Saturday, October 27, 2012

Tom Perkins Talks on a Lifetime of Sailing

One of the benefits of writing a blog is that not only do I get to pick and choose what I want to write about, I also get to meet and interview people like Tom Perkins, one of America’s most successful businessmen AND most enterprising yachtsmen.

The Leukemia Cup Regatta is one of my ‘causes’ and I’m on the committee to help with public relations. As such, I was fortunate to interview Tom at his penthouse apartment on the 60th floor of San Francisco’s Millenium Tower prior to the 2012 Leukemia Cup event held on October 20-21.

The wow factor is still with me not just because Tom’s apartment is incredible, with a sensational 180 view of San Francisco Bay, contemporary architecture and design that I appreciate, and decorated with many beautiful and eclectic pieces from his enviable art collection, but also, as I discovered throughout the course of our conversation, because he’s had a lifetime relationship with sailboats and the sport of sailing the extent of which I wasn’t aware. I wrote about Tom in my Marin IJ sailing column* however with its 900-word limit, I barely touched on the stuff that touched me as we chatted.

Under Perkin’s leadership, the 2012 Leukemia Cup Regatta, now in its seventh year, raised $850,000. More than 300 guests attended the VIP Dinner on Saturday evening where Gary Jobson took the stage for an informal Q&A with the irreverent Ted Turner, who brought the house down with his tales of four ex-wives and two million bison.

The 2012 First Place Individual Fundraiser Award went to Matt Brooks/Pam Levy owners of Dorade who, with JJ Fetter at the helm, won the Classic Yacht Class division on Sunday. Dorade raised $52,000. The Second Place Individual Fundraiser Award went to Anne Feinberg, crew of Fast Friends, who raised $44,271. The Top Fundraising Boat that won this year’s Leukemia Cup Perpetual Trophy was the Melges 24 Relentless with skippers/top fundraisers David Joyner and Bill Nolan. Relentless raised a total of $58,250. 80+ boats raced Sunday’s regatta.

As far as I am concerned, the Leukemia Cup regatta is the best event on the Bay and a tribute to those behind the scenes. Robin Reynolds, the tireless event organizer, says it’s Tom’s inspiration that keeps her hard at it, “I can’t thank Tom enough for his contribution - it makes us all want to work hard to make the event a success.”

Below are excerpts from my interview with Tom:

On getting into sailing:

TP: My first experience with sailing was that I had a friend whose parents had a Lightning - racing boats on Long Island Sound - a big class. I crewed for him for a couple of years while I was in high school. I went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology and my big sport there was swimming. I actually held the national - perhaps even the world - record for the 50-yard freestyle - for 14 days (LOL). So, that was my sport but they also had these little sailboats called Tech Dinghies (designed by Hereshoff ), beautiful little wooden boats with a center board and as I recall, a little gaff sail, so I would sail those. I loved to sail. The first boat I actually owned was long after that because I had to work. I went to Harvard business school and I finally came out here (San Francisco) where I bought a little boat called a Teak Lady, there were about 15 of them on the Bay. They were imported and sold very cheaply in those days. Beautiful little boats, not very fast, 17 feet long. That was all I could afford so I raced it and became very good in that class. I never hired anybody to teach me - I just learned from my mistakes.

On getting into bigger yachts:

TP: I’m doing venture capital and making money so then I bought Copperhead (still on the Bay which raced in the 2012 Leukemia Cup) - which I own jointly with John Doerr. She’s a classic, 47-foot yawl, very rare these days, designed by Philip Rhodes, a very competitive boat. I bought it in Southern California and raced it mostly offshore which we did well with, but offshore racing here is not a lot of fun - it’s so cold and wet.

My late wife used to crew with me and said, “No more of this. Why don’t we get a bigger boat that we can entertain our friends on?” Believe it or not, the idea came from her so within nano seconds I’m looking for a big boat and they’re all in Europe of course. I came across Fabio Perini who had just built the world’s first, sort of automated, big boat so you didn’t need as many crew with automated winches etc. I met him and we hit it off very well. Boat building was his hobby, which of course has become a very important hobby now. I became his second customer. He said he had so much trouble with his first customer that if I didn’t come along he was just going to forget it. But, we got along very well and he built me a boat called Andromeda (138 feet). After owning it for a couple of years and using it a lot, he designed a much better boat - faster, more attractive.

Although I was very happy with my boat, I sailed into Viareggio (Italy) one day and Fabio didn’t have any English so I had learned Italian along the way. He said, “Cinqo minuto - five minutes!” He wanted to show me the new boat. Five hours later I’d bought a new boat, he took the first one on trade, we called the second one Andromeda La Dea (141 feet). My wife and I had her for many years, we sailed her around the world and raced her.

On his classic yachts:

TP: Unfortunately my wife Gerd died after 35 years of marriage (from non-Hodgkins lymphoma) and I became very depressed. I needed a project so I bought a very classic and very famous gaff schooner that needed a lot of work called Mariette (135 feet). I spent a summer restoring it, doing a lot of the work personally. I raced that for ten years. We did very well with that boat and I loved racing a big classic boat - she was 135 feet with her bowsprit and about 108 feet on deck. She was a Hereshoff design and very fast. We had two primary competitors who were essentially the same speed - it was pretty competitive. We were always first or second for 10 years.

