The family’s wealth all but evaporated during the Depression, leaving the Kirbys with a 10-bedroom house, many boats and, for the children, practically no choice but to sail. “You just grow up doing it; it was like asking someone if they remember learning to talk,” Mr. Kirby told Nautical Quarterly magazine in 1982.
He followed in his father’s wake, racing small boats on the Ottawa River during Canada’s fleeting summers and devouring copies of Yachting magazine in the winter. The best small-boat sailors of the time raced International 14s, two-person boats, each usually built in the home or garage according to design specifications. Mr. Kirby began to travel and rake in trophies in the class.
If his first love was sailing, his second was journalism. A lung ailment kept him out of college, and through his father’s connections he became, at 20, a reporter for The Ottawa Journal for $25 a week (the equivalent of about $290 in Canadian money today).
His knowledge of sailing brought him reporting stints from an ocean sailing yacht in Europe. Moving to The Montreal Star, he joined its copy desk but also covered the America’s Cup. He headed for Chicago to become editor of One-Design & Offshore Yachtsman in 1965.
Never far from sailing, Mr. Kirby qualified for the 1956 Olympics, in Melbourne, Australia, in the single-handed Finn class. He went on to sail in the 1964 Games (in Tokyo) in the same class and in the 1968 games (centered in Mexico City) in the two-person Star class.
He worked out his designs using intuition and from reading Norman Skene’s “Elements of Yacht Design.” His I-14 designs were steppingstones to the Laser, which in turn opened doors, bringing him a host of design commissions, including one for a yacht named Runaway, Canada’s 1981 entry in the Admiral’s Cup international competition. Runaway put him on a global stage.
Then came Canada I, the 1983 Canadian entry for the America’s Cup, and its design lifted Kirby’s reputation to new heights.