlawn School of Yacht Design. He then worked for Robert E. Derecktor in Mamaroneck, N.Y. and rose to become chief designer at the firm. Some of Martin’s projects at Derecktor included the 88-foot motor yacht Titania, a 75-foot high-speed patrol boat for the U. S. Navy, and others. He later worked at Pedrick Yacht Designs where he was again chief designer. Projects at Pedrick included Nirvana, an IOR Maxi boat; production designs for builder Cheoy Lee, and Unfurled, a 70-foot cruising boat. In 1984 Martin launched his own design shop, Rodger Martin Yacht Designs in Newport, R.I. An early design was Airco Distributor, Mike Plant’s class-winning boat from the 1986 BOC singlehanded around the world race. Martin continued to design and write and sail from his Newport base.
Paul Erling Johnson
English sailor and boat designer Paul Erhling Johnson died on June 28, 2021 aboard his boat Cherub at the island of Carriacou. He was 83 years old. His motto in life was reportedly, “Never be afraid to be terrified.” Johnson was also quoted as saying, “Heavy weather doesn’t bother me or my vessels. In fact, I rather enjoy being scared. It makes one feel alive.” Johnson may have made as many as 30 transatlantic passages.
Johnson was born on a sailboat on the Hamble River in England and by age 16 had made a solo crossing of the Atlantic to the Caribbean, where he spent most of his life. Johnson and friend John Frith started a company in the 1970s called Venus Yachts to build Johnson’s designs. Frith was quoted in Bermuda’s The Royal Gazette as saying about Johnson’s boats: “His boat designs are still being bought and sold around the world. His boats are not a modern type but based on an old Norwegian design. We sailed 100,000 miles in ours, Moon….” At one point there were reportedly five new Paul Johnson designs match racing in Bermuda’s Hamilton Harbor.
A 2018 film documentary by Lucia Kašová, The Sailor (www.toxpro.sk/portfolio/sailor/) captured Johnson’s situation late in life. His exploits were also covered in various books and magazine articles.