Mine's Bigger: Tom Perkins and the Making of the Greatest Sailing Machine Ever Builtby David A. Kaplan
Tom Perkins had a dream. It wasn't to get rich, acquire power, or marry into fame. As the man most responsible for creating Silicon Valley, he had done all that. His venture-capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, remains the most celebrated money machine since the Medicis. He'd helped found Genentech and fund Google. And in 2006 his resignation from
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Tom Perkins had a dream. It wasn't to get rich, acquire power, or marry into fame. As the man most responsible for creating Silicon Valley, he had done all that. His venture-capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, remains the most celebrated money machine since the Medicis. He'd helped found Genentech and fund Google. And in 2006 his resignation from the Hewlett-Packard board triggered the revelation of a spying scandal that dominated the front pages. Along the way, he also managed to get himself convicted of manslaughter in France and become Danielle Steel's Husband No. 5.
No, as he hit his seventies, Perkins wanted to create the biggest, fastest, riskiest, highest-tech, most self-indulgent sailboat ever—the "perfect yacht." His fantasy would be a modern clipper ship—as long as a football field, forty-two feet wide, with three masts each rising twenty stories toward the heavens. This $130 million square-rigger—The Maltese Falcon—would evoke the era of magnificent vessels that raced across the oceans in the nineteenth century. But the Falcon is more than a tribute to the past. Gone are all the deckhands to climb the yardarms. Gone is the intricate rigging that helped give the square-riggers of yore their impressive look. Instead, the Falcon's giant carbon-fiber masts are entirely freestanding and rotate by computer. The bridge looks like something out of Star Trek. And the fifteen huge sails unfurl at the touch of a screen. In short, this is a revolutionary machine—the most significant advance in sailing in 150 years.
With keen storytelling and biting wit, Newsweek's David A. Kaplan takes us behind the scenes of an extraordinary project and inside the mind of a larger-than-life character. We discover why any sane man would gamble a sizeable chunk of his net worth on a boat; we meet the cast of engineers who conspired with him; and we learn about the other two monumental yachts just built by gazillionaires that Perkins is ever eyeing. In a battle of egos on the high seas, Perkins loves to preen, "Mine's better! Mine's Bigger!" On the Falcon's climactic maiden voyage across the Mediterranean—sixteen hundred nautical miles from Istanbul to Malta to the Riviera—we revel with Perkins as his creation surges along at record-breaking speeds.
This is the biography of a remarkable boat and the man who built it. More than a tale of technology, Mine's Bigger is a profile of ambition, hubris, and the imagination of a legendary entrepreneur.
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Tom Perkins and the Making of the Greatest Sailing Machine Ever Built
In the warm sea breeze of early autumn, amid the splendor of the south of France, who knew death was also in the air?
It was the first October weekend of 1995. In the small turquoise bay of Saint-Tropez, Tom Perkins was king of the sailing world. The American venture capitalist was racing his two-masted schooner, Mariette, in the La Nioulargue, an annual regatta that drew thousands of spectators and hundreds of boats to this once-medieval sailing village of the Riviera. Though perhaps surpassed by other jet-setting playgrounds on the Mediterranean, Saint-Tropez was still mythic for bronzed movie stars, fast Ferraris and a Dionysian beach culture. For his part, Perkins—at sixty-three, no young playboy—was hardly the embodiment of glitz. But the Nioulargue was glitz—with its spectacular array of multimillion-dollar period yachts and the gold-diggers and gawkers who wanted to get close to them. The week of races capped the European classic-yacht racing circuit and was the last dance of the Mediterranean summer. While the regatta didn't carry the status of the America's Cup or the Newport-to-Bermuda competition, the Nioulargue was about bragging rights and showing off.
