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Lunch with superyacht owner Tom Perkins

Boat International was saddened to hear of the death of Tom Perkins on Thursday June 9. We met him in 2013 and in honour of his life, wanted to share a happy memory to celebrate Tom. Our thoughts are with his family and many friends in the yachting world and beyond. 

I’'m in San Francisco, in the foyer of the St. Francis Yacht Club close to the Golden Gate Bridge, where I'’m waiting to meet superyacht owner Tom Perkins, perhaps best known in sailing circles for his avant-garde three-master, the Maltese Falcon. Limousines come and go, dropping their occupants for lunch. In what make of car should I expect a just-turned-80, billionaire venture capitalist, to arrive? A Maybach or Bentley, perhaps? What I am certainly not expecting is for Perkins to ease his 1.88 metre frame from the driver’'s seat of a 10 cylinder Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder. It’'s a car whose top speed is 202 miles per hour -– the kind of pace Perkins seems to have lived at for most of his life…

Our lunch is at Perkin's’ newly acquired apartment in downtown San Francisco. As we take a scenic route through the pretty architecture of Pacific Heights and Nob Hill, he discusses his lifelong attraction to owning classic and performance cars. ‘"At the height of my collection I had about 45 classic cars, each a gem,’" he reports. The most memorable? "‘My Bugatti Atlantic, built for a Mr Pope in 1935; then there was the ‘Maharajah’ Duesenberg Type SJ, and the streamlined Mercedes-Benz Count Trossi SSK dating from 1930, all cars of world renown."

"‘You know,"’ he continues, "‘while I owned them I really loved them, but when I sensed the bottom was about to fall out of the market, I sold them all for vast sums of money. It was a good decision, as my prediction came true. Today, I own just one classic, a 1955 ‘gull wing’ Mercedes 300SL in perfect concours condition. I now have this Lambo and a Ferrari 599 GTO, both new cars. I just love to drive them.’" This is clear from our short journey across the city to Mission Street and the huge glass-plated Millennium Tower building that soars 60 storeys into the sky. As exemplified by his cars, Perkins only owns the very best. Soon we are in the lift, hurtling upwards to the Grand Penthouse on the very top floor.

Entering the apartment brings on one of those ‘'Wow!’' moments. Occupying some 450 square metres and bordered by a continuous band of windows that offer a sweeping view across San Francisco Bay from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge and beyond, this is a very special apartment.

Much of the artwork displayed in the apartment once graced Maltese Falcon, and this observation turns the conversation towards yachts. "‘I’'ve always been a lover of the water,’" he explains, ‘"but my real start was crewing a Lightning dinghy in Long Island Sound. Later, while studying at MIT, we sailed in Herreshoff-designed Tech dinghies.’" After graduation, work took over and there was little chance to sail while Perkins worked for Sperry Gyroscope, first in Liverpool and then at a NATO airbase in the deserts of Turkey. Nor was there time when he attended Harvard Business School, where his scientific and engineering abilities merged with high level business acumen. But this period saw the foundation of a wealth that would make possible his greatest sailing achievement -– the building of Maltese Falcon.

Between mouthfuls of foie gras and salad starter, Perkins relates his first meeting with Dave Packard who, along with Bill Hewlett, founded Hewlett-Packard Company (HP), a company that is today'’s largest builder of personal computers. "‘My job interview was helping Dave and Bill assemble their stand at the New York Engineers’ Convention in 1957, after which I was told a job offer would be forthcoming."’ He accepted and drove to Palo Alto –- a city that was to become the hub of Silicon Valley –- in his Jaguar XK120 with his girlfriend. ‘Neither were up to the journey,’ he admits. ‘The car’'s water pump failed four times and the girlfriend returned east straight away.

Perkins thrived in the heady days of the early digital age and under the mentorship of Dave Packard, ultimately reached the position of HP’'s general manager. But a lot happened before then. First, while skiing, he met and married the love of his life, Gerd, a Norwegian. She, too, was a keen sailor and together they bought and raced his first sailboat, Teak Lady one of 12 built by Cheoy Lee in Hong Kong for San Francisco’'s Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939.

