Tom Perkins and the
Making of the Greatest
Sailing Machine Ever Built
By David A. Kaplan
HC; 268pp; $25.95
The Good An effective rendering of a Silicon Valley visionary and adroit sailor.
The Bad The sections on Perkins' spectacular new yacht tend to drag.
The Bottom Line An able look at a complex and ruthless venture capitalist.
"In the warm sea breeze of early autumn, amid the splendor of the south of France, who knew death was also in the air?" So begins an early chapter of David A. Kaplan's absorbing tale of Tom Perkins, co-founder of famed venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and one of the men responsible for creating Silicon Valley. Few know much about this master dealmaker. Among his many other interests, he is a passionate sailor. He also once killed a man by refusing to yield right-of-way to a smaller sailboat.
That fatality is among the dramatic high points in Kaplan's Mine's Bigger: Tom Perkins and the Making of the Greatest Sailing Machine Ever Built. The Newsweek senior editor gives us three stories in one volume: an account of Perkins' life, a history of the making of Silicon Valley, and a chronicle of the building of Perkins' massive $130 million square-rigger, The Maltese Falcon. In the end, the author tries to do too much, and his book suffers. All the same, it is an effective rendering of a complicated man?? technology visionary who, at sea, was also "a bellicose if brilliant tactician who could squeeze both an extra knot out of his vessel and the gonads of any opponent."
The deadly events took place in October, 1995, at Saint-Tropez on the C??te d'Azur. Perkins was racing his two-masted schooner, Mariette, in La Nioulargue, an annual regatta that draws thousands of spectators and hundreds of boats. As Perkins stood at the helm of his yacht, a smaller sailboat, also in the race, headed across his path. Neither captain would give way, although Perkins arguably was in a better position to do so. His schooner's bowsprit clipped the rigging of the other boat and began carrying it along. Within seconds, the smaller craft capsized, filled with water, and sank. Of the five aboard, one never made it out alive.
Perkins was arrested by French police and, after a three-day trial, convicted of involuntary manslaughter and handed a suspended sentence and a fine. The events captivated the French media, but as Kaplan notes, the American press "curiously missed the story altogether."
Kaplan uses this finely etched anecdote to tell us much about Perkins. This is a man whose appetite for risk extends far beyond the boardrooms from which he helped to create Genentech (DNA), Netscape, and Google (GOOG)??nd where he became fabulously wealthy. We also learn of Perkins' cold and egotistical side, as he refuses to accept any blame for his role in the death. For Perkins, competition trumps compassion, a key theme throughout the book. "The experience hardly left him chastened," Kaplan writes. "Self-doubt was anathema to him, antithetical to the personality??r pathology??f that which made him such a success." In Perkins' world, there are winners and losers. Nothing else matters.
Much of Mine's Bigger focuses on the making of the "greatest sailboat ever." The semi-retired Perkins, in his mid-70s, decided in 2001 to devote six years to building the biggest private sailing yacht in the world. At the same time, two other tycoons, retired Avis Rental Car CEO Joe Vittoria and Netscape founder Jim Clark, were each attempting to do the same.
Perkins won, creating a modern clipper ship as long as a football field, 42 feet wide, and with three masts each rising 20 stories into the sky. The key technology breakthrough: a high-tech system replaced all the intricate rigging with giant, freestanding carbon-fiber masts that rotate by computer. The yacht's bridge resembles something out of Star Trek. A touch of a screen unfurls 15 huge sails. Kaplan, an experienced sailor himself, asserts that the breakthrough rigging technology and other innovations, which make the Falcon extremely fast, represent the "most significant advance in sailing in 150 years."
Unfortunately, the sections that deal with building the vessel tend to drone on and are among the weakest parts of Kaplan's book. They serve mostly as an examination of excess. Much more interesting is the depiction of Perkins' single-minded pursuit of money and how that led to the creation of Silicon Valley. Or the account of how Perkins, the Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ) board member, helped engineer the removal of HP Chairman Patricia Dunn for authorizing spying on board members and journalists.
But these are minor quibbles. The strength of Mine's Bigger lies in penetrating anecdotes that give us glimpses of Perkins in various settings. Ultimately, he's not very sympathetic, but he is fascinating. And Kaplan does an able job of capturing the complexities of a man who will be remembered more for his role in creating Silicon Valley than for his passion for spectacular yachts and high seas.
By Stanley Holmes