The steel-hulled Mariette was brilliant. Including the bowsprit, she was 138 feet long. Built in 1915, Mariette was deemed one of the masterpieces of Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, the legendary naval architect. The MIT-trained Herreshoff—the "wizard" of Bristol, Rhode Island—designed yachts that wererecognized for their grace in the water and below-deck elegance. His clients were the barons of his day: William Randolph Hearst, J. P. Morgan, Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt III, Harry Payne Whitney. Yet the dark-blue Mariette, built for New England wool merchant Frederick J. Brown, was seen even then as a yacht above all others, boasting a stunning Edwardian width-of-the-boat walnut-paneled saloon that was the envy of any captain of industry. (The bathtub in the owner's cabin, then a rare luxury on yachts, was notable, too.) Mariette's gaff rig was renowned along the north and south shores of Boston. Even today, with her remarkable complement of thirty-eight cream-colored sails, and hand-carved scrollwork on the bow and stern (done by Perkins himself), she remains one of the most-photographed boats in the world. On glossy calendars, she is to yachting what Raquel Welch used to be to bathing suits. Perkins had rescued a deteriorated Mariette in 1995 for about $6 million. She was one of three big boats Perkins owned in the 1990s, but she was the project to take his mind off the recent death of his wife Gerd.
Befitting a French sporting event, the Nioulargue was known among sailors as an anarchic event. Nobody confused the buttoned-down, ship-shape orderliness of the New York Yacht Club with the free spirits running a regatta right off the shoals of Saint-Tropez. Vive la liberté! Courses were poorly designed, race starts were frightening, and there were just too many boats occupying too little space on the bay. The last miscalculation came with the territory: since many spectators watched from shore, rather than aboard party vessels or helicopters, the starting line had to be near land—indeed, one end of the line was the rock bearing the name Nioulargue. But the other two attributes of the race were simply classic French disorganization. The race consisted of two divisions—one for the smaller boats (roughly thirty feet and over) that numbered in the hundreds, and one for the twenty-five larger yachts like Mariette. The course was a triangle, with boats required to go around the triangle twice. The smaller—and slower—boats began their part of the race first. Trouble was, as those boats were finishing their first lap, they were passing through the starting area that was being used by the larger yachts to begin their part of the race at that moment. It was a traffic pattern designed for disaster. In the past, it had meant only minor collisions, near collisions, and the occasional cry of "Sucez la pipe!" near the starting line. This year would be different.
Going into the last day, Mariette led the regatta in points. In the final race, at the line, Perkins found himself maneuvering for position with the other big boats—as well as scores of vessels, both power and sail, in the spectator fleet that were jockeying to see the start. It was nautical pandemonium. Several helicopters, with photographers for the trade magazines, roared above. The breeze was fresh and Mariette's crew of thirty-two (not including Perkins's personal chef and six guests) had all it could handle. Despite having a professional captain on board (and Herreshoff's grandson Halsey), Perkins was himself at the helm—as he usually was, especially at the ever-critical starting line. Alone among owners of the million-dollar yachts, he drove his own boat. Intense, impatient, stubborn—Perkins could be a hell-raiser on the water, a contradiction to the lineage of gentleman sailors that had produced classics like Mariette. When he wanted lunch "in twenty minutes," the crew knew it meant five. When he asked for navigational data "as soon as possible," it meant yesterday. Perkins fulminated, he gesticulated, he sighed with deliberate drama, he famously stomped on his Dunhill hat. Often, he did them all in reaction to crisis, real or otherwise. The hat-dance led some of his friends over the years to refer to him privately as Rumpelstiltskin.
In a sport that was subject to the vicissitudes of nature—wind, currents, storms—Perkins was a control freak. He wanted people, technology, things, to do what he asked, to be what he expected. He had the linear mind of an engineer through and through. He pretty much had the same breakfast of eggs and fruit every morning. When he had a chocolate croissant in 1996, the crew on Andromeda was so shocked it noted the occurrence in the ship's log. When he couldn't find the exact kind of harpsichord he wanted for his home, he constructed one himself. When he often woke up in the . . .Mine's Bigger
Tom Perkins and the Making of the Greatest Sailing Machine Ever Built. Copyright © by David Kaplan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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David A. Kaplan is a senior editor at Newsweek. He is the author of The Silicon Boys, a national bestseller that has been translated into six languages. His work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Washington Post, various Op-Ed pages, Parenting, and Food & Wine. A graduate of Cornell and the New York University School of Law, he lives with his wife and two sons in Irvington, New York.
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