Mine's Bigger Than Yours

Article excerpt

In a battle of egos on the high seas, size counts. Three Americans go at it to see who can build the ultimate sailing yacht.

Tom Perkins, the legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist, had a dream. It wasn't to get rich, acquire power or marry into fame. He'd done all that, as part of a larger-than-life life. His firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, remains the most celebrated money machine since the Medicis. He'd help found Genentech--the first biotech company--and fund Google, the darling of the Internet age. In 2006, his resignation from the Hewlett-Packard board triggered the revelation of a spying scandal that dominated the front pages for weeks. And along the way, he managed to get himself convicted of involuntary manslaughter in France and to become novelist Danielle Steel's ex-husband No. 5.

But when he hit his 70s at the turn of the century, Perkins became obsessed with creating the world's biggest, fastest, highest-tech, most self-indulgent sailboat--what he described as "the perfect yacht." He fantasized about a modern clipper ship, as long as a football field, 14 meters wide, with three masts each rising 20 stories toward the heavens. So he had it built.

The $130 million square-rigger--the Maltese Falcon--evokes the era of magnificent vessels that raced across the oceans in the 19th century. Yet the Falcon is more than a tribute to the past. Gone are the scores of deckhands who climb the yardarms. Gone is the intricate rigging that gave the square-riggers their impressive look. Instead, the Falcon's giant carbon-fiber masts are entirely free-standing and rotate by computer. The 15 huge sails unfurl at the touch of a screen. And the bridge is something out of "Star Trek." It's a revolutionary machine, representing the most significant advances in sailing in 150 years. Perkins recently put the vessel up for sale, but the story behind it reveals the boundless ego of a nonpareil entrepreneur, embodying the best, as well as the most absurd, of the wealth race.

From the start, Perkins faced competition. Sailboats of 50 meters or so were no longer novel. Strong, light materials like carbon fiber had gotten cheaper, and it was logical to assume other people with overflowing bank accounts might be dreaming of the first sailing megayacht, nearing 70 meters or more. Chief among them: Jim Clark, who had launched three billion-dollar Silicon Valley start-ups (including Netscape), and Joe Vittoria, who made a fortune when he led a buyout of Avis in the 1980s. Clark had in mind an enormous gaff-rigged schooner, which he'd name Athena. Vittoria planned the largest sloop ever, Mirabella V, with a mast that was higher than the boat was long. Perkins, Vittoria and Clark were the Vanderbilts of the new yachting age--each with a very different boat, each with his own exemplar of conspicuous construction.

The only thing funnier than listening to them trying to find out how big the other guy's next boat was going to be was them explaining how uninterested they were in the comparisons. When Clark found out Perkins was considering a replacement for his 51-meter ketch, he set out to find out how long it would be, for he, too, was shopping for a new boat. When the two next saw each other, Perkins graciously obliged him and let him know that Perkins's next boat was going to be -- a few meters shorter than it really was. "That's how I made sure the Falcon was going to be longer," Perkins gleefully recalled.

Clark eventually learned of Perkins's head-fake and went bananas when he next saw Wolter Huisman, the owner of the revered Dutch shipyard that was building Clark's new boat. Huisman told Clark that it was too late to make Athena's hull longer. Clark could console himself only with the fact that if you included his 10-meter stainless-steel bowsprit as part of the length, then his was bigger than anybody else's--even though nobody included a bowsprit in a boat's length. Typically, you measured along the water line (where the Falcon was longer) or, most likely, along the deck, in which case the Falcon's 96 meters far exceeded Athena's 84 meters. …