I found and restored a classic called Atlantide, which was built in 1930 and was essentially a rotting hulk - steel - but still a mess, it couldn't leave the harbor. I basically got the name and the shape and built a completely new boat around that. She was designed by Milne, who was mostly famous for sailboats so she looks like a sailboat. I sold that boat finally this week.

On being at the helm:

TP: I always helmed. I did all the strategy and tactics on my boats. I always have and have never used a professional. It doesn't mean I didn’t have good crew - I didn’t pay them but I wined and dined them.

On the bad things that happened:

TP: There was a hidden problem which became evermore evident. I was the only one owner who raced his own boat. All the other owners had professional skippers and if they won a regatta they’d get a cash bonus. I was winning so many of them that some ugly things began to happen. The morning of the last race of one regatta, the night before we noticed bubbles underneath the dock. We thought, “strange” - a scuba diver was there, didn’t think anything of it, next morning there was no propeller. Some captain had removed our propeller - it was on the bottom - we had to dive for it and get it but we couldn’t get it back in time to start the race, but fortunately enough wind came up so I just made it to the start line, had a perfect start and won the race. Then these professionals would protest me and not show up at the protest meetings. It took a tremendous amount of fun out of it. And, there was the tragic accident a regatta (off the French coast) where a boat sailed into us - 100% its fault - we were locked into our position seconds away from starting and this boat tried to pass in front of us and got caught in our bowsprit and capsized it. A crew member drowned which was terrible. They were bad experiences.

On revolutionizing yachting:

TP: I got bored with that kind of racing so I decided that I wanted to revolutionize yachting. I always knew that the fastest boat downwind is a square rigger but they go upwind poorly and not fast at all. Perini had this hull - 88 meters - that the purchaser had canceled. I contacted Gerry Dijkstra to see what his thought would be about making a square rigger using that hull because it was so big.

He proposed that it could be done and he proposed using the Dynarig, which I knew about wasn’t exactly sure of. I had a meeting with him and 3-4 hours later said, “Let’s do it”. Gerry later told me that when I left he said to the guys around the table, “Okay, so what do we do now?” It was such a revolutionary project. This was in 2000 and I didn’t actually purchase it until we had done some “toying tank tests” - models of that hull to see if it was going to be alright. It was sort of alright but it needed a deeper keel and I brought it further aft. It had a bulb in the front like a motor boat - all of that had to be changed. And, because I was adding so much more power to the rig because of the Dynarig, we had to add an extra 100 tons of lead, which meant we had to take out 100 tons of something else out of the design. So there was a bit of complexity there.

On building the Maltese Falcon:

TP: So here is a huge boat with a radical idea. No-one would bid on building this so I realized I was going to have to do it. Perini would supply the hull and the machinery inside the hull - generators, toilets, stuff like that - I would supply 100% of the masts, the sails, the controls and the electronics and since I’m going to do that I’m going to supply the interior also. I was the manager of the project because it was so complex. Perini just didn’t dare bid on it.

But stepping back - before we started building anything, of course I had been in the VC business and the secret of that is to early illuminate the risk whatever it is in the deal, then pour in the money after you’ve gotten rid of the risk. So, I did two years of experimentation. We started with wind tunnel tests of the Dynarig at Southhampton University, England, in the famous wind tunnel there. The numbers were so good in terms of going upwind. We built a bigger model and did it again and it would go upwind as fast as a J-boat. It would go upwind about as fast as anything - except perhaps one of these America’s Cup boats (LOL - waves his hand toward the Bay) and it would just fly off the wind and downwind. It would be the fastest yacht in the world.

The idea was to have the biggest sailboat in the world with the most sail area of any boat in the world and it be able to be sailed by only person by pushing some buttons and turning some knobs. That’s what we achieved. We won regattas with nobody on deck, just me inside the wheelhouse just pushing a few buttons and doing all the strategy and doing all the tactics in my head and controlling the boat at the same time. It was a total break through that I have to say, has worked beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.

Two and a half years of experimentation with bigger and bigger models we finally built a full sized model of two yards and a sail - we built that in Turkey on the end of a concrete dock and the first time we tried it, it tore the sails to shreds. I spent weeks in a boson’s chair up that test rig inventing little widgets, most of which you don’t see because most of them are inside the mast - little guiding things and little gadgets - patented things most of which I have assigned to Perini because I want to see more of these built. I got it working so it would work anytime anyplace, any condition, wind from the right direction, wrong direction, snowstorm, too much wind, too little wind - it worked. So I knew if we could make one big full size sail work, we could make 15 of them work.

So you’re sitting there thinking everything is fine because the boat isn’t healing much but the sails are being torn to shreds. On these big modern boats - the schooners and sloops - the sails are just being torn to shreds all the time. The boat ropes pull out, the clews of the genoas pull out, the winches are carrying up to 50 tons and you can be killed by a slack line.

