The family’s wealth all but evaporated during the economic downturn, leaving the Kirbys with a 10 bedroom house, lots of boats, and virtually no choice but to sail for the kids. “You just grow up with it; it was like asking someone if they remembered learning to speak, ”Kirby told Nautical Quarterly in 1982.
He followed his father, cruising small boats on the Ottawa River in Canada’s fleeting summers, and devouring copies of Yachting magazine in winter. The best small boat sailors of the time drove international 14er, two-person boats, which were mostly built according to construction specifications in the house or in the garage. Mr. Kirby began traveling and collecting trophies in class.
If his first love was sailing, his second was journalism. Lung disease kept him out of college, and through his father’s connections, when he was 20, he became a reporter for the Ottawa Journal for $ 25 a week (that’s about $ 290 in Canadian money today).
His sailing skills led him to report on a deep sea sailing yacht in Europe. He moved to The Montreal Star, joined the copy desk, but also reported on the America’s Cup. In 1965 he went to Chicago to become editor of One-Design & Offshore Yachtsman.
Not far from sailing, Mr. Kirby qualified for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia in the one-handed Finn class. He went on to sail in the same class at the 1964 Games (in Tokyo) and the two-person Star class at the 1968 Games (centered in Mexico City).
He developed his designs with intuition and from reading Norman Skene’s “Elements of Yacht Design”. His I-14 designs were stepping stones for the laser, which in turn opened doors and earned him a number of design assignments, including one for a yacht called Runaway, Canada’s 1981 entry into the Admirals Cup international competition. Runaway brought him to a global stage.
Then came Canada I, the 1983 America’s Cup Canadian, and its design took Kirby’s reputation to new heights.