"At the same time," says Perkins, ‘"Dave Packard, who was like a second father to me, permitted me to moonlight, working weekends and evenings on an idea I had to perfect the laser beam which, at that time, was a laboratory curiosity with no commercial use.’" His development was a commercially viable laser device for use in pipe laying, and with the support of Gerd, he formed a company to sell it. The product was an instant success and the Perkins' finances never looked back.

His boats got larger and Teak Lady was replaced by an International One Design (IOD), a 1936 sailboat based on a successful six metre from the board of the Norwegian naval architect Bjarne Aas. Used to winning in the Cheoy Lee fleet, he soon found competition in the IOD fleet much tougher and it was another nine years before taking the winner’'s gun became almost routine.

In 1972, Perkins left HP and joined with fellow engineer and venture capitalist Eugene Kleiner, to set up the technology focused investment firm Kleiner Perkins. With the later addition of partners Frank Caufield and Brook Byers, this became the world'’s most successful venture capital company, financing the explosive growth of Silicon Valley, then super-companies such as the biotechnology giant Genentech, Amazon and Google.

By 1975, Perkins’ restless spirit urged him to move on to a new yachting challenge: offshore racing. The couple bought a pretty Philip Rhodes yawl, Copperhead, but in the hostile seas off California, the racing was tough, wet and cold. Before too long Gerd declared that this wasn'’t for her, a thought soon echoed by Tom. "‘It’'s still a beautiful boat,’ he wistfully recalls, ‘and she'’s now owned by my business partner John Doerr, who keeps it in Belvedere (just north of San Francisco) near my house.’"

The replacement yacht was to be rather more luxurious. A friend of Gerd'’s told her there was a guy in Italy making automated yachts –- an idea that really appealed to Tom. ‘"I met with Fabio Perini in Rome and we hit it off from the start. Fabio is a very talented engineer whose main business was (and still is) the design and construction of paper-making machinery. I admired his ideas, so we agreed to build a boat together.’" This was to be the first Andromeda la Dea (now Paz), a 43 metre ketch that, delivered in 1987, was the second yacht from Perini’'s own yard. ‘"Fabio later told me that he had had such a difficult experience with the owner of the first yacht that, had I not come along, he would have closed down the business!’"

After a short pause for Perkins'’ long-time chef to serve the main course of venison with noodles, Perkins relates how he cruised Andromeda la Dea extensively. On one such occasion, Perini was aboard and showed Perkins his plans for a new design for which he already had a client. Perkins immediately signed up, trading in his first Perini for the second  Andromeda la Dea, a 47 metre launched in 1990. "‘I changed the design slightly,’" he says, ‘"sacrificing some lower-deck floor area so the superstructure could be lowered, and this modification made her the most beautiful Perini ever."’ In this yacht, still going strong, Perkins circumnavigated the world, taking in Antarctica and Alaska. But, in the midst of these adventures, tragedy entered his life. His beloved Gerd developed the cancer to which she eventually succumbed in 1994.

For her grieving owner, Andromeda la Dea had too many memories, and Perkins moved on to Mariette, a beautiful 33.5 metre classic Herreshoff schooner dating from 1915. "‘She had been well maintained over the years, but there were a lot of things wrong with her, including a rig that had been reduced in size, so I obtained 1,500 original drawings from the MIT Museum and restored her to perfection.’ It was a long process, but well worth it." Mariette turned out to be a highly competitive racing yacht and Perkins threw himself into the Classic scene, winning regattas and Concours d'’Elegance prizes on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alongside the racing, Perkins cruised Europe and America but, once again, when winning silverware became routine, Perkins’' thoughts turned to a new project. "‘The tragic accident that occurred during the (1995) Nioulargue regatta in Saint-Tropez -– when a much smaller yacht sailed into Mariette'’s path -– had something to do with my decision.’ Later," he adds, "of all the boats I have owned, Mariette is the only one I miss.’"

This new vessel was to be his greatest, combining size with grace, elegance and bleeding-edge technology –- a blend well suited to Perkins'’ risk assessment skills. "‘I knew Fabio Perini had a beautiful, but unfinished, 88 metre hull stored in a shed in Turkey, the result of a project cancelled several years previously. It was to have been a three-masted staysail schooner, but I wasn’'t interested in that. I had the idea of making it a square-rigger, ideal for crossing oceans in the trade winds.

"‘While looking into the possibilities I came across the Dynarig –- a square-rig concept developed by the German government during a fuel crisis to reduce the fuel consumption of merchant ships. This rig inspired me and I looked into its possibilities with the naval architect Gerry Dykstra. I went to his studio and listened to his ideas for applying modern technology to the original primitive concept, using three unstayed carbon fibre masts, each fitted with elegantly curved, fixed yards that would allow the yacht to sail upwind. I was impressed with his ideas and said, “'Fine, let’'s do it,'” and left.’ After the meeting, Dykstra looked at his team in some alarm and said, '‘My God, where do we go from here?’'"

The fascinating detail of the development and construction of what became Maltese Falcon is told in Perkins'’ autobiography, Valley Boy, but it should be mentioned that her three unstayed carbon fibre masts, the sail furling system and computer driven control system, were designated in the contract as ‘owner supplied items’. Never before had any owner taken on such a daunting responsibility for a sailing yacht. But Perkins revelled in the whole process, from design, modelling, wind tunnel and strength testing of every component and, finally, after a three-year development, the moulding and stepping of the individual masts. Perini took on key engineering tasks, and personally designed an ingenious floating mast-foot that precisely compensated for the inherent bend in the unstayed spars.

On the very first sailing trial, held on a perfect day in the Sea of Marmara, Perkins was so confident of the soundness of the rig that, against the advice of his design team, he ordered all sails to be unfurled as soon as possible. Such confidence was justified. ‘The Falcon,’ as he calls her, ‘achieved 16 knots under sail that day, and has since proved highly reliable and easy to sail.’ Remarkably, she achieved 26 knots under sail alone during a storm in the Gulf of Lion; Perkins calculates that her rig was generating an amazing 7,500hp of thrust.

"The high point of my ownership was entering San Francisco harbour, when literally tens of thousands of well wishers turned out to see the Maltese Falcon sail beneath the Golden Gate.’ But that was just about the furthest she ever got from Istanbul. ‘She was in such demand as a charter yacht and commanded such high fees that I simply couldn'’t refuse. But this meant keeping her in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and I soon got bored with that.’ So, in 2009, after three years, this remarkable yacht was sold. ‘I’'m really glad she now has an owner that loves her as much as I did. People say I took a loss on her, but I can assure you I wasn'’t out of pocket."’ Always the businessman.

Perkins slots the last piece of the story into place over dessert. "‘I still owned Maltese Falcon and was visiting the Monaco Show, when my attention was drawn by a two-person submersible.’ This unique, inherently buoyant craft could ‘fly’ underwater, and was capable of depths of about 400 metres." A keen diver, Perkins had to have one, especially as it was called a Super Falcon and built only a dozen miles from his home in Belvedere. "‘Launching the sub over the Falcon’'s high topsides wasn'’t ideal, and it took a lot of time to solve the registry issues. But it all came right in the end and we used the sub quite a bit.’"

Following the sale of Maltese Falcon, Perkins retained the sub and eventually had the idea of creating an ‘adventure vessel’ to carry her. This latest quest saw the purchase of a 37 metre Japanese fisheries’ cadet training ship and its conversion by the Filipino shipyard, HYS, into the ultra-cool Dr. No (see the September 2012 issue). Today, loaded with the submarine and an armoury of toys that would make M envious, Dr. No has so far completed three adventure missions – to Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia and, most recently to Tonga, where the sub and her owner followed and filmed a pod of whales deep underwater –- the first time this has ever been achieved.

More adventures are surely on the horizon. ‘"Yes, maybe,"’ says Perkins. "‘'I’ve got this idea about going to Bikini Atoll, where they tested the hydrogen bomb (in 1954). The bottom of the lagoon is littered with wrecks sunk during the tests and one of these is the aircraft carrier, USS Saratoga, which is upright, sitting on her keel. Wouldn'’t it be really cool to land the sub on her deck…?"’

Photos: Susana Bates

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