Sunday, May 15, 2016

Ian Bruce - A Lifetime of Experiments and Achievements in Sailing

Ian Bruce's memorial was early May at Royal St. Lawrence Y.C. I knew Ian, mostly through a work connection, but we also bonded over a love of the now Classic International 14 (although Ian had retired from 14's when I was racing them). In the late 1970's I saw him about twice a year when he was in Annapolis, and in the later years I touched base when he was up for the Annapolis Sailboat Show. Most of what has been written about Ian centers on the Laser; "Father of the Laser" being the typical moniker bestowed on Ian, but the Laser was only one part of what Ian, the designer, and Ian, the engineer worked at throughout his career.

Ian embraced emerging technologies to make the Laser a true one-design.

When Ian sold a bucketful of Laser's at the first New York Boat Show, he knew he had a winner but he wasn't satisfied. Ian set to work to make this class a true one-design, in every aspect. He wrote a very detailed construction manual so there was no leeway on how international manufacturers were to build the Laser (and this construction manual seems to be the only recognized IP in the current dispute between Bruce Kirby and Laser Performance). Ian didn't like the variation in the Laser sails so he, Steve Haarstick, and Jack Lynch formed Chesapeake Cutters, which was the first company to computer cut sails (using the Gerber Cutter and this is where I come in; I was production manager of the cutter operation). Ian didn't like the variation in the wood blades for the Laser so he developed, with an English company, a method to make them from expanded, self-skinning urethane foam using bronze molds with steel rods as reinforcement. When it came to making parts for the Laser more reproducible consistently, Ian was an early adopter of emerging technologies. The current term, SMOD, Single Manufacturer One-Design, came well after introduction of the Laser but credit to Ian Bruce in his drive to keep seeking out and then implementing the manufacturing technology needed to achieve identical dinghies.

Ian was a project guy.

Ian was happiest when he was up to his elbows in a project and the projects he chose were usually pushing the limits. In the 1970's nobody had built a production two-man dinghy at 64 kg (140 lbs.) in glass; the lightest dinghy going before the Tasar was around 90 kg. (The Tasar was designed from the Aussie NS-14 which was built in plywood at that time.) Ian went with full foam core and light skins, a relatively new technology, to achieve the very lightweight Tasar. When Ian did a keelboat, the Laser 28, he decided to build it using resin infusion (which uses a vacuum to pull the resin through the cloth) in order to have a tighter control over the laminate. Problem was, at that time, no one had done a part as big as a 28-foot boat using resin infusion. The last time I saw Ian, in 2012, he had his latest project, an all-electric runabout that he was aiming to get to 30 knots. Ian was more than a boat-builder, even more than an industrial designer, he was, using U.K slang, a true "boffin".

After the Laser, Ian set the lofty goal to bring high performance dinghies to the World.

Once Ian had set the Laser onto the path for international success, he set out with another goal, to introduce the World to the Antipodean high-performance dinghy. Ian felt that the North American and English dinghy classes, compared to the Australian and New Zealand dinghies, were too heavy and too slow. So he partnered, first with Australian designer Frank Bethwaite to produce the Tasar and the Laser II, and then with New Zealander Bruce Farr to produce the Laser 28 and the singlehander MegaByte. Having a conversation with Ian Bruce in the late 1970's you knew you were in the presence of a true believer in the Australian/New Zealand lightweight, overpowered dinghy. Did he succeed? Yes and no. Certainly the classes mentioned, the Tasar, Laser II, Laser 28, and Megabyte never gained traction as big international classes with staying power but, by bringing the Antipodean designers, and their boats front and center to the sailboat world, Ian paved the way for Bethwaite Olympic class, the 49'er and helped push the International 14 into the Aussie skiff camp. In many ways the current crop of lightweight singlehanders coming to market, the RS Aero, the D Zero, the Melges 14 and others owe a large debt to Ian Bruce's pioneering efforts to introduce these type of dinghies 40 years ago.

Mention must be made of two other people that were an integral partners in Ian's success; Ward McKimm, the "money man" who had complete faith in Ian Bruce and was a major force behind the scenes, and Peter Bjorn, the "right-hand man" who was with Ian through both Laser Performance days and the Byte days.

And then there is an entire history of early Ian Bruce and the International 14's but that needs to be told in another post.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I always learn something cool from your blog! Thank you!