Ian Boyack Bruce
Born: June 7, 1933 (Kingston, Jamaica)
Died: March 21, 2016 (Hamilton, Ontario)
Ian Bruce, an accidental sailor, built the original Laser, which became one of the world’s most popular racing sailboats.
Mr. Bruce, who has died of cancer at 82, was an industrial designer who became a boatbuilder after taking up dinghy racing as an adult.
The idea for what became the Laser percolated in Mr. Bruce’s head for several years in the carefree 1960s. He had in mind the creation of an affordable sailboat that could fit atop a vehicle roof rack, much as a surfboard atop a California woody.
One day, he talked through his brainstorm while on a telephone conversation with his friend, Bruce Kirby, a journalist and boat designer. Mr. Kirby sketched while Mr. Bruce talked. Danish-born yachtsman Hans Fogh later prepared a sail.
They called the boat the Weekender (Mr. Fogh, a six-time Olympian who died in 2014, had even placed the acronym TGIF in large block letters across the top of the sail) and the craft first raced at the inaugural America’s Teacup Regatta on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin in 1970. A student later suggested the name Laser. The boat was an immediate sensation and the global fleet now numbers more than 200,000 boats in use in 140 nations.
With Mr. Bruce in control of all production, the identical boats proved to be a perfect vehicle for racing, as success would depend on a sailor’s skill, not a craft’s modifications. The Laser was introduced into Olympic competition in 1996.
Ian Boyack Bruce was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on June 7, 1933, to Pamela (née Robison) and William Douglas Boyack Bruce, a chartered accountant. At age 12, Ian was sent to boarding school at Trinity College School in Port Hope, Ont. He was head prefect in his senior year, as well as serving as school cryer (his shout of “Ye feast-making is begun!” heralded the annual Christmas dinner), a villain in the dramatic society’s production of “The Ghost Train,” and president of the debating society. His vice-president was Charles Taylor, the future philosopher and political theorist. Young Mr. Bruce also played football, cricket and squash, among other sports.
Mr. Bruce was studying engineering at McGill University in Montreal when he received a call from Kirk Cooper, a Bermuda-born friend. As recounted in a story in the Kingston Whig-Standard in 2009, Mr. Cooper was in desperate search for a sailing hand.
“The crew is sick and can’t sail with me,” Mr. Cooper said. “You’re from the islands, you must know how to sail. Ever raced?”
“Kirk,” he replied, “I’m a hell of a spear fisherman.”
Bored by sailing as a boy, he found renewed purpose on the water as a young man, making his debut in an International 14 at a regatta in the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire.
“It changed my life,” he told the Whig-Standard. “I fell head over heels in love with the sport.”
In 1960, Mr. Bruce represented Canada at the Olympics, competing in a red Finn-class dinghy. He finished third in the opening race and won the seventh and concluding race to finish seventh overall.
He returned to the Olympics in 1972, finishing 12th in the two-man Star class with future business partner Peter Bjorn.
In 1958, he married into what his brother-in-law once described as a “minor establishment family in Ottawa.” The union with Barbara Elize Brittain made the society pages of the newspapers in Montreal and Ottawa (the bride wore a floor-length gown of Chantilly lace over nylon tulle and satin; the couple honeymooned in the Laurentians), and the brother-in-law was Donald Brittain, who would go on to become one of Canada’s greatest documentary filmmakers.
Mrs. Bruce accompanied her husband to Italy for the 1960 Olympics. The couple had met at a yacht club while Mr. Bruce trained on borrowed boats. They sold their household furniture to finance his studies in industrial design at Syracuse University in New York and they sold a 14-foot dinghy to cover fees for the second year. He managed to win scholarships for a third year of studies. “Just as well,” she said. “We haven’t anything left to sell.”
Though he failed to earn a spot on the Olympic podium, Mr. Bruce claimed the prestigious Prince of Wales Trophy in 1967 and 1968 in winning an International Fourteen regatta in Bermuda.
Mr. Bruce was a longtime member of the Royal St. Lawrence Yacht Club in the Montreal suburb of Dorval. He first tested his Laser prototype on a blustery day in the fall of 1970 on the chilly waters of Lake Saint-Louis adjacent to the club.
Over the years, Mr. Bruce helped designed and build several types of sailboats, including the Byte, which was designed for sailors weighing from 100 to 145 pounds (about 45 to 65 kilograms). The Byte was used in the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010.
His Montreal-based company, called PS2000, built such sailboats as the Club 420, the Optimist, the 29er and the Byte. One of its divisions, Montreal Classic Boatworks, produced the Bruce 22, a 22-foot retro-styled 1940s launch.
Mr. Bruce was named to the Order of Canada in 2009 for his development of the Laser, as well as the Byte for younger sailors. He was inducted into Canada’s Boating Hall of Fame by the National Marine Manufacturers Association the following year.
Mr. Bruce died in Hamilton, Ont. He leaves two daughters, two grandsons, and a friend, Lynn Pyfrom Holowesko. He was predeceased by his wife, who died in 2006, aged 73.
Later this summer, Olympic sailors will compete on Guanabara Bay during the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Women will compete aboard Laser Radials for the third Games, while men will compete in the Laser for the sixth consecutive Olympics, a quadrennial reminder of Mr. Bruce’s boatbuilding legacy.
Ian Bruce (top) and Peter Bjorn with their Star sailboat prior to the 1972 Olympic regatta at Kiel, Germany.