I’m a physicist and I knew this so I knew the way to build a giant boat was to go back in time, not forward in time, to the old clipper ships where you have lots of masts and lots of sails and of course you need lots of crew. That scales properly because you’ve got your course - your lower sail, your lower top sail, your top gallant and then your royal. As the wind increases, bit by bit you remove sail in small increments and you are always safe. So that’s what we did with the Falcon just by pushing a few buttons -the wind is blowing too hard, the boat is heeling it over 15 degrees which slows it down, you push three buttons. The top most sails disappear just by themselves, you don’t even have to look at them…little more wind, and so forth. I had the Falcon sailing in 50-60 knots of wind, no problem at all and sailing in 25 knots, it just loves it.

On being crazy about the Falcon:

TP: Are you kidding? I just loved the technology of it more than the hotel part of it. It was a very big boat with lots of cabins and lots of room for entertainment. I had all my friends on the boat many times, and then I decided I was spending all my time entertaining people although we did race it successfully. But it’s crazy - how can you race the world’s largest boat against boats that are only 80 feet long? We did several of the St Barts Buckets, which are a lot of fun but a little silly. I decided to sell the boat - fortunately at a profit - and move on.

On the next Perkins Project:

TP: The moving on involved the creation of a sub - it’s an underwater airplane. Graeme Hawk built it for me - when he built it he built two of everything so we each have one. It’s a true sub, not some sort of motorized scuba diving sub. You get in at atmospheric pressure and it stays at atmospheric pressure at all depths. We can go to 400 feet. I have another boat Dr No to carry the submarine and that’s what I’m really into now. It doesn’t have a sail on it or an inch of varnish - it’s a simple boat, it’s an adventure boat, it can go anywhere. It’s 135 feet. It’s practical and I don’t think unattractive.

We were just filming whales in Tonga - Tony Wu, former Wall Street investment banker who is now devoting his life to the study of whales came with us. He helped us find the whales and also introduced us to whale psychology - what to do and what not to do. Dr No is now in Tahiti and I’m going to spend most of next year just enjoying it - it’s an incredibly beautiful place and I love to scuba dive which I still do at my incredibly vast age.

On the marine environment today:

TP: I’m not a naturalist although I’m vehemently opposed to shark finning. Nature has two great enemies right now - the Chinese who eat shark fin soup and causing the death of so many of these sharks, and the Norwegians and Japanese who kill whales. It’s almost cannibalism.

On the America’s Cup:

TP: I’m very supportive of the America’s Cup - I’m on the America’s Cup Organizing Committee and have been invited repeatedly to go out on the AC45s. But I just feel I’m not nimble enough and I don’t want to be in the way! I love the technology of the America’s Cup. I certainly don’t think we should go back to mono hulls, not at all. I think these things are fantastic. I’m really looking forward to it. I did everything I could to try to get it here.

On not being quite done with sailing:

TP: I have two 14 foot cat boats on Dr. No. They’re beautiful, built in Cape Cod, identical, close to a Hereshoff design. I try to sail everyday when I’m on board and just go out by myself. Now that I have two I can race them - I love to sail but am no longer into the big crew and all that. There’s a lot of ego in it all, although there’s no question that building the world’s largest sail boat was an ego trip! I wont deny it, but 1) I can do it, and 2) I made a contribution by single-handedly revolutionizing big boat sailing. There will be more. There’s a contract that’s been signed using the Dyna rig - it’ll be heavier than the Falcon and wont be as fast. Unfortunately the concept only works on big boats, it doesn’t scale down as well as it scales up - big boats being 50 meters and up and you don’t have to have three masts, you could do it with 2. There’s a beautiful design from Perini for a 70 meter 2 masted Dyna rig using my ideas and my patent. Nobody’s bought it yet but it will be a wonderful boat.

On sailing in general:

TP: It gets better and better, there are more and more sailors. The only negative I have is the trend towards these giant boats that aren’t sailed by their owners. That’s hardly a problem.

On the Leukemia Cup:

TP: I lost my wife to Lymphoma. I didn’t know about the event until about six years ago. I went to the event and they asked me to speak the following year, which I did - I spoke about the Maltese Falcon, which had just been finished and we were just beginning to sail it seriously. I brought the Falcon here the following year to raise money for the Leukemia Cup, which we did. I’ve been involved ever since and am the Honorary Chairman. I don’t sail the event - I’m 80 years old and while the noodle is still working I’m just not as agile as you need to be if you’re serious about racing. When I’m on a boat I want to win, and unless I’m the helmsman I’m a crew member and I’m not agile enough to get around the boat these days.


Photo Credits:

Tom at his desk: Ellen Hoke
Tom w/Stan Honey, America's Cup Director of Technology: Ellen Hoke
Copperhead: David Dibble
Maltese Falcon: Courtesy Perini Navi

* http://www.marinij.com/ci_21772908?IADID=Search-www.marinij.com-www.marinij.com

Leukemia Cup Regatta final results: http://www.regattanetwork.com/event/5846#_newsroom+results

David Dibble’s Leukemia Cup race photos: http://www.sfleukemiacup.com/. Right click to download any photo. For high res shots call David: 415-254-3778

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