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Designer launches Pixel, a vessel for young sailors

By John Nickerson
Staff Writer

Soon after designing and building the Laser sailboat in 1970, Rowayton resident Bruce Kirby realized he had a "tiger by the tail."

In the years since, 182,000 Lasers have been sold, making it the most popular sailing dingy in the world.

After watching the prototype of his newest boat, the Pixel, put through its paces over the weekend, Kirby said he started to feel like he may have bagged another tiger.

The Pixel, designed for beginner and intermediate junior sailors, made its maiden voyage Saturday from the Norwalk Yacht Club on Wilson Cove.

A day later, the former Olympic sailor and America's Cup yacht designer took the sloop to the Noroton Yacht Club in Darien, where for about two hours he trailed behind it in a Boston Whaler watching its every pitch and yaw.

"I really have a good feeling about the Pixel," said Kirby, who has designed about 60 boats in his lifetime. "It is doing what I want it to do and what I hoped it would do and what the calculations said it would do."

One thing the slide rules and calculators didn't prepare him for was how fast the 13-foot, 9-inch, open-ended boat could sail into the wind.

In 20 knots of breeze off Long Neck Point in Darien Monday, the Pixel surprised even Kirby when it gathered so much speed that its hull rose far enough in the water to begin planing upwind with its occupants hiking out over the rail.

"I was flabbergasted," Kirby said.

The idea for the Pixel came from a conversation Kirby had with Norwalk Yacht Club member Wes Oliver two years ago. Oliver, now a business partner in the Pixel venture, told Kirby that the younger generation was losing interest in the stalwart Blue Jay sloop, which taught yacht club kids how to handle a mainsail, jib and spinnaker for nearly six decades.

"Wes stopped me in the street and said we have to do something about a new junior boat," Kirby said.

So Kirby, who designed two America's Cup boats, Canada I & II, and other successful vessels since designing the Laser, sat down at the drawing board again and came up with the Pixel.

About a month ago, four of the speedy little crafts, named after the smallest picture element in a digital image, were shipped to Connecticut from China where they were built.

Kirby chose the name Pixel because it is a modern word that kids understand, he said. Besides, he said, just like the word laser, pixel is pixel in every language.

The Pixel weighs about 185 pounds, 90 pounds lighter than the Blue Jay, and has an updated main sail that with a jib gives the Pixel 100 square feet of sail area, 10 square feet more than the Jay.

The Pixel, at 5 feet, 3 inches, is 2 inches longer and about 3 inches wider than the Blue Jay .

Unlike the Blue Jay, the Pixel accelerates quickly in a puff, seems nimble, planes upwind or down and can be capsized and righted with little trouble, thanks to its cutout transom.

"It's a nice little boat, very stable and very powerful," said Darien resident Bill Crane, a North American Lightning Class champion sailor who took the Pixel for a spin Monday.

When one of the hiking straps broke and the boat capsized, Crane refloated it, which he said was easy to do.

Kirby said he is looking for kinks so he can fix them before bringing the Pixel to market.

Over the weekend, Kirby trimmed the length of the tiller and played around with the rake, or tilt, of the mast, making improvements with each adjustment, he said.

Judging by Kirby's reputation and the performance of the boat so far, the Pixel could change the face of junior club sailing, experts said.

Gary Jobson, who as Ted Turner's tactician helped win the America's Cup in 1977 and is ESPN's sailing analyst, said in an e-mail Monday that Kirby's aim at the entry-intermediate segment of the market is on target.

"The Blue Jay has served our sport well for many decades, but new designs are faster and more fun to sail. The Blue Jay has lost its popularity in most of the country. I think Bruce's boat will do well," Jobson said.

Lee Parks, who oversees class sailing for the U.S. Sailing Association in Portsmouth, R.I., agreed.

"The Blue Jay is definitely an old-fashioned design and the kids would feel that way. Kids are looking for a high-performance, high-action boat," Parks said. "There are a lot of boats coming out these days, but Bruce is so well-known that when he designs a new boat, people are attracted to it."

But Kirby said he is neither gunning for the Blue Jay nor trying to retire its 1947 design.

"I don't like sounding like I'm trying to push the Blue Jay out of the way. Let's say we are trying to give kids an alternative to the Blue Jay," he said.

Paul Callahan, a quadriplegic who skippered a Kirby-designed Sonar in the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, said the Pixel will get a hearing from sailors around the world.

"There will be a buzz through the sailing community because Bruce has enjoyed universal success with all his sailing designs," Callahan said from his home in Newport, R.I.

Other factors, such as marketing, play a part in the success of a boat design, sailing experts said.

Gary Bodie, head coach for the U.S. Olympic Sailing Team, said there are hundreds of new boat designs that never get off the drawing board. For those that get into production, most die quickly, said Bodie, who coached Laser sailors for the Athens Olympics.

It's not always about a better design," Bodie said from his home in Hampton, Va. Sometimes, unfortunately, it's about marketing right now. It takes a pretty strong builder and designer to get a new class off the ground."

For Kirby, water testing a new boat is a nervous time. Especially now, since he broke a hip earlier this year. He doesn't like to be trailing the boat he just designed, he wants to be sailing it.

"It's the first one I haven't been on myself," Kirby said.

If all goes according to plan, the Pixel, which will sell for about $6,000, should be on the market in the spring, he said.

Copyright © 2004, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.,0,5021981.story?coll=stam-top-headlines

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