The Kirby Legend

It’s rather depressing at just how fast the festive season creeps up on us. In my view, the summer has only just finished and I’m not done with it yet. I can still fondly remember paddleboarding just a few weeks ago on the Yaverland Beach in the late summer evenings with the dog leaping over the breaking waves and my son proving beyond all doubt that he’s cool and i’m not. I look like a penguin on a paddleboard. Style isn’t my forte. But now the night’s have drawn in and relentless blooming Christmas is upon us all and the utter terror that is ‘present buying’ or ‘gifting’ as the yanks say, is looming large into focus.

©Dick Enersen

Well dear reader, let me take the stress away from you courtesy of my new friend Mark Smith from Norwalk, Connecticut who has put together a quite brilliant memoir on the legend that was Bruce Kirby.

Famed as the designer of the Laser – and for that reason alone, someone who deserves my personal respect, Kirby’s life in and around yachting was fascinating. After his death there were fabulous obituaries and long-held sailing memories written by people that really knew him describing a life engrossed in the very heart of our wonderful sport. The stories of Kirby’s life are legendary and Mark Smith has collated them beautifully in this memoir after extensive interviews with the great man himself. It’s a must-buy for Christmas 2021.

Mark has very kindly shared with me some excerpts that he is happy for me to publish for your delight and the eagle-eyed amongst you will have seen the advert on my homepage and around the website for this terrific book.

You can buy it on Amazon, in fact you MUST buy it, and in doing so you will not only be getting the ultimate Christmas ‘gifting’ idea but you will also be supporting a simply fabulous nautical scribe who has penned the stand-out sailing book of 2021.

Here’s a couple of brilliant excerpts to whet your appetite:

From Short Takes chapter…meeting Uffa Fox

Uffa spent most of his life in the Cowes area of England and he was a hero of mine. I had never met him until 1958, when we were racing International 14s at Cowes and someone mentioned his name. I said, “Boy, I’d like to meet him!” Pointing behind him, one of the British Fourteen sailors said, “You want to meet Uffa Fox? I know him well. As a matter of fact he lives right there.”

Uffa Fox with HRH The Duke of Edinburgh at Cowes Week ©PA

The sailor left and in a short while I saw him walking with Uffa out of his home. He was easy to recognize and he was dressed up for some kind of occasion, but one part of his sartorial preparation was incomplete. He approached and as I put out my hand to introduce myself I said, “Hello sir. I’m Bruce Kirby and your fly is open.” Without batting an eye, he came back with, “A dead bird can’t fall out of the nest.”

There were many, many stories about Uffa, and one I remember was when Uffa was a Sea Scout Master and taught young English boys sailing and seamanship. The 25-foot sailboat he used was similar to an open rescue boat and held about 10 kids. After departing with the boys for what their parents thought was a weekend sailing camp, he decided instead to sail across the English Channel and up the Seine to within a few miles of Paris. When the parents learned of this, they were understandably furious, but he casually shrugged it off. He was the kind of guy you couldn’t press too much; he was sort of impenetrable.

During that 1958 regatta, Uffa joined us for a few of our parties. He was married three times and his third wife was French. She didn’t speak English and Uffa did not speak French. His wife’s daughter hung out with them and she was bilingual, so I guess it worked out. One night we were having a Hell of a good party and Uffa was singing songs to us and having a grand old time. His wife kept pulling on his arm because she wanted to go home. Finally he turned around to her and said, “Relax-ay-vous!” After that bilingual tour de force, he stayed on till the party ended.

From Short Takes chapter… sailing with Ted Turner on American Eagle

I sailed a number of races with Ted Turner in 1970 on American Eagle, which was a converted 12-Meter that Ted beefed up for ocean racing. Some of the regular crew and I talked him into taking the boat to Chicago and sailing the Chicago to Mackinac Race.

It was a challenging race, which started off in light air downwind. Up near Travis Bay it switched quickly into the north and blew very hard. It rained, it hailed and it was cold. As we reduced sail dramatically, there was Ted up in the bow making headsail changes. There was nothing he would ask you to do that he wouldn’t do himself.

©Sports Illustrated

 That night in the very cold water of Lake Michigan he was in the bow again when we changed down to a smaller headsail as the wind continued to increase. We were also using the roller furling system of the mainsail to reduce sail. It had a big crank handle and again Ted, without asking anyone else to do it, was on the handle cranking reefs into the main until we realized we didn’t really need the main at all. We changed down to a storm trysail. I had never been on a boat when we needed a storm trysail before. It was pretty interesting. But the boat handled well considering the conditions. When we got settled down, he turned and said to me, “OK Kirby, it’s your watch,” and went below. I had two good guys up there with me and we continued to crash through this dreadful weather. All the time we could hear freighters going by and it was pretty scary.

After an hour or so Ted poked his head up out of the companionway. The anemometer was on the aft face of the cabin, and as Ted turned to check the anemometer he turned to me and said, “God dammit Kirby, you’ve got to get more sail on this boat… it’s only blowing 25 knots!” Before I had a chance to say anything one of the crew fired back, “No, no Ted. It’s only on half scale. It’s blowing 50!” Ted said, “Oh,” and went down below again.

Fabulous stuff…now do the right thing…buy the book and enjoy